A Look at the West Coast Ukulele Retreat

by Jim D’Ville

The West Coast Ukulele Retreat is a four-day sea-level ukulele immersion. It’s a strumming and singing extravaganza with nearly 100 old friends, or soon to be new friends. Held in early May in Pacific Grove, California on the Monterey Peninsula, this premiere ukulele event just concluded its fifth successful year.

Organizer Elaine de Man has created the perfect ukulele getaway for those wishing to expand their uke skills in a number of unique musical settings. There are workshops designed for all levels of players taught by some of the top ukulele instructors in the world. This year we welcomed from England the wonderful Phil Doleman to the WCUR staff. Phil shared his love of blues, jug band, and hokum with us, as well as his zany sense of humor. Also on the staff was ukulele chanteuse Victoria Vox, who not only shared her beautiful voice but also graced us with many stirring mouth trumpet solos (she even taught a mouth trumpet workshop). It’s always a treat when multi-instrumentalist Gerald Ross is on the WCUR staff. Not only is Gerald one of the top swing-ukulele players around, he’s also a crackerjack guitar and lap-steel player.

A short boardwalk stroll takes you to the beautiful Asilomar State Beach.
A short boardwalk stroll takes you to the beautiful Asilomar State Beach.

Kevin Carroll from Austin, Texas, taught a number of “ukestra” workshops where groups of players from all levels learned to play some nifty arrangements of classic soul and zydeco songs. New to the WCUR workshop itinerary this year was an actual recording-studio experience taught by Dave Egan. In his day job, Dave is the sound engineer for Greg Rolie of Journey and Santana fame so you can imagine the thrill many students experienced getting to record a song and have it mixed down on the spot by someone of Dave’s talents. The amazing duo of Daniel Ward and Heidi Swedberg were back on the WCUR staff this year. These two bring so much energy and talent to the event it’s hard to imagine it taking place without them. Daniel wowed the students (and other instructors) with his virtuoso skill on the ukulele while Heidi once again organized our dining hall flash mob which is now a legendary event at Asilomar. After three days of practice the whole of the camp stunned about 200 other non-ukulele playing diners with a rousing version of “Sweet Caroline” that brought all eating to a complete stop!


'50s Dance Night
’50s Dance Night

Unique to the WCUR is the number of varied group activities. This year that included a 1950s costume dance night with a full backing band. The Flea By Night concert afforded the students the opportunity to play a song backed by the instructor band. The stunning finale to the West Coast Ukulele Retreat is the Saturday night battle of the bands. Each instructor is paired with a group of 7–10 students the first day of camp with the goal of creating a full-fledged band that performs their rehearsed and polished song in the final show. It’s unbelievable the amount of talent and creativity that shines through in each performance.

All of this wacky ukulele madness takes place at the historic Asilomar Conference Center, a 107-acre spot of paradise located on the shimmering Pacific Ocean just south of Monterey Bay. The rustic buildings at Asilomar, a former YWCA leadership camp built in 1913, were designed by renowned architect Julia Morgan, the architect of Hearst Castle. The cottage I stayed in was purchased in 1932 by John Steinbeck’s sister. In 1941 Steinbeck lived in the cottage while he wrote The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Four days at Asilomar and the stresses of everyday life melt away. And, by the way, there are no televisions.

I’m sure Elaine will assemble another wonderful staff of instructors for the 2017 West Coast Ukulele Retreat so if you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind ukulele experience mark your calendar for next year now!

Photos courtesy of West Coast Ukulele Retreat.