A ukulele is not a toy. A large part of the world may think otherwise, casting the instrument off as nothing more than a four-stringed novelty worthy of the toy chest, yet a few minutes of killing time on the internet will reveal the instrument’s multigenre use and growing number of players who range from beginners plunking out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to seasoned veterans knocking out The Beatles or Beethoven.
Durango is well aware of the instrument’s place in the world of music, so much that it supports an annual festival every summer with The Rocky Mountain UkeFest, while also hosting two workshops happening each fall and spring, along with monthly ukulele jam sessions held at Four Leaves Winery and The Billy Goat Saloon. Credit the local uke movement to Denise Leslie, who got the ball rolling five years ago when she purchased a ukulele to get herself back into music. Soon after, she organized the first ukulele jam and has since become the “mayor” of Durango’s ukulele community.
“Twenty-five people showed up, and more than 70% had never played,” Leslie said. “But they had gone out and bought a ukulele or had one stashed away in a closet somewhere. And that is how the ukulele craze began in Durango.”
The Rocky Mountain UkeFest’s fall workshop will wrap up Saturday with a performance by UkeFest instructors Daniel Ward and Heidi Swedberg at The Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College. Part of the venue’s “Artists You Need to Know Series,” these are shows where both performer and patron are all kept on the stage, turning the venue from large concert hall to intimate club.
Together, the duo make up a solid combo for an event that features both musical education and entertainment. Ward’s musical history includes playing flamenco, jazz and rock on both the guitar and ukulele, while Swedberg, a former actress most notable for her role as “Susan” on Seinfeld, left Hollywood behind to focus on ukulele instruction around the country.
Forget what you may know or think you know about the ukulele, as the duo moves the instrument and its ability in a direction far away from the simple strumming and the musical kitsch that was set by Tiny Tim. Ward and Swedberg will be joined on stage by Jim Belcher on bass and John O’Neal on percussion, rounding out a band that will explore jazz and world-beat music, as well as putting a ukulele take on acoustic folk and rock. Their stage show reveals their own love of the instrument, its history, and the music written and performed by some of their predecessors. You’ll likely hear Hawaiian music dating back decades as much as you’ll hear cuts from the classic rock canon. But while it’s very much a musical performance, the duo is touring ambassadors of the instrument while promoting its infectious nature.
“The great thing about the ukulele to me is the community that just sprouts up around it, and it seems to inspire a true joyful spirit that is shared with all ages,” Ward said.
“One of the things I love about ukulele is it promotes shamelessness. I mean that in the best way,” Swedberg said. “I think too often we are held back by our shame, and not being ‘good enough.’ Music-making is an important part of being human, and giving yourself permission to do so is empowering. The little ukulele, with its unintimidating accessibility, is a great tool to open and let loose. With groups of enthusiasts cropping up in every town, and ukuleles available at public libraries, they have raised their profile. People are hungering for repertoire and instruction.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at email@example.com.