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How can anything that sounds this damned sweet be good for you?

"There are some genres that are harder to play than others." Brittni Paiva (pronounced pie--vah) 23, of Hawaii, is a multi award-winning instrumentalist best known for what she can do with: the ukulele. "But I really don't believe there are any limits to the instrument at all."

She can make her own uke sound like a folk guitar, or a wide-bodied jazzer's delight. She checks in via email to catch up on music and drag racing and the coming Ukulele Festival in October on the Broadway Pier in San Diego, where she plans to play a solo set. The fest features two days of like-minded uke-sters including Danielle Ate the Sandwich, Julia Nunes, Brad Norris, Sarah Maisel, Taimane Gardner, and more.

There's been a global resurgence in ukulele popularity brewing for more than a few years now, in case you haven't noticed. It may well have begun with Jake Shimabukuro, an islander who has been called a virtuoso, a word that no one prior would have associated with the tiny guitars that tourists buy as souvenirs.

For years, Shimabukuro toured with big amplifier stacks and effects pedals and produced something we had never heard before: a loud and rocking ukulele.

Paiva herself has a new CD out titled Tell U What, which is a mix of jazz, pop, funk, reggae and classical music produced by jazz saxman Tom Scott with trusty old Michael McDonald on vocals. I want to know how she pulls it off, all this technical fret work, considering the basic sound of the instrument is pure cane sugar. After all, the standard uke tuning is GCEA, or the C6 chord, she reminds me.

"But there are several different tunings that various artists use. I like to mess around with a few different of them myself." She plays a four-string soprano, the smallest of them. She points to mentors such as Herb Ohta, Jr. and Keoki Kahumoku, says her grandfather originally turned her on to the ukulele.

"From the moment I picked it up, I knew that I was going to have a lot of fun with it. I decided to make it my main instrument."

I ask how she has worked to overcome the limitations of G-C-E-A and a stingy two-octave fret board. "I didn’t really have any difficulties, actually," she says. "Since I’m not a very big person to begin with, I think the size of the fret board plays to my advantage."

So I ask her to mentally design a ukulele that does everything she needs in the instrument and her answer does not surprise me. It turns out Paiva would indeed like to have more out of a uke than what she's getting, and why not? Ukulele playing, unless one keeps it restricted to the songbook of venerable island favorites seems an uphill battle.

"Oh boy! It would have a keyboard on it, as well as another neck for some bass strings, and perhaps have a very sturdy body so I can use some drumsticks on it." And maybe a longer fretboard, and better tuning ability? I ask if it is even possible to make a uke sound sad or melancholy.

"It is very possible. It's not just about the instrument being able to convey emotions, but also about how the artist conveys emotions. Music is an expression on one's soul. When you feel very passionate about something, it's reflected in your music, regardless of what instrument you play."

There is great motivation among these modern players to make ukulele sound like what it is not: a flamenco guitar, an electric guitar. These are heroic efforts for sure, for such performances require dexterity and skill beyond measure.

For example Jake Shimabukuro, from Hawaii, tried in vain to wrestle uke into something resembling rock star status, but even he too succumbed to the uke's persistent cheeriness. His latest record Grand Ukulele is a collection of fragile architecture bent on circumventing the limitations of four relatively dead gut strings, but in the end it is the music of sweet dreams.

I suppose that what I am trying to say is this: that no one would put Jake's new record on in order to get laid.

The most basic ukulele is made of wood, ranging from expensive to cheap, from exotic to ply, even plastic. Tourist axes are made entirely from junk wood. I have one propped in a corner of a room, the tuning pegs having long ago pulled out by string tension. It is therefore string-less and as such not playable. I keep it why? Because it looks touristy and cool.

The first ukuleles are thought to have been made in Hawaii in the late 1800s. They crossed the Pacific and were a big hit at the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. After, they were featured in vaudeville acts and variety shows. For a while, in America the ukulele was king. Most ukes look just like a dwarfed Spanish guitar.

But, as with their larger six string counterparts, ukes have likewise been customized and now come in a variety of designs including the cutaway, paddle, triangle, oval, and box shapes. Most have four nylon strings that sound, well, damped constantly even though finger muting is not being applied. Ukes also come in six and eight string models, and in four sizes: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. They look, and sound, like a toy.

For the record Brittney plays a soprano, or standard model ukulele.

On a Monday night at Chris' Ono Grinds in Grantville, 20 or so ukulele players gather inside for a group lesson. The class is fed by donations and led by a couple of uke pros who also lead the sing along in that trademarked warbling vibrato.

"If you don't carry a ukulele," says one of the teachers at one point to the room, "we don't hang out." Later, he will introduce a song with this story: "It was written in the middle of a snowstorm. In New York." He pauses and lets the New York part sink in. "Waikiki is the name of the song. That's where it was written -- in a New York snow storm."

In time, every seat in the Grind's dining room is taken. Some of the players prop up song books on their tables. Others sit in the glow of iPad displays. There are people of all ages present, from school-age children to seniors.

The noodling and plucking before class begins amounts to something that sounds like the disjointed pieces of a much larger instrument, like a harp. But when the class members begin playing in unison, I am reminded of an old TV commercial from the '60s -- C&H Sugar from Hawaii, sung by Ed Kinney and a bunch of kids.

The class play along on the easy melodies that all seem to flow gently like maple syrup. It is the way of all ukulele island music, I suppose. The music provides a disjointed soundtrack for the Monday Night Football aggression displayed on Ono Grind's flat screens.

In a room of mostly soprano instruments, I see one six-string uke.

"It was a gift from Sam Kamaka himself," says Ida of her personal ukulele. Kamaka Hawaii is considered a leading manufacturer of ukuleles. Ida's gray hair is pulled back, revealing much forehead. Her attire consists of flowered Mumu and sandals. She says she is 81 but looks 61. I want to know about her 6-string uke. In this particular configuration, two pairs of strings are doubled, giving the instrument an extra amount of ring and sustain.

"I have them all," she says of the uke design. "Four, six, and eight string."

I tell her I didn't know there was such an instrument as an eight string uke.

"I have my master's in music," she says, possibly misunderstanding my question. Ida also has a doctorate in education. She is a retired teacher. From Hawaii?

"Born and raised."

Ida, one of 12 siblings, can play without looking at the fretboard. Her brown fingers snap automatically into place to form chords while she strums.

"I've been doing this since I was three."

I ask her if she knows about uke fest. "Yeah," she says, "but I need a ride. I don't drive any more."

I promised myself I would not make mention of Tiny Tim anywhere in this story, but it became virtually impossible, especially since everyone I told about the writing of Ukulele Fest mentioned him as if he were the icon of all uke players. He was not.

Tiny Tim (Herbert Khaury) came to fame as the fluttery, fawning, long-haired falsetto-voiced uke player on Rowan and Martin's Laugh In television show during the 1960s. He didn't play particularly well, but what he lacked in dexterity he more than made up for in other-worldly charisma.

In 1968, his first album, God Bless Tiny Tim, was released. But Mr. Tim himself was of poor health and in possession of an even weaker constitution; on November 30, 1996 he collapsed on stage in Minneapolis and died of cardiac arrest during a performance of "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," his trademark song. He was 64.

Was T. Tim in part responsible for the ukulele resurgence that would come years later? No more so than Eddie Vedder, I think, who took a solo tour last year with only a uke to accompany himself. NPR described it in this way: “For his second full-length solo album, Pearl Jam’s singer has taken up one of the most useful creative tools available: limitation.” Both Amanda Palmer and Taylor Swift have plucked ukes in recent years, as has Paul McCartney. Last year, Huffpo deemed ukes the hot ticket and claimed a bump in retail sales of the toy guitar as well. The New York Times called the ukulele "suddenly cool." The cheapness of the instrument, says the Guitar Online Shop, has been its salvation.

"My husband is to blame for my drag racing," says Paiva. "He's very into cars and performance modification, so his passion kind of rubbed off on me. I have two cars -- one built for drag racing, and the other built for autocross. As far as the drag racing goes, my best time is 14.7 seconds [in the quarter mile] at 87 MPH. That's with a turbocharged 1.3 motor in a 1995 Toyota Tercel."

San Diego Ukulele Festival: Saturday 10/13, 10am-10pm, and Sunday 10/14, 10am-9pm At the Port Pavilion on the Broadway Pier, San Diego. Gen admission $15/each day or $25/both days. More information here: http://www.sandiegoukefestival.com/tickets/

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Touched By An Angel

"There are some genres that are harder to play than others." Brittni Paiva (pronounced pie--vah) 23, of Hawaii, is a multi award-winning instrumentalist best known for what she can do with: the ukulele. "But I really don't believe there are any limits to the instrument at all."

She can make her own uke sound like a folk guitar, or a wide-bodied jazzer's delight. She checks in via email to catch up on music and drag racing and the coming Ukulele Festival in October on the Broadway Pier in San Diego, where she plans to play a solo set. The fest features two days of like-minded uke-sters including Danielle Ate the Sandwich, Julia Nunes, Brad Norris, Sarah Maisel, Taimane Gardner, and more.

There's been a global resurgence in ukulele popularity brewing for more than a few years now, in case you haven't noticed. It may well have begun with Jake Shimabukuro, an islander who has been called a virtuoso, a word that no one prior would have associated with the tiny guitars that tourists buy as souvenirs.

For years, Shimabukuro toured with big amplifier stacks and effects pedals and produced something we had never heard before: a loud and rocking ukulele.

Paiva herself has a new CD out titled Tell U What, which is a mix of jazz, pop, funk, reggae and classical music produced by jazz saxman Tom Scott with trusty old Michael McDonald on vocals. I want to know how she pulls it off, all this technical fret work, considering the basic sound of the instrument is pure cane sugar. After all, the standard uke tuning is GCEA, or the C6 chord, she reminds me.

"But there are several different tunings that various artists use. I like to mess around with a few different of them myself." She plays a four-string soprano, the smallest of them. She points to mentors such as Herb Ohta, Jr. and Keoki Kahumoku, says her grandfather originally turned her on to the ukulele.

"From the moment I picked it up, I knew that I was going to have a lot of fun with it. I decided to make it my main instrument."

I ask how she has worked to overcome the limitations of G-C-E-A and a stingy two-octave fret board. "I didn’t really have any difficulties, actually," she says. "Since I’m not a very big person to begin with, I think the size of the fret board plays to my advantage."

So I ask her to mentally design a ukulele that does everything she needs in the instrument and her answer does not surprise me. It turns out Paiva would indeed like to have more out of a uke than what she's getting, and why not? Ukulele playing, unless one keeps it restricted to the songbook of venerable island favorites seems an uphill battle.

"Oh boy! It would have a keyboard on it, as well as another neck for some bass strings, and perhaps have a very sturdy body so I can use some drumsticks on it." And maybe a longer fretboard, and better tuning ability? I ask if it is even possible to make a uke sound sad or melancholy.

"It is very possible. It's not just about the instrument being able to convey emotions, but also about how the artist conveys emotions. Music is an expression on one's soul. When you feel very passionate about something, it's reflected in your music, regardless of what instrument you play."

There is great motivation among these modern players to make ukulele sound like what it is not: a flamenco guitar, an electric guitar. These are heroic efforts for sure, for such performances require dexterity and skill beyond measure.

For example Jake Shimabukuro, from Hawaii, tried in vain to wrestle uke into something resembling rock star status, but even he too succumbed to the uke's persistent cheeriness. His latest record Grand Ukulele is a collection of fragile architecture bent on circumventing the limitations of four relatively dead gut strings, but in the end it is the music of sweet dreams.

I suppose that what I am trying to say is this: that no one would put Jake's new record on in order to get laid.

The most basic ukulele is made of wood, ranging from expensive to cheap, from exotic to ply, even plastic. Tourist axes are made entirely from junk wood. I have one propped in a corner of a room, the tuning pegs having long ago pulled out by string tension. It is therefore string-less and as such not playable. I keep it why? Because it looks touristy and cool.

The first ukuleles are thought to have been made in Hawaii in the late 1800s. They crossed the Pacific and were a big hit at the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. After, they were featured in vaudeville acts and variety shows. For a while, in America the ukulele was king. Most ukes look just like a dwarfed Spanish guitar.

But, as with their larger six string counterparts, ukes have likewise been customized and now come in a variety of designs including the cutaway, paddle, triangle, oval, and box shapes. Most have four nylon strings that sound, well, damped constantly even though finger muting is not being applied. Ukes also come in six and eight string models, and in four sizes: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. They look, and sound, like a toy.

For the record Brittney plays a soprano, or standard model ukulele.

On a Monday night at Chris' Ono Grinds in Grantville, 20 or so ukulele players gather inside for a group lesson. The class is fed by donations and led by a couple of uke pros who also lead the sing along in that trademarked warbling vibrato.

"If you don't carry a ukulele," says one of the teachers at one point to the room, "we don't hang out." Later, he will introduce a song with this story: "It was written in the middle of a snowstorm. In New York." He pauses and lets the New York part sink in. "Waikiki is the name of the song. That's where it was written -- in a New York snow storm."

In time, every seat in the Grind's dining room is taken. Some of the players prop up song books on their tables. Others sit in the glow of iPad displays. There are people of all ages present, from school-age children to seniors.

The noodling and plucking before class begins amounts to something that sounds like the disjointed pieces of a much larger instrument, like a harp. But when the class members begin playing in unison, I am reminded of an old TV commercial from the '60s -- C&H Sugar from Hawaii, sung by Ed Kinney and a bunch of kids.

The class play along on the easy melodies that all seem to flow gently like maple syrup. It is the way of all ukulele island music, I suppose. The music provides a disjointed soundtrack for the Monday Night Football aggression displayed on Ono Grind's flat screens.

In a room of mostly soprano instruments, I see one six-string uke.

"It was a gift from Sam Kamaka himself," says Ida of her personal ukulele. Kamaka Hawaii is considered a leading manufacturer of ukuleles. Ida's gray hair is pulled back, revealing much forehead. Her attire consists of flowered Mumu and sandals. She says she is 81 but looks 61. I want to know about her 6-string uke. In this particular configuration, two pairs of strings are doubled, giving the instrument an extra amount of ring and sustain.

"I have them all," she says of the uke design. "Four, six, and eight string."

I tell her I didn't know there was such an instrument as an eight string uke.

"I have my master's in music," she says, possibly misunderstanding my question. Ida also has a doctorate in education. She is a retired teacher. From Hawaii?

"Born and raised."

Ida, one of 12 siblings, can play without looking at the fretboard. Her brown fingers snap automatically into place to form chords while she strums.

"I've been doing this since I was three."

I ask her if she knows about uke fest. "Yeah," she says, "but I need a ride. I don't drive any more."

I promised myself I would not make mention of Tiny Tim anywhere in this story, but it became virtually impossible, especially since everyone I told about the writing of Ukulele Fest mentioned him as if he were the icon of all uke players. He was not.

Tiny Tim (Herbert Khaury) came to fame as the fluttery, fawning, long-haired falsetto-voiced uke player on Rowan and Martin's Laugh In television show during the 1960s. He didn't play particularly well, but what he lacked in dexterity he more than made up for in other-worldly charisma.

In 1968, his first album, God Bless Tiny Tim, was released. But Mr. Tim himself was of poor health and in possession of an even weaker constitution; on November 30, 1996 he collapsed on stage in Minneapolis and died of cardiac arrest during a performance of "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," his trademark song. He was 64.

Was T. Tim in part responsible for the ukulele resurgence that would come years later? No more so than Eddie Vedder, I think, who took a solo tour last year with only a uke to accompany himself. NPR described it in this way: “For his second full-length solo album, Pearl Jam’s singer has taken up one of the most useful creative tools available: limitation.” Both Amanda Palmer and Taylor Swift have plucked ukes in recent years, as has Paul McCartney. Last year, Huffpo deemed ukes the hot ticket and claimed a bump in retail sales of the toy guitar as well. The New York Times called the ukulele "suddenly cool." The cheapness of the instrument, says the Guitar Online Shop, has been its salvation.

"My husband is to blame for my drag racing," says Paiva. "He's very into cars and performance modification, so his passion kind of rubbed off on me. I have two cars -- one built for drag racing, and the other built for autocross. As far as the drag racing goes, my best time is 14.7 seconds [in the quarter mile] at 87 MPH. That's with a turbocharged 1.3 motor in a 1995 Toyota Tercel."

San Diego Ukulele Festival: Saturday 10/13, 10am-10pm, and Sunday 10/14, 10am-9pm At the Port Pavilion on the Broadway Pier, San Diego. Gen admission $15/each day or $25/both days. More information here: http://www.sandiegoukefestival.com/tickets/

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