Ukulenny: Music, Collaboration, Community

Ukulenny: Music, Collaboration, Community
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Author: Michaela Allen

Featured photo credit: Craig Chee

Lendl San Jose, better known by his stage name Ukulenny, is one of the most beloved ukulele players in the San Francisco Bay area. I had the tremendous privilege of interviewing him about his musical career so far.

Photo credit: Craig Chee

How is everything going for you?

Life is good! It's crazy to think that can be in a virtual space and then, all of a sudden, go back to in-person, and we're expected to just do both. I had a mad recoil after my first couple of in-person events. I would have an in-person gig gig, and a virtual gig, and then ask myself: why am I so tired?! Why have I not gotten enough sleep? I recently took a virtual hiatus for a couple of weeks to figure things out and plan out the rest of my year. In the immediate time, what I'm looking at is starting a Patreon, because I want a place where people who follow me can get the stuff that I'm giving. It's hard doing a piecemeal. It'd be nice to have just one place to do it where I can foster my own ukulele community.

Tell me more about your ukulele community!

I've been playing ukulele in the bay area for the past 10 years. Me and Cynthia Lin, who's also a fellow Youtube musician, awesome ukulele player and singer, we perform together to make the SF Uke Jam Group. In the 'before times', the SF Uke Jam was an in-person event. We'd meet four times a year and do a huge ukulele jam. That's by and large how our ukulele community works. It's comprised of a small group of ukulele groups that meet weekly, at cafes or at someone's house. It's like a choir of musical instruments. We meet regularly and play together.

You offer so much to the community both in-person and online. Can you tell us a little about what you've been up to in the virtual world recently?

When the pandemic hit, all of our gigs were cancelled. I was thinking, well, what am I going to do now? So, I opened up online workshops for free to the ukulele community. We're all in our houses , I'll teach for free and anybody can join. What ended up happening is that so many people joined, and it became my little niche online community with people from all different areas. They have been my lifeline ever since. I've kind of become my own show for them, we've done flash-mobs, those quarantine videos where everyone takes a part. It's fun, because some of these ukulele players are older folks who don't have the tech skills to record themselves. I thought, if I've got this group, I'm gonna do it all! I'd walk everybody through it, like, this is how you do a quarantine video. I'd make regular TikTok videos every month about how to loop and use microphones and stuff! It's been a blessing to keep doing what I'm doing, inside and on a computer, and just to have a supportive community.

You're the conductor of your own virtual ukulele community orchestra - I love that!

Yeah! I feel like that when I'm doing flash mobs. I teach everybody the song, they record the songs, and they just do it in their living rooms. I mix and edit it, and I'm like, oh, this is like me putting my orchestra together in the room. At the end, I put the video together, we watch and it's a lot of fun! Something like that on the regular would be really cool, but it's really hard. I haven't slept a lot this week as I've been editing the last one.

That's so awesome! So we know you play ukulele and guitar, but I see a few different instruments behind you. What else do you play?

This is the u-bass. *starts noodling on the u-bass* So, this has been the key component of my performance- to have one of these, because, playing ukulele is nice, but when you can combine it with the bass, you pretty much have a full band, the full range of frequencies. A lot of my music arrangements of looping bass, ukulele and saxophone.

I started on piano when I was five, but it was really lonely. Everyone was outside playing, and I'd be stuck inside playing classical music on the piano. I wanted to choose a more sociable instrument, so I picked up the guitar to try to get the girls in middle school... it never worked. But, I pretty much picked my profession there. I had a bootleg copy of Cool Edit Pro during middle school, and I'd record myself singing and playing guitar. I actually picked up the cello at the end of high school, which changed me, because it gave me the really cool career path of becoming a school music teacher. I'd never joined the music program until my senior year. It was cool to move into classical with the cello. I relearned the alto sax in college and joined the marching band. My branching into different instruments and becoming a music teacher started to happen then.

You've got quite the instrumental repertoire. I imagine you're a great teacher! Tell me a little about your experience?

I was a public school music teacher for five years, I spent three years teaching in the vocal department at Oakland School for the Arts - Zendaya and Kelhani both went there. That was a really cool part of my experience, to get to work at that calibre. My master teachers were Cava Menzies and Lisa Forkish, who're like the acapella guru. Then I moved to Berkley School, where I taught two years of elementary music, and I did more instrumental stuff. After five years I was like, you know, I'm kind of tired and burned out. That was when I decided to pivot and go into music full time. Of all the instruments I had played, the ukulele was the strongest. I already had a mass following on Youtube. So, I was like, this is my professional instrument that I'm gonna go into full time. That's been since 2016.

We've got to ask, how have you found using Neotech Straps for all of your instruments?

They're great! As an educator, I've always seen Neotech. The fact that you create so many products for different instruments made it easy for me to become an endorsee of your products. They're simple, but really impactful. I'm just rocking it. I love the interchangeability. If you're gonna have a lot of different instruments, it makes sense to have something that's quick to put on. My Mandolin/Ukulele Strap also fits my U-Bass. I'm going to Hawaii soon to play with my group U3, so I'm excited to just lock the strap onto my U-Bass and onto my uke. I don't even need to bring a lot of different things. When I finally get to play sax in a band, I rock my Soft Sax® Strap. I've also just ordered my Wireless Pouch™ - it's ingenious! I love to rock wireless, and it always falls off, so this pouch is great. I've never seen before. I'm really excited to try all the products. Thank you so much for including me in the rosters!

Thank YOU for being part of our team! So, out of everything you've done throughout your career, what has been the most rewarding part of it so far?

At the end of the day, if I'm playing music every day, that's the reward in itself. A lot of my highlights have a lot to do with the community. Specifically, our SFU Jam Group have done a couple of summer ukulele festivals, the SF Summer Uke Fest - I think that would be the highlight of what we've done, between me and Cynthia fostering this community and bringing in musicians who we love, Craig Chee & Sarah Maisel, Abe Lagrimas Jr, Aldrine Guerrero of Ukulele Underground, and Steven Espaniola. Bringing our ukulele team together and being able to make music together, to bring the community at large together, is the biggest thing. I can't speak enough to great things Cynthia does with the community- she's my community hero. She's worldwide, so people are tuning in from all over the world , but everything that we do branches out from this small project in the bay area.

It's beautiful what a few wonderful, dedicated people can create. Where do you want to take your music career?

Whoa, that's a pretty loaded question for 10:30 in the morning! There's a couple of things I've picked up during this year of being inside. I really love playing music. I need that as a regular part of my day. I usually do that by playing casual gigs. I'm totally fine playing at a restaurant for the rest of my life, I don't necessarily need a huge stage to do what I do. I just want to see people, entertain people and make people happy.

I also need to talk about music, because the music nerd inside me is holding all of this in and . A lot of people ask me 'do you love teaching?' and I really do! I love the idea of sharing what I've learnt so far, because I feel lucky enough to have gained a musical education, to know some of this stuff, I don't wanna let it go to waste: I wanna share that with somebody else. I don't have friends to nerd out with over music, and musicians. Everybody's hustling so hard that we're too busy to even take time to hang out with each other. Through my students, I satisfy that part of my life. I can foster the student's love of music by teaching them I - IV - V. That feeds back into my enjoyment of life. So, playing music every day, and talking music every day, whatever that looks like, that's where I wanna take it.

Photo Credit: Jim Watkins

You're also a brilliant advocate on some very important issues. How do you use music and your platform to express this to your fans?

Every little thing counts. It starts to do with the messaging. I know that's small, but being a touchpoint for the people who are not as connected to the channels that I am. Whatever I get down my pipeline, I pass along. It was kind of beautiful to see people who had the means donating to charities at the beginning of the pandemic. I'd find non-profit communities in the Bay area who needed help and share those with them as suggestions. I'm kind of stealing from Trevor Noah here, but I would say like, 'hey if you're watching this, this is a good company, a good non-profit that you should donate to.' I wanted to make sure I was giving to other people. A couple of months later, there wasn't as much energy behind it, which is why we need to continue to energize these messages. Between playing the right music, promoting the right music and literally promoting someone to donate to, someone to write to, that kind of action was important.

It's important to make sure people are educated on not just one thing, but everything!

Photo Credit: Jim Watkins

My last question: What's your favorite thing to play on Uke? That's a mean question, I'm sorry!

One of my favorite songs to end my gigs in is Let's Stay Together. Just the idea that no matter what happens, we're gonna stay together and stick it out. I love playing funk music on the uke. It's completely unexpected, but it sounds great and it's really fun! When I played guitar, I never quite got into funk - I was more of an emo and rock 'n' roll kinda person. In the Bay area, funk is pretty big. It's effortless to play on the uke! It's between that and reggae music of course, that's really fun to play on the uke as well.

I wish we had more time to talk! Your vibe is awesome. Your daughter is lucky to have a such a cool dad!

Thank you. Hopefully she can jam with me soon, I've gotta train her to be my roadie and set up the mic stands, and stuff like that.

You can find Ukulenny's music at the links below:

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