BY KAREN PETERSON
If playing the ukulele stimulates your appetite for more, here’s a nourishing tip—find ukulele workshops that place as much emphasis on good food as good music.
“Enjoying good food and wine can equate to a passion for life, as does enjoying good music,” says Elaine de Man, a ukulele aficionado and organizer of the Wine Country Ukulele Festival in Northern California’s Napa County. “And who could be more passionate than someone who proudly plays one of the smallest and most often maligned instruments around?”
Indeed. And in this case, the response to those who have no clue about the joys of plucking the sweet little musical pineapple is pity: They have no idea what they’re missing.
Hot Times in New and Old Mexico
Ukulele players Heidi Swedberg and Daniel Ward, of Swedberg’s Sukey Jump Band, are among the uke professionals who are extending their performing and teaching talents beyond the more studious workshops to embrace, as Swedberg notes, “all the social elements of a really good party.” In their case, and in collaboration with de Man, the party entails Uke-Culinary Fiestas: strumming and cooking with a regional flair, held in the expat village of Ajijic outside Guadalajara, Mexico, and, new this year, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Both Swedberg and Ward hail from New Mexico, although life has taken them on grand adventures beyond the American Southwest. She’s an actress remembered for (or perhaps haunted by) her role in Seinfeld as George’s fiancée who dies; he’s an accomplished flamenco guitarist. But both remain smitten by the cuisine they grew up with. More specifically—what gives the food its oomph: chili. As Swedberg notes, “Chili is not a spice—it’s the main ingredient.”
It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that the uke-culinary fiestas are as hot as the prodigious number of chilies—red, preferably—in the food that attendees feast on. Accompanying the food and music workshops are special guests—including former Rolling Stone photographer Baron Wolman, whose vast portfolio includes images of Tiny Tim in his tip-toeing heyday—as well as outdoor excursions aimed at soaking up the local culture.
Last year in Ajijic, attendees found themselves playing an impromptu gig in the town plaza, which in turn attracted local mariachis. Combined, says Swedberg, “We rocked ‘You Are My Sunshine.’” Ward, on guitar, also jammed with the mariachis, and back at their lodgings, he led the players in ukulele renditions of flamenco and rhumba music.
“To hear the rhumba strummed on the ukulele was electrifying,” says Swedberg, who put together a Spanish songbook for ukulele as a souvenir. “The uke is an instrument, not a genre,” she reminds.
A Natural Approach
“People joke that it’s a food camp where we also play ukulele,” says Melany Berry, about her two annual ukulele events, Tunes in the Dunes and Uke Ohana Molokai. The latter is held at a picturesque, historic ranch in Hawaii, the former in a restored YMCA facility along a pristine, isolated stretch of the Oregon coast.
Playing and learning to play better are the points, and Berry, a ukulele player, caterer, and founder of Full Heart Productions, ensures that her guests get ample time to do both, thanks to a roster of teaching professionals filling the workshop schedule. But at Berry’s well-attended events, the twist is always on the natural side, food and otherwise.
In Oregon, attendees take a boat to get to the venue, then spend their days and nights pretty much “roughing it” at the old YMCA camp, bunking together and sharing a community bathroom. They’re also surrounded by nature’s finest offerings—scenic wooded inland trails, a sandy ocean beach.
Meals match the country setting, with the food sourced locally, from fish to organic vegetables. A sampling from last year’s menu included tuna with Berry’s “berryaki sauce,” carrot coriander soup, buttermilk biscuits with honey butter, and chocolate zucchini cake.
In Hawaii, Berry’s ukulele players stay at the Pu’u O Hoku (Hill of Stars) Ranch, tucked into 14,000 tropical acres on the eastern tip of the island. Much of the food served there is about as local as it gets: The ranch supplies the beef (and sometimes venison) and also the organic vegetables and fruit grown on the ocean-view property. In-between meals and workshops, attendees immerse themselves in Hawaii’s ukulele heritage, enjoying instruction, performances, and hula classes with Molokai recording artist and entertainer Lono.
Berry believes in the inspiration nature can evoke. “Experiences in nature, you leave with them in your heart, implement them in your lives,” she assures, and showers the same sentiment on the plucky instrument that makes these excursions happen. “The joy of ukulele is life transforming.”