Alex de Grassi Flips: The 2019 Ukiah Ukulele Festival

By Heidi Swedberg // Photos by Roger Franklin

The beautiful Northern California towns of Ukiah and Fort Bragg take turns hosting ukulele festivals on alternate years. March 30, 2019 was Ukiah’s turn to pull out all the stops.

The ukulele continues to lure in new players, and the 2019 Ukiah Uke Fest welcomed children, adults, and seasoned professional string man, Alex de Grassi.

Daniel Ward teaches a workshop of “Melodic Meditations” at the 2019 Ukiah Ukulele Fest.

Bespoke luthier and ukulele lover Ken Franklin did the organizational heavy lifting. His group, The Ukiah Uke Tones, hosted the event at Mendocino College with the help of Rodney Grisanti and the Recording Arts and Technology Club. The one-day event featured workshops by Jeff Davis, Sheridan Malone, Daniel Ward, and this author. Jams, including a Beatles Jam honoring Ringo Starr led by Janet Lenore and Ken Franklin’s Daily Ukulele favorites, were well attended by an enthusiastic crowd. Sandwiches and a delicious stir-fry of locally sourced vegetables were provided by the college’s culinary arts students, and festival attendees entertained during the lunch hour open-mic.

Festival participants entertaining during lunch.

Turncoat guitar player Alex de Grassi topped the bill at the evening concert. Known for his masterful fingerstyle guitar playing, Alex jumped off the big box and on to the uke, playing a mash-up of the Renaissance tune “Greensleeves” and the roots classic “Shady Grove,” followed by an original blues tune (written that day) “Downstairs in the Kitchen, Jukin’ on My Uke.” Alex says, “My first ukulele festival was a total blast! Hearing Daniel Ward and Heidi Swedberg’s set opened my eyes to the infinite possibilities of this tiny little four-string instrument. I’m hooked” (aw shucks, thanks!)

Ken Franklin with one of his beautiful instruments.

Opening the show were Ken Franklin’s kids from the Boys and Girls Club of Ukiah, who got the audience to sing along, and made everyone a little misty. Performances by the Ukiah Uke Tones, Janet Lenore, Jeff Davis, and Sheridan Malone showcased Northern California talent. Daniel Ward and I followed, with help from all of our friends on “Istanbul, not Constantinople.”



The final song, performed by the entire cast including the Uke Tones, was Pete Seeger’s “Wonderful Friends” encapsulated the spirit of the event:

“When I think of the ways that I’ve grown

I know I couldn’t ’a’ made it alone

I owe a lot to the sharing, caring, daring

Wonderful friends that I’ve known…”