Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Community Interest” January 2008.
Echoes of Hawaii:
Napa Valley Flea Jumpers Strum up Fun With Ukuleles
By Louisa Hufstader
Photo by Mind’s Eye Photography – David R. Bennion, CPP
Little and friendly, it nestles in your arms as if to say “stroke me!” And when you do, you hear gentle music and seem to feel the warmth of the tropics.
No wonder the ukulele is such a popular instrument.
“It’s small, it has just four strings – it’s not intimidating,” says Judd Finkelstein of St. Helena.
“And once you pick it up and try it, it’s hard to put down.”
Finkelstein picked up his first ukulele just six years ago, and today leads his own band, the Maikai Gents Featuring the Mysterious Miss Mauna Loa, who will perform Feb. 23 at Copia.
He’s also the founder of 21st-century Napa’s first ukulele club, the Napa Valley Flea Jumpers, which he describes as “a group of local ukulele enthusiasts who meet once a month to eat, drink and most importantly, strum ukuleles.”
A member of the guitar family, the ukulele (roughly, “jumping flea”) developed in Hawai’i more than a hundred years ago as a hybrid of European stringed instruments brought to the islands by Portuguese voyagers.
The uke’s popularity in the 20th century seemed to have reached its apex – or, arguably, its nadir – with the 1968 chart success of “Tiptoe through the Tulips,” strummed and sung in a harrowing falsetto by novelty act Tiny Tim (Herbert Khaury, 1932-1996).
“I’m proud to say I never learned that song,” Finkelstein says.
Then came the 1993 album by Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole (1959-1997), whose performances of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” were used repeatedly on TV and in films.
“People really tune in to that sound,” of solo ukulele and Hawai’ian-style vocal, says Finkelstein, who’s often asked to perform “Over the Rainbow” at weddings.
Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, who recently played a return engagement at the Napa Valley Opera House, has also done much to improve the instrument’s image, Finkelstein continues.
“There’s a much greater interest in ukulele now. It seems like it has a much higher visibility, and hopefully some respect,” he says.
Finkelstein is doing his part for his beloved instrument with the Napa Valley Flea Jumpers.
When he founded the club three years ago, he knew only two other people in Napa who played the ukulele.
But by the time their first meeting rolled around, word of mouth had gathered eight Flea Jumpers; these days, about 20 usually turn out for the monthly jams.
Most of the players are from Napa County, but Finkelstein says a contingent from Santa Rosa has grown to six or eight people. In all, about 40 uke players receive his regular e-mails, and the group continues to draw new members.
“We play all kinds of music,” he says, with an emphasis on Hawai’ian tunes because quite a few members “either grew up there or spent a lot of time there, so they can sing in the Hawai’ian language.”
The monthly meetings traditionally begin with food and drink: “Whoever’s hosting it provides the beverage for the evening – we usually get a little exotic with that – and the attendees bring pupus to share,” Finkelstein says, using the Hawai’ian word for appetizers.
“After we’ve eaten a bit and had a bit to imbibe, we start strumming and singing.”
Everybody in the group has a folder with copies of the songs; anyone bringing a new number needs to make about 20 copies to distribute. And anyone can call a tune.
“We let whoever’s hosting start it off, and it’s mob rules after that,” jokes Finkelstein.
The Flea Jumpers folder – like the Maikai Gents book – is heavy on what he calls “zippy, jazzy, romantic, old-time music from Hawai’i,” like “The Hukilau Song.”
The club also plays mainland folk favorites like “Home on the Range,” “When the Red, Red Robin Goes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along” and “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?”
“The sea shanty is our closer, and we usually let people make up lyrics as we go,” Finkelstein says.
The Flea Jumpers continue to welcome new members at their monthly strum-ins. Ukulele players who would like to join the club can e-mail Finkelstein at his family’s winery: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hawai’i comes to Copia
Finkelstein promises a “very exciting” evening in the tropics when the Maikai Gents play Copia next month. The Feb. 23 concert – part of Copia’s Thursday-night “Community Spotlight” series – will include plenty of Hawai’ian-style classics along with hula dancing by The Mysterious Miss Mauna Loa (rumored by some to be Finkelstein’s wife Holly, a trained dancer; “You didn’t hear that from me” is all he will say on the subject).
There will also be special guests, and a full multi-media presentation using the auditorium’s big screen to “enhance the visual aspect of our performance,” Finkelstein says.
For tickets and information, visit http://www.copia.org; to learn more about the Maikai Gents and hear samples from their CD “The Wiki Wiki Grog Shop,” stop by http://www.mkgents.com.