2017 West Coast Ukulele Retreat: The most fun you can have with your uke on!

Text by Jim D’Ville ¦ Photos by Roberta Piazza Gordon

You talk about your oh, how happy campers! The 7th annual West Coast Ukulele Retreat was held on the beautiful Monterey peninsula at the historic Asilomar State Beach and Conference Center in Pacific Grove, California, May 16-21, 2017.

The staff included top-notch instructors from the far-flung reaches of the United States including Gerald Ross, Kevin Carroll, Dave Egan, Craig McClelland, Rhan Wilson, Rick Zeek, luthier Dennis Lake, and from across the pond, the UK’s Phil Doleman. Workshop topics ran the full gamut of the ukulele experience from swing uke to U-bass to my favorite topic, learning to play by ear.

Each night’s entertainment was a wonderful musical collaboration of staff and students. Thursday’s Country Night was lead by Gerald Ross and his band, The Mountain River Valley Boys. The highlight of the evening was a special appearance of “The Blues Brothers” (as portrayed by Phil Doleman and Craig McClelland). The pair reenacted the Bob’s Country Bunker scene from The Blues Brothers movie, complete with chicken wire at the front of the stage which protected Jake and Elwood from an onslaught of crudites hurled by the audience.

Friday night, students were offered the opportunity to perform with the Flea By Night Band, made up of faculty members, including drums and bass. They learned to prepare professional-style music charts which they gave to the band as they took the stage. There was no advance rehearsal.


The level of student talent this year was truly amazing. Saturday night was the Student Battle of the Bands, a WCUR tradition since the first retreat. This year, however, students were placed in their bands based on their zodiac sign. How about those Virgos!

Another West Coast Ukulele Retreat tradition is the Dining Hall Flash Mob. During the Saturday night dinner, after sneaking in 80 ukuleles, a glockenspiel and a tuba, the students and instructors once again caught the other diners off guard with a rousing performance of the Shades Of Blue classic from 1966, “Oh, How Happy.” The retreat wrapped up on Sunday morning with Matthew, Mark, Uke & John, a gospel jam lead by Santa Cruz-based instructors Rhan Wilson and Rick Zeek.

The best thing about attending the West Coast Ukulele Retreat is the full-immersion aspect. Faculty and campers play together, share meals and live on the conference grounds the entire time. A first-time attendee had this to say about the experience: “It was fairy-tale epic!”

The ‘Ed-Uke-Tainer?’ Kevin Carroll.

My first time throwing vegetables at The Blues Brothers behind chicken wire. My first time wearing a pink cowboy hat and dancing an Achy Breaky Heart line dance. All those amazing workshops.The new friends, being a part of a group sprinkled with such incredible talent. The camaraderie openness, no-holds barred fun. It was truly wonderful.” According to Director Elaine de Man, “The best thing I heard this year. ‘I’ll be back!'”

Music educator and facilitator Jim D’Ville is the author of the Play Ukulele By Ear DVD series and hosts the popular Play Ukulele By Ear website www.PlayUkuleleByEar.com.