The ukulele is a four-stringed instrument from Hawaii revered for its ability to bring smiles to all. While easy to learn, the ukulele can also produce lots of challenge for those who want to master it. The instrument is experiencing another revival, the first happening in the 1930s after the Pan American Exposition in San Francisco when the Hawaiian Pavilion made the islands—and the humble ukulele—stars. Now ukulele legends like Jake Shimabukuru and the late Israel Kamakawiwo’ole have inspired millions around the world to learn to play.
The current tsunami of ukulele love launched clubs and festivals around the world, including New Mexico, providing camaraderie, learning, and performance opportunities. Festivals are held in Hawaii, Great Britain, Europe, Asia, and all over the United States.
Our state is home to at least four ukulele clubs and two festivals, plus an occasional ukulele retreat in Santa Fe.
Our capitol city hosts the Santa Fe Ukulele and Social Club, which recently benefited from Craig McClelland’s decision to relocate to the Land of Enchantment. Craig has been a professional performing musician and actor for the last 40 years and says, “I now play ukulele constantly with such ensembles as the Gazebo Guys out of Wisconsin and with Heidi Swedberg’s Sukey Jump Band and the Smoking Jackets. I also do ukulele workshops.”
Craig says their club meetings usually consist of a short educational segment followed by strumming along to songs from The Daily Ukulele or songs brought in by members. Anyone may join, regardless of skill level.
While Santa Fe doesn’t host a ukulele festival, one special event has been hosted in the past and is in the planning stages for 2017: Elaine de Man’s New Uke-Culinary Fiesta. Elaine hosts unique events celebrating the ukulele—and food—around the world, including Great Britain, Mexico, California, and Hawaii.
The first retreat featured the ukulele and culinary skills of Heidi Swedberg and Daniel Ward, who are as talented in the kitchen as they are on the stage, and Craig McClelland. The 2015 Fiesta kicked off in Albuquerque. Participants then took the Railrunner to Santa Fe and got to know each other while playing railroad songs on the train before settling into the Don Gaspar Inn.
“We had an evening of Flamenco at a sophisticated tapas bar and an evening of wacky musical antics with Heidi and the Smoking Jackets at Tiny’s,” says Elaine, adding there was also a fun, and chilly, performance at the Santa Fe Farmers Market.
Gary Wells in Albuquerque had a vision: to enhance the ukulele world in New Mexico with a festival. “Primarily I decided to create the Albuquerque Ukekopelli Festival because we didn’t have a festival in the state. They were everywhere else, but we didn’t have one here in the Southwest. So I decided to bring the best ukulele festival I could to New Mexico,” he says.
Each September for three years, Gary has held a top-notch event with in-demand instructors. The festival is gaining national attention and drawing attendees from all over. Gary’s festivals always revolve around a theme and for 2017, he’s taking his inspiration from an old television show format. The Ukulele Supper Club will be a nod to musical variety shows of the early 1950s and will include a concert Friday evening and all day Saturday and Sunday morning workshops with instructors Mark Baker, Dani Joy, and Gracie Terzian.
There are two ukulele clubs in Albuquerque, the Roadrunner Strummers and the High Desert Sand Fleas. The Roadrunner Strummers practice Saturday mornings with founder Phyllis Ryan. There is no charge to participate and the group gives back by performing at retirement communities and rest homes about once a month. Phyllis says, “We are a welcoming group and encourage newcomers.”
Michael Ve’seart of the High Desert Sand Fleas says, “My club title is Kahuna Grande, not only because I started the club, but also, I sing the loudest. I am a life-long musician and enjoy jamming most any genre. Our club is total anarchy. Everyone and all songs are welcome.”
There are many opportunities to become immersed in the ukulele world in New Mexico. Start with one of these.
Las Cruces Ukes
Strum for Fun: 5:15 – 6:15pm
Performance group: 6:30 – 8pm
Good Samaritan Creative Arts Room, 3011 Buena Vida Circle
Las Cruces Ukes Kids Club
Second and fourth Saturdays, 10:30 – 11:15am
El Calvario United Methodist Church, 300 N. Campo Street
Las Cruces Ukes Teen Club
Wednesdays during NMSU school year, 3:15 – 4pm
Arrowhead Park Early College High School, Building 4 lobby
Las Cruces UkeFest
May 19 – 21, 2017
New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum
The Las Cruces Ukes, a community group of ukulele enthusiasts and a non-profit organization, formed in 2013 after I asked my dad, Roger McCandless, to help me get started playing an instrument. My friend Kelle Hoskins soon joined us, then we offered a free beginner workshop to the community. By the end of 2016, the group had practiced together weekly for three years, performed 60 times around the community, and added a Kids Club and a Teen Club. The clubs for youngsters are led by club members who enjoy spreading ukulele love to others.
Bob Hull, our chief musical officer, says, “Las Cruces Ukes has always had an open-door policy: no auditions, dues, previous experience, musical background. This makes way for anyone who is the slightest bit curious, seeking a new social activity or seasoned musicians who need another outlet with little further investment. What I found, personally, was a cohort that took me well beyond just learning how to decipher a new instrument. The experience reawakened my singing voice and I’ve met such a diverse group of people all due to a little instrument that is anything but a toy.”
The Las Cruces Ukes have also hosted numerous well-known ukulele instructors for workshops and will hold the Las Cruces UkeFest May 19 – 21, 2017 at the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum. The festival will feature a ukulele icon, writer and instructor Jim Beloff and his wife, Liz; Danielle Ate The Sandwich, an indie-folk singer, songwriter, and instructor from Colorado; Heidi Swedberg, a popular instructor who was born in Hawaii, grew up in New Mexico, and now lives in Los Angeles; and Daniel Ward, another ex-pat New Mexican living in LA, who specializes in showcasing Latin rhythms on the ukulele. (Yes, they are the Heidi and Daniel who were uking and cooking up a storm in Santa Fe!)
Festivities kick off Friday evening with a concert featuring all the instructors and the Las Cruces Ukes. There will be workshops throughout the day Saturday and Sunday morning, a catered lunch on Saturday, plus a jam session Saturday evening at the Hilton Garden Inn. Vendors will offer a range of ukuleles, accessories, and other essentials.
Regular group, 10 – 11:30am
11:30am – 12:30pm
Highland Senior Center, 131 Monroe Street, Albuquerque
High Desert Sand Fleas
Second and fourth
Thursdays, 6 – 9pm
Albuquerque Press Club
201 Highland Park Circle SE, Albuquerque
Albuquerque Ukekopelli Festival
September 29, 30
and October 1, 2017
Santa Fe Ukulele and Social Club
First and third Mondays,
6 to 8pm
101 W. Marcy Street
New Uke-Culinary Fiesta
Don Gaspar Inn, Santa Fe