UKE SCENE: New Mexico

By Heidi Swedberg / This article appeared in the Spring 2017 issue

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
(T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” from “The Four Quartets”)

A song is a story told in music. History is written with time’s arrow pointing toward the past. Recounting our lives is never a straight shot, but more like a song—verse, chorus, bridge, which repeats, changes, and grows.

When my family moved from Kailua, Hawaii, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, I was expecting Wile E. Coyote, Bugs Bunny, and a whole lot of desert. Only the latter proved to be true, and it was more subtly beautiful than I ever imagined. We came to this foreign land in 1972 equipped with the essential things we held most dear: our ’66 Plymouth Fury II Wagon, a fluffy corgi named Fluffy, and our ukuleles. We were the only kids on the block with ukuleles, and as far as I knew, they were the only ukuleles in the state. We kept our instruments private, sheltered in our bedrooms, alone, playing teen songs of love and angst. If only there were some place our lonely chords could chorus; the dry pond had yet to ripple.

New Mexico Ukulele

The Rowdy Gang

My mother, Kay, was the first of us to put her ukulele away when she returned to the classroom, first as a student getting her master’s degree in education, then as an English teacher at Albuquerque High School. Eventually, she retired to the southern town of Las Cruces, where the uke has caught up with her. After more than 40 years of clean living, she has fallen in with a rowdy gang: the Las Cruces Ukes.

Kay Swedberg (nee Thompson) and Millie Fullaway, circa 1952.

Her club is the state’s most-organized and -outgoing uke group. Their weekly meeting averages about 25 attendees, and members enjoy one or both of their two groups, which meet contiguously in the community room at Golden Mesa Independent Living and Retirement Center. The first hour, “Strum for Fun” is geared towards enjoyment and skill building and is led by club president Cheryl Fallstead and Gorton Smith, a retired minister. boB Hull [sic], the group’s musical director, leads the performance group directly afterwards. The eponymous group keeps extremely busy, this year alone playing more than 60 gigs, from small groups at the community which hosts them, to large events like the Renaissance Arts Faire, Aggies in Paradise at New Mexico State University, and Empty Bowls (a soup kitchen fundraiser). As a non-profit organization, their gig income goes towards outreach, like offering classes for teens and kids on weekends. This spring they will be hosting a festival of their own featuring Danielle Ate the Sandwich and Jim and Liz Beloff. (I hope they sing their retirement song, “Old in New Mexico,” written by Jim and Lyle Ritz!) Daniel Ward and I will be there, too. It would be hard to keep us away!

Santa Fe Express

The scene up north is growing, with Craig McClelland in the hot seat facilitating the Santa Fe Ukulele and Social Club. The three-year-old Santa Fe club is a loose group of about 30 members meeting twice a month. The club’s evening starts with an educational half-hour led by Craig, followed by an hour of playing songs brought in by members or from popular books like Jim Beloff’s The Daily Ukulele.

Craig’s relationship with the uke started when he was given a Harmony soprano to mess with as a kid. Having lived in Albuquerque while majoring in music at University Of New Mexico, he has returned to the state after a sojourn in Wisconsin, where he premiered Strings Attached, the first ukulele musical at the American Folklore Theatre. I met Craig in the late 1980s when he lived in Albuquerque and dressed in a banana costume to play bass in a heavy-metal vaudeville band. (And you thought the ukulele was weird!)

Which takes us back to Albuquerque, the big city in the center of the state. While studying theatre at the University of New Mexico, kismet and coincidence led me to discover that my classmate and close friend, Kristen Loree, was also my cousin. She introduced me to two geeky musician boys from Los Alamos—best friends, born six-hours apart in the same hospital—John Bartlit and Dan Ward. She kept John, and several years later, I claimed the other. They were musical Gemini, creating several bands between them, including a crazy rock band with a bass-playing banana.

smoking jackets ukulele new mexico
The Smoking Jackets (from left): Craig McClelland, Daniel Ward, Heidi Swedberg, and John Bartlit.

We spent many hours around my cousin’s kitchen table singing, playing ukulele, and watching children grow. John, one of the most amazing musicians I will ever know, has a Kamaka soprano, which was an identical twin to my mother’s. We turned his rehearsal room into a primitive recording studio and made the first Sukey Jump Band family CD at his house. Everyone was put on tape—John, Kristin, the kids, the neighbors, and even the cricket chirping in the alley. We started playing shows together, buying and stringing up dozens of instruments to share with groups, schools, friends, and anyone who would tolerate us. Ukulele became our cult. John, Kristin, and their daughter Nola fell under the spell of the ukulele. They now serve their little master, performing and teaching privately and at the New Mexico Jazz Workshop.


Ukekopeli New Mexico Ukulele
Gerald Ross, Daniel Ward, Heidi Swedberg, and Andy Andrews at the 2016 Albuquerque Ukekopelli Festival with dancers from Desert Stars Polynesia. PHOTO BY HEATHER PATRICK

Starting in 2014, Albuquerque had its first ukulele festival. Christened the Albuquerque Ukekopelli Festival by its creator, Gary Wells, the event galvanized uke enthusiasts. Ukekopelli 2016 got Daniel, John, Craig and me on stage together, along with local Latin genius Frank Leto, out-of-towners Gerald Ross and Andy Andrews and the Desert Stars Polynesian Hula and Tahitian Dance Troupe. Rather than play separate sets, we played together, and it was a rich night of music with lap-steel, steel drum, bass, drums, percussion, trumpet, kazoo, and lots of ukulele.

Musicians never truly “retire,” but I know I will move back one day, with my ukulele, to sing my final chorus al fine. When I do, I know that this time, I will not be alone.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

(T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”
from “The Four Quartets”)



PLAY Santa Fe Ukulele & Social Club
Meets 1st and 3rd Mondays, 6–8 p.m.

SHOP The Candyman Strings & Things
He’s the man who has everything…

EAT The Shed
Red-chile blue-corn cheese enchilada plate with an egg on top and a silver coin margarita

Red enchiladas from El Patio.


PLAY High Desert Sand Fleas
“Embarrassment is our best friend”
Meets 2nd and 4th Thursdays, 6–9 p.m.


SHOP Music Mart
Full line of instruments and music with family-friendly workshop and performance space 

EAT El Patio
Green-chile enchiladas (chicken or vegan) with a draft Negro Modelo michelada


PLAY Las Cruces Ukes
Loaner ukes available. Meets every Thursday, 5:15–8 p.m.

SHOP Hubbard’s Music-N-More

EAT Nopalitos
Green enchilada mini-combo with sour cream and iced tea