On May 19 – 21, ukulele enthusiasts from across the West and beyond will gather in southern New Mexico to take their skills to a higher level at Las Cruces UkeFest 2017. The festival brings nationally-known instructors to the high desert to teach workshops, perform a concert, and lead a jam session. The festival is hosted by the Las Cruces Ukes, a nonprofit community group of ukulele enthusiasts. It takes place at the Farm & Ranch Museum and the Hilton Garden Inn.
The festival kicks off Friday evening with a concert, featuring instructor/performers Jim and Liz Beloff, Daniel Ward, Heidi Swedberg, and Danielle Ate The Sandwich. Saturday brings a full day of workshops, a catered lunch, vendors, and prize drawings, as well as a fun jam session led by Jim Beloff. The festival wraps up Sunday morning with two more workshops, including “The Gospel According to Uke” facilitated by Gorton Smith, a retired pastor and member of the Las Cruces Ukes and Beloff ’s rousing workshop featuring music of the Beatles. There’s even a special Saturday afternoon stand-alone workshop for kids led by Swedberg.
Ukuleles, and ukulele festivals, are popular world-wide. The four-stringed instrument from the Hawaiian Islands is easy to play — and transport — and lends itself to playing as a solo instrument or with a group of friends. Ukulele clubs have sprouted up from England to Australia and Maui to southern New Mexico, encouraging new members and providing performance opportunities. The instructors coming to Las Cruces are well-known and in demand at festivals across the country and around the world.
Jim and Liz Beloff literally wrote the book on the ukulele. Their “Daily Ukulele” books are the source for music for countless clubs and their numerous Jumpin’ Jim song books are in about every player’s library. This will be their first time teaching in New Mexico. Heidi Swedberg was born in the Hawaiian Islands, grew up in New Mexico, and now lives in Southern California and spends her time sharing the love of the ukulele with players of all ages. Daniel Ward, another native New Mexican living in LA, brings a Latin flair to the four-stringed island instrument and will focus on teaching a wide range of strumming patterns. Danielle Ate The Sandwich hails from Colorado and is a indiefolk singer who writes her own songs and will help beginners to more advanced players improve their skills both playing and singing along. She is another who will be teaching for the first time in the Land of Enchantment.
Ukulele players at any level, from beginner to advanced, will find workshops tailored to their needs. For those just giving the instrument a try, loaner ukuleles will be available to borrow at the festival.
The special children’s workshop is only $15 and includes the Fun and Games session immediately following. Kids need to be at least five years of age and those eight and under need a parent to sit with them and help out. Swedberg says, “‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople)’ is a fun two-chord song which we will play in Am. In this class, we will learn the song and some nifty right-hand techniques, like strumming on the back beat and a little rhythmic picking. Stick around and we will perform it for the Fun & Games workshop (stay for the class too).”
She adds, “This class is geared towards kids who have some experience playing and are able to form a few chords and strum. (Hint: get a jump on things and learn Am and E7 before the workshop so you can focus on the good stuff.)”
A highlight of the festival may well be when the drawing prizes are awarded. Sponsors have generously donated many quality ukuleles which lucky festival attendees will be taking home. Sponsors for the drawing prizes include KoAloha, Oscar Schmidt, Ohana, Kala, and A Real Man in Mesilla, which donated a beautiful embroidered Aloha shirt. The instructors have also donated items for the drawing, as have the members of the Las Cruces Ukes, including a custom-painted ukulele with a gift basket of ukulele and New Mexico goodies.
Media sponsors include the Bulletin, Las Cruces Magazine, KRWG–FM, Ukulele Magazine, Desert Moon Communications, and Southwest Senior. The event also received a Quality of Life grant from the City of Las Cruces. The Hilton Garden Inn is another sponsor of the festival.
More information about the instructors, workshops, venues, and drawing prizes, along with on-line registration, can be found at lascrucesukefest. com and Facebook.com/lascrucesukefest. Full festival registration, including the catered lunch, is only $110.
Las Cruces UkeFest 2017 is hosted by the Las Cruces Ukes, a non-profit community group of ukulele enthusiasts. They meet each Thursday evening at Good Samaritan — Las Cruces Village in the Creative Arts Room. The Strum for Fun group meets from 5:15 to 6:15 p.m. and during this time, mentors are available to help brand-new players. They have loaner ukuleles available for those who want to try playing before they invest in an instrument. For experienced players, the performance group practices from 6:30 to 8 p.m.
The group also hosts the Las Cruces Ukes Kids Club the second and fourth Saturday of the month at El Calvario United Methodist Church, 300 Campo Street just east of the downtown post office. They practice from 10:30 to 11:15 a.m. Loaner ukuleles are available for the kids, too.
More information about the group, practices, and their kids’ club can be found at lascrucesukes.com and on their Facebook page, Facebook.com/lascrucesukes.