By Brian Berusch
When you think of the quintessential sounds of Sonoma County, a few things may come to mind. Maybe it’s the wind whipping off the craggy coastline into Bodega Bay, as it flutters across the sand and over a dune to rustle the Pacific reed grass. You may envision a blue-jeaned blues band playing on an outdoor stage in Sebastopol, kids and parents twirling in the sunshine during a summer festival. Or it could be the clinking of crystal glasses on the patio of a winery, the smell of rosemary and ripe grape hovering in the air.
Or is it the sound of Hawaiian ukuleles?
Maybe it’s not the first thing that comes to mind, but after reading this—it just might. In a quiet industrial area of North Petaluma, just across the street from Lagunitas Brewing Company, is Kala Brand Music Company. Michael Upton started his small ukulele import company in 2005 somewhere more apropos: On the south shore of Oahu, where the ukulele was born and is often associated with the sounds of paradise. But after establishing the business—and looking at a place to expand the business and launch a shop to conceptualize and construct new, higher-end string instruments, he landed in Petaluma.
Although originally from the South Bay Area, Upton did what any Sonoma local would: He planted 525 pinot noir vines on a lot in West Petaluma, grabbed some warehouse space, and started to grow his business. He now sells nearly 40,000 instruments per month, with growing client bases in Asia, Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Yet what really excites Upton is when he discusses the custom instrument shop he’s carved into his warehouse and office space in Petaluma. What started with just a couple of tinkerers trying to improve upon their existing ukuleles, has turned into a team of expert luthiers making an array of ukulele-inspired instruments, some of which have caught fire with professional musicians.
From koa (a rare Hawaiian hardwood) ukuleles to the “U-Bass”—a small bass guitar that utilizes rubber strings to ilicit big sound from a small, portable instrument—guitars and something called “the resonator” (think a dobro meets ukulele), Upton is pushing the envelope here.
“Guys like Jon Anderson from [the band] Yes, Pat Simmons [Doobie Brothers] and Hutch Hutchinson [Bonnie Raitt] have really latched onto our stuff,” says Upton. “They found them, took them onto the road, and everyone who sees and hears it seems to want one. It’s be great for us.” Upton adds that players who tour with Eric Clapton, Peter Gabriel and Paul McCartney all bring Kala instruments on the road.
One big supporter is Bakitha Kumalo, who tours with Paul Simon regularly, and plays mostly on a Kala U-bass.
“I played a Washburn fretless bass on the Graceland album and I loved the sound, so I was looking for something like it. I was experimenting a lot, looking for an original sound. Everyone mimics each other these days, but I wanted a unique sound,” Kumalo says. “When I first saw it, I thought ‘It’s small, maybe I’ll give it to my kids.’ But the tone and comfort is so amazing. It leads you into the instrument. It envelops you—and I just fell in love with it.”
In addition to experimenting with various woods (which produce different tonalities while playing), Upton is constantly looking to tweak existing instruments in order to come up with something new.
He also is a big proponent of education kids through music; Kala and Upton have donated thousands of ukuleles to elementary through high schools to help boost the music programming so integral for the youth.
“Selfishly, we’re sort of building in a customer base,” Upton admits. “But anywhere we can help bolster creative school programs, we’re eager to provide.
Check out KalaBrand.com for more information.