By Jim D’Ville
About 300 miles due east of Seattle, Washington, lies the vast Inland Empire. Known mostly for its agricultural contributions—they grow more lentils than anywhere else in the USA—you’ll also find a bumper crop of ukulele players. From the Spokane Valley south to the Palouse cities of Pullman and Moscow, Idaho, hundreds of ukulele players inhabit this somewhat remote corner of the Pacific Northwest. For those unfamiliar with the area, Spokane is a dynamic small city of 200,000 folks situated on the Spokane River, just minutes from the Idaho state line. An hour south of the Spokane Valley are the stunning hills of the Palouse.
I stumbled across the Inland Empire ukulele community quite by chance. My niece had moved to Spokane a couple of years ago and asked if I could visit her during my June 2019 workshop tour of the Pacific Northwest. My first thought, of course, was, “I wonder if they have a ukulele club out there?” A quick search on Facebook for Spokane ukulele yielded a page for the Ukestra Spokane.
Ukestra founder Brenda Beaulieu was working at the local library about seven years ago when she came across a video of Jake Shimabukuro. “When I saw him play, I said I’ve got to learn to play that.” After convincing others at the library to take up the instrument, so she would have people to play with, the Ukestra Spokane was born. The group remained fairly small and for a time looked like it might not continue. Until Tom Rogers joined the group. Brenda adds, “Tom created a Facebook page and we opened the group up to the public and we started getting a lot more people.”
Down south in Pullman, Washington, Scott Hallett founded the Ukulele Players of the Palouse six years ago. The club has nearly 100 members. Our club covers the whole Palouse area which includes Colfax, Pullman, Moscow, Idaho, and all the little surrounding communities.” Although it wasn’t their original intention to play out, soon the group was playing assisted living centers, farmer’s markets, and other community events. Scott adds, “We don’t charge for playing, but occasionally people do want to give us some money. We decided we would take that money and purchase ukuleles and donate them to our local libraries. So far we’ve donated eleven ukuleles and they’ve been very popular.”
The two ukulele clubs come together once every year to perform at the Spokane Folklife Festival. According to Tom Rogers, “By pooling the resources of both groups last year we were able to fit 35 ukulele players on the stage! We have a lot of fun.” For more information on Ukestra Spokane and the Ukulele Players of the Palouse visit their respective Facebook pages.
Music educator Jim D’Ville is on a mission to get ukulele players off the paper and into playing music by ear. Jim hosts the popular Play Ukulele By Ear website playukulelebyear.com.