BY HEIDI SWEDBERG | FROM THE FALL 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
In its fifth in-person incarnation (with two virtual versions during the pandemic), the 2023 Las Cruces UkeFest attracted nearly 100 attendees, from far-flung states including Washington, North Dakota, and Wisconsin, to New Mexico for three days of four-string musical merriment at the end of May.
The annual event is hosted by Las Cruces Ukes, and this year the club decided to hire all in-state teachers and performers. Central to that concept was bringing in the Smoking Jackets, a band of four multi-instrumentalist ukulele teachers and performers. Daniel Ward and yours truly (from Santa Fe) rounded up Craig McClelland from Placitas and John Bartlit of Albuquerque and made the southward trek with two carloads of instruments, equipment, personnel, and fun.
The festival kicked off with a concert at Dona Aña Community College. Opening the show was the Las Cruces Ukes. The three songs they played—Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs,” the New Mexico classic “De Colores,” and Daniel Ward’s “Arpeggio Meditation”—were ones many of the members had recently played with a state-wide collection of ukulele enthusiasts opening for the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain at the Lensic Theatre in Santa Fe.
“We had a blast performing at the Lensic, led by Heidi, Daniel, and Craig, with whom we practiced for a couple of months in advance on Zoom,” said Cheryl Fallstead, who is known as the club’s Kahuna Grande. “We were well rehearsed to open the UkeFest with those same songs. But this time we had the entire band backing us up, and that was a lot of fun!”
The Smoking Jackets took the stage next. Armed with ten ukuleles, bass, tuba, oud, glockenspiels, drums, and a wide variety of assorted percussion instruments (including squeaky toys), the group played an eclectic set of covers, originals, and parodies. The audience sang the chorus of a reharmonized “Istanbul Not Constantinople,”taqsim-style, which featured Daniel on oud. A medley of bovine-inspired tunes, including Craig’s original “Cow Head,” got many laughs. And the set included the world premiere of a modern instrumental piece by John, complete with prepared ukulele à la John Cage. But it was Las Cruces Ukes’ own chief musical officer, boB [sic] Hull, who brought down the house with a planned interjection on the song “In These Shoes.” If you know the song, you know, “es un escandalo!” and when boB delivered the last line, it was a scandal, indeed.
The next day, workshops began bright and early at the college’s student activities center. Four sessions of classes included ukulele workshops for newbies to advanced players. The Smoking Jackets taught 15 workshops between its four members. Two additional instructors hailing from Las Cruces, Joe Seltzer and Della Bustamante, led classes on percussion and voice, respectively.
“Since our workshop instructors were also skilled entertainers, working through the materials was enjoyable—like being involved in the show,” said boB. “I was particularly impressed with Daniel, who guided a classroom full of wary players through rather challenging flamenco forms, with no excuses.” Other highlights included lessons on the pentatonic scale, tab reading, a Latin bass course, and a glockenspiel class.
The lunchtime open mic session included a performance by the festival’s youngest participant, ten-year-old Willow Patrick, who wowed diners with her performance of “Wren Ridge,” an instrumental duet from Daniel’s Melodic Meditations book, which she played with the author, trading rhythm and melody lines fluidly. (Full disclosure: Miss Patrick happens to be my student and grandniece.)
That evening, the Smoking Jackets backed up players performing at the open mic. The CC Strummers, who had driven from Culver City, California, performed a song penned by their group’s revered leader, Cali Rose. Several performing groups came from Arizona, including a spirited bunch from Tucson.
Gail Russell, who drove from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, presented her song “Lard,” a cautionary tale of a school science experiment gone wrong. “Playing with the band was such a treat,” she said. “Very exciting, and a little bit scary. What an opportunity to experience handing a chart to the band and then singing and playing with such amazingly talented musicians who are so encouraging, kind, and fun!”
As the evening wore on, an early southwestern monsoon lit the windows with lightning, and the rain joined the rhythm section. The theme of the final songs followed the weather, and the audience engaged in a Japanese melody about umbrellas and the Americana standard “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More,” which included improvised verses.
Sunday, the final day of the festival, began again in the community college theater. Gorton Smith, a Las Cruces Ukes member and retired minister, led “The Gospel According to Uke,” a rousing sing-and-play-along backed by the Smoking Jackets. “It’s always fun to lead this session,” says Smith. “I try to not make it overly religious, rather leading gospel, folk, and pop songs that are fun to play and sing. I also include a song or two with societal meaning. It’s all fun!”
The final workshop gave participants a lesson in harmony singing, featuring sea shanties and fun traditional songs. Everyone enjoyed raising their voices together for the final song, “We Shall Overcome,”which seemed particularly fitting.
Returning to Las Cruces and seeing how the club has nourished its members—even while they were just tiny boxes on a screen—is what really made this year’s festival feel so triumphant. Having the privilege of sharing music with my closest friends (John, Craig and Daniel) and the club we hold dear made the harmonies ring loud and clear.
Editor’s note: The print edition of this article had an error in the photo credit. It has been corrected here.