The idea started with a gift. For music Professor Stephen Sano’s 17th wedding anniversary in 2012, his wife found a ukulele at a local shop, Gryphon Stringed Instruments, with a top made from a piece of discarded fence found on the Stanford campus. From ugly duckling to swan, the old piece of weathered California redwood was transformed by Santa Cruz luthier Rick Turner into a beautiful and expressive instrument.
A couple of weeks later, when Sano was on the construction site of the Bing Concert Hall and saw scraps of Alaskan yellow cedar being cut off the edge of the stage floor, he collected as many pieces as would fit in his Honda and headed to Santa Cruz. If Turner could turn a fencepost into music, imagine what he could do with pristine cuts of wood coveted for its resonance and fine grain.
The result? Twins. Sano welcomed two blond-top tenor ukes to his growing family of stringed instruments in October 2013. The twins have a “micro jumbo” shape; generous curves with a tight waist. The soundboard for each is made of six quartersawn floor scraps, now beautifully fitted together and polished, and the back and sides are koa, an indigenous Hawaiian hardwood favored by instrument makers. While the sound personality of the fencepost uke is fat and warm, the twins are snappy and bright.
“Glorious” is how proud father Turner describes the sound. “Made me want to buy some yellow cedar for more uke tops!”
Sano cherishes instruments with a story. He explains: “In the Hawaiian context, different instruments possess different mana, or spiritual energy. As these ukes have a provenance that traces back to Peter and Helen Bing’s gift to Stanford of one of the world’s pre-eminent concert halls, the mana of the instruments is one born of care, respect and a devotion to place and people – characteristics that are the sound and spirit of the instruments.”
And the floor played on
When a slack key guitar virtuoso modestly says he’s just noodling around on the ukulele, you can bet that the noodles will be delicious. Sano pulls a high-pitched, sweet and intimate sound from the diminutive instrument, and if you close your eyes it is easy to imagine being on a beach with a wreath of fragrant flowers around your neck. Despite being based on a Portuguese instrument, the ukulele sounds distinctly Hawaiian.
Sano is on sabbatical this academic year, and the time away from chairing the Department of Music and teaching and directing the Stanford Chamber Chorale and Symphonic Chorus is allowing him time to enjoy his hobby instruments, including the twins.
When he’s done chairing the Music Department at the end of the 2015-16 academic year, Sano will return to teaching his course on Hawaiian slack key guitar and he plans to include a section on the ukulele. He also plans to do more recording and will include a couple of uke tracks when he does. This April he looks forward to seeing ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro at Bing Concert Hall – and he may even get Shimabukuro to play one of the twins at the concert.