Four strings rule at first Auburn ukulele festival

Workshops, performances Saturday
By: Krissi Khokhobashvili, Journal Features Editor
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The ukulele is a happy instrument.

That’s what drew Cliff Johnson to the four-stringed instrument in 2005. His wife died, he said, and, “I needed to fill the void in my life.”

“It’s a very happy instrument,” he said. “It brings a lot of joy to a lot of people. A lot of people are under a lot of stress nowadays, with the economy and politics and the world situation and all. It kind of is a stress reliever in their life.”

Johnson teaches ukulele through the Auburn Recreation District and is a member of the Strum Bums, a Grass Valleybased ukulele group comprising about 30 players. Members of the Strum Bums, along with ARD Recreation Services Manager Sheryl Petersen, have organized the first-ever Auburn Gold Pan Ukulele Festival to give workshops and performances, and introduce people to the small-but-mighty ukulele.

“Come out and meet a lot of interesting musicians,” Peter-sen said, “everywhere from beginner to people who have been playing for 30 years.”

The all-day event will include ukulele paraphernalia vendors, jamming, group play-alongs, food vendors and more. Workshop presenters include uk-ulele virtuoso, teacher and historian Dan Scanlan; music therapist Michelle Kiba; and Rhan Wilson, Lorrie Freitas, Andy Andrews and Stu Herreid. Workshop topics range from a complete beginners session to swing, 1950s rock ’n roll, rhythm and Hawaiian music.

Scanlan, a Strum Bum and ukulele player since 1961, travels around the country performing and leading ukulele workshops. Also known as “Cool Hand Uke,” Scanlan emcees the annual Ukulele Ceilidh in Liverpool, England, and gives private lessons.

“It’s quite accessible,” Scanlan said of his axe. “It’s easy to carry around, and you can play  any kind of music on it.”

Ukulele has “re-entrant tuning,” he explained, meaning that it starts high, goes low and then goes back up again.

“It means that you always have two notes that are in unison, unlike a guitar,” Scanlan said. “When you have two notes in unison, they’re not exactly the same – they’re always a little bit different, so it kind of generates sweetness. That’s what gives the ukulele its sweet voice, its friendly voice.”

The festival is “bring your own ukulele,” Petersen said, “but if you don’t have one, don’t let that stop you, because there will be some available for folks who don’t have them.”

A 6 p.m. performance by the Strum Bums and workshop presenters is free to the public. There will also be an all-day open mic as the workshops are presented, and Johnson emphasized that an audience of ukulele players is always receptive and full of encouragement.

“There’s generally no harsh judgment when somebody plays at a ukulele festival,” he said, “because everybody was a beginner at one time.”

“It’s an opportunity for people to go up individually or in small groups and play,” Petersen said. “There will be a concert in the evening, there will be food for purchase available and it should be one of those low-key kind of fun days for folks.”

Reach Krissi Khokhobashvili at Follow her on Twitter, @AuburnJournalAE.

Auburn Gold Pan Ukulele Festival
When: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 18; walk-in registration 8-9 a.m.
Where: Canyon View Community Center, 471 Maidu Drive, Auburn
Cost: $30; under 12 free
Info and reservations:; (530) 863-4615