I was asked to contibute this piece for the inauguaral issue of UKE Magazine, the UK's only print-format specialist ukulele magazine from our friends at World Of Ukes -
"Howdy", "Dagnabbit", "Have a nice day, y'all" - these are just some of the phrases I practise when I head Stateside. Arriving in Anaheim, California in the middle of January when snow is on the ground at home is quite an experience. Guilt-laden calls home, trying not to sound as though you're enjoying yourself too much, are a common feature. But, however much those back home may despise the blue sky photos posted on social networks, this is work for those of us lucky enough to work in the musical instrument business. This was my second visit to the annual National Association of Music Merchants Show at the Anaheim Convention Center, though I'm by no means a NAMM veteran! This year's event did not disappoint. We've seen a massive resurgence in the popularity of the ukulele in the UK in recent years but this is not peculiar to us. It appears to be a worldwide phenomenon, the list of ukulele exhibitors mushrooming even since last year.
Although the NAMM Show is not as big as the Frankfurt MusikMesse, it offers an opportunity to see products from companies who don't tend to exhibit at the European trade shows. This can be said of some of the highest-end Hawaiian brands, who simply couldn't fulfil the demands of multi-national distribution due to their limited production capacity. Some of them have gone down the route of off-shore manufacturing, i.e. overseeing production of a cheaper, usually far-eastern, product bearing their brand, to take advantage of greater manufacturing capacity to meet wider demand.
Anaheim Convention Center comprises five main exhibition halls, A thru E (I've been here too long!) plus some meeting rooms where some large manufacturers choose to exhibit away from the main hustle and bustle. For years people have advised me to check out the basement, Hall E, where many small companies set up their booths showing off a plethora of gadgets - the Rhythm Ring was a "Best in Show" product from Hall E a few years ago. Hall E also happens to be home to most of the dedicated ukulele booths. Plus, you'll find the "Chinese Pavilion" here - more of that later - rubbing shoulders (almost) with some of the most iconic and high-end ukulele brands in the world.
Imagine a store where you could view a complete range of products from the following all in one room (in no particular order) : Kamaka, Ko'Aloha/Ko'alana/Opio, Ko'Olau/Pono, Kanile'a/Islander, Da Silva, Takumi, Kelii, Lo Prinzi, Uluru, APC/Iberica, Imua/Big Island, Moku, Leho, Lulu, Amahi/Snail, Makau, Asturias, Magic Fluke, Paulele, D'Angelico, Collings, Boulder Creek, Blackbird, Na Leo/Kumu, Mahalo, Ohana, Alic, Bugsgear, Ashbury, g-Great, then board the escalator to catch Kala/Makala, Lanikai, Pukana La, plus loads more from guitar companies who have joined the ukulele rush - Martin, Fender, Epiphone, Ibanez, Daisy Rock, Gretsch, Tanglewood, Stagg. And if you have the time to visit the Chinese Pavilion, you'll find a dozen more companies willing to make you an instrument with your own brand name. This is where you have to be really careful - invest your money in these and you are likely to be counting your losses in a few months. Nothing tuned, strings, bridges, nuts and hardware not fitted properly, I was even told about one booth where the ukulele fingerboards had been put on back to front, i.e. the fret spacings got wider towards the bridge - I'd have bought one just for the novelty value if I'd found it!Hawaiian “Shaka"!
Unlike ukulele festivals, which many people will have experienced, this is a strictly trade-only event and there's no mistaking the fact that the companies who've invested money to exhibit there are out to make a return. That's not to say its not fun, though. Away from the halls, there's plenty of music to enjoy, with gigs in the surrounding hotels and in the open spaces around the Convention Center. Ukulele fans have to look a little harder but, in addition to gigs away from the Center, there is an annual Uke Jam on the "grassy knoll" at the front (opposite Disneyland!), and it's great to have the opportunity to jam along with the likes of Aldrine Guerrero, Sarah Maisel, Mike Hind and others without feeling totally out of your depth (generously, they mainly chose songs with 3 or 4 chord repeating patterns that even I could keep up with!).
New gear? Well, there are always new instruments, new models from familiar suppliers, and a whole load of accessories. Takumi ukuleles from Japan caught my eye for all the right reasons - beautifully made with quality hardware and a stunning tone (I brought one home with me!). Daisy Rock caught my eye for different reasons. Having sold their "girl guitars" when they first launched some twelve years ago, I noticed Tish Ciravolo and her new pink sparkly ukulele kits, designed "just for girls". I struggled to see what difference there was between this and any other generic sub-£25 uke, apart from the fact that it's pink and sparkly and comes in a pretty box! Still, who am I to judge? My bass stack was covered in pink flourescent fake fur in my bass guitar-playing days!Four days is barely enough to take in everything this show has to offer. My original intention, when asked to write this article, was to write a paragraph about each ukulele-related booth, with accompanying photo, but I soon realised that that would take up the whole of UKE Magazine and would look more like a trade directory. Instead, I hope my photos have captured some of the faces and the atmosphere of this event. Years ago, the Frankfurt MusikMesse was where the MI business would see new products for the first time, at the moment the NAMM Show is probably the place to be but I already speak to people who are regularly making the trip to the Shanghai Music Fair, later in the year. If anyone is in this business just to make money, that's probably the one to go to, with financial backing and a big warehouse! For many of the rest of us, a week in California in January is about as good as it gets!
Mark Pugh 2015
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