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Better pluck next time: Ukulele ensemble in L.A. again falls short of record

L.A.'s second annual effort to break the Guinness record for the world's largest ukulele ensemble falls short

Displaying screamingly loud Hawaiian shirts, the occasional neon-hued lei and inspiring pluck, more than 1,000 ukulele players on Saturday swarmed the plaza in front of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in downtown Los Angeles.

The Little Tokyo gathering, under a blistering sun, was free but came with strings attached: All those who registered to strum along to "Pua i Ka Ua" (Flowers in the Rain) were aiding in L.A.'s second annual effort to break the Guinness record for the world's largest ukulele ensemble.

The competitive effort once again fell short. But the good-natured collaboration produced abundant good vibes.

Residents of Tujunga and Torrance joined forces with participants from as far away as Taiwan and Honolulu. The assemblage ranged from toddlers to nonagenarians, and from brand-spanking beginners to seasoned performers and teachers.

Many brought prized ukes in colors bright (orange, magenta) and mellow (natural koa and mahogany). Others purchased basic models from U-Space, an ukulele shop and school housed at the center that helped organize the event.

Even the uninitiated, by the way, pronounced the instrument the proper Hawaiian way: "oo-koo-lay-lay."

Annette Zarlenga of Westlake Village and her friend Andy Hutson of Phoenix, relative newcomers to the ukulele sphere, made up for any talent deficit with a surfeit of enthusiasm.

"It's ridiculously fun," said Zarlenga, whose blond hair sported a swath of fuchsia. "Why would you not get up on a Saturday morning to do this?"

Frank Holman, 69, of Torrance arrived about 9:30 a.m., two hours before the main event. In one hand he clutched a cup of coffee and, in the other, the fret board of the ukulele he had fashioned two months ago from a red Brick House cigar box.

"We're hoping to bring [the record] to L.A. and put us on the ukulele map," Daniel Ho, a popular Hawaii-born ukulele artist who helped lead the participants, said a few days before the event.

The level of talent scarcely mattered. The song the organizers chose — from a Grammy-winning CD by Ho and his longtime friend and collaborator Tia Carrere — was simple. It required the plunking of just two chords: C, played by pressing the ring finger on the third fret of the first (bottom) string, and F, played by pressing the first finger on the first fret of the second string and the middle finger on the second fret of the fourth string.

After a few minutes of warming up, Ho and Carrere played and sang as volunteers onstage held up signs showing participants diagrams of the C and F chords.

"Even if you mess it up, just keep strumming," Ho exhorted the crowd.

The ensemble played along for five minutes as cameras recorded the event so that Guinness World Records representatives could later count and verify the participants.

As for that world record, better luck next year. Only 1,102 people participated, well shy of the current mark of 2,370 held by Hampshire, a county in southern England.

Complicating matters, organizers of a still-unverified but much-photographed event last weekend in Papeete, Tahiti, claim to have smashed even that record, with 4,750 participants.

Immediately after the Guinness event downtown, many participants headed to Santa Monica High School, where, coincidentally, another ukulele event (to raise money for the school's music program) was unfolding.

Once all was sung and done on the cultural center plaza — and Carrere and Ho had performed a half-hour concert for the participants — Carrere praised the plucky bunch of volunteers for their showing.

"That gave me chicken skin," she said. "We must fan out this sense of aloha all over Los Angeles. I think they need it."

martha.groves@latimes.com

Twitter: @MarthaGroves

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