Uke Central for the West for Over a Decade
Fourteen years and counting...
Hi, my name is Douglas. As a lifelong guitar player who was frustrated at not having the time to keep my chops up, I first looked at the ukulele as a time-saving “cheat.” It had 1/3 fewer strings and frets, but my fingers moved in very similar ways and the playing shapes were the same.
In 2005, during my family’s weekly, “have coffee and buy books,” morning at Borders Books (RIP), I came across a copy of “Frets” magazine. The cover article was “Jake Shimabukuro is the Jimi Hendrix of the Ukulele.” I read the article and went back to the CD department in the store and listened to his CD. All I could think was, “You can do THAT on a ukulele?” (Of course, HE can do that, but I digress.)
I bought a few ukes on eBay to get acquainted. Well, like many, I fell for the little critters rather quickly and found that, not only did it have its own characteristics that were different from guitar, the community that supported it was much friendlier! I’d been to guitar events. Everyone seemed to be stuck-up and in competition with each other. At uke gatherings, everyone seemed to be incredibly happy. Being a concert promoter on the side, I booked Jake to play the following summer in Carson City, Nevada and then went to Hawaii and spent an afternoon with his brother Bruce. These experiences increased my attraction to the instrument.
One morning over breakfast, my wife Melinda asked me what I would do if I could do anything. I told her that I would create a ukulele festival, so I could have fun and go to a few workshops. (HAH! In over a decade of running festivals now, I have been able to attend MAYBE 1 1/2 workshops!)
So I planned and launched the “First Annual Tahoe Area Uke Fest” in our hometown of Minden, NV, to be held in June of 2009. Minden is only 20 minutes from Tahoe, and my intention was to move the festival to Lake Tahoe at some point. But John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks, (Reno’s neighboring city), invited me to move the festival to their resort and my options at the Lake were limited. So "Tahoe Area Uke Fest II" took place in Sparks, in March of 2010, with another ukulele virtuoso, James Hill of Canada, and a grand finale collaboration concert featuring as many as seven uke stars on stage at a time. Aldrine Guerrero of Ukulele Underground even hopped a red eye to take part in the big show.
For year three, I renamed the event the “Reno-Tahoe Ukulele Festival,” following the lead of the nearby Reno-Tahoe International Airport. Finally, in 2012, I decided to simplify further, so the 4th annual event became the 4th Annual Reno Ukulele Festival.
For several years, my friend and fellow guitar player, Rich Dann, was an integral part of my efforts. He helped me launch Play Uke, LLC as a real company and he handled all the boring taxes and licenses and bureaucracy. Rich has since moved back to New York and is now a James Hill certified uke teacher! (With Covid destroying the live music industry in 2020, Play Uke, LLC was closed at the end of the year. The 2021 Reno Uke Fest will be run under a different business structure.)
In 2014, I decided to determine Play Uke’s true identity. We tried a lot of things, including producing FIVE festivals or uke retreats. After learning a lot, I decided to stick to what I did best, running the Reno Uke Fest, and try to handle just one more large annual event. Our first annual "Palm Strings Ukulele Festival" took place in February, 2015. Assembling and juggling these two festivals required an entire year of work, so after five years in Palm Springs, we called it a wrap. I'm now working with Daniel Ho on a series of small events. In 2020, Covid-19 attacked the world and all live music came to a halt. We shall see what the future holds.
Our festivals are truly a family effort, with Melinda handling a zillion duties once we actually get started and our daughters Jessica and Kelly and sons-in-law Ryan and James doing much in support roles as family "volunteers."
We're constantly brainstorming, coming up with new fun for the ukulele community AND dabbling once again with my friends in the guitar world. I certainly hope we can get back to making music together soon! Join our email list if you want to be updated on what we're up to. And feel free to contact me anytime!