Last updateFri, 29 May 2015 4pm

Local ukulele group continues to grow & thrive

A quick glance around Lake Chapala proves that the rich volcanic soil and great weather are the perfect combination for growing corn, onions, raspberries and squash. Who knew this area was also just right to grow enthusiastic ukulele players? 

The lakeside movement started with four expats ladies meeting to play their ukuleles on a patio. The sing-a-long they hosted in 2014 attracted others to pick up the small four-stringed instruments and learn to strum. Club Ukulele de Laguna (CUL) quickly outgrew the patio and moved to Restaurant Maria Isabel at the Ajijic Pier. The arrival of plucking and strumming snowbirds swelled the group to 24 (or more) at weekly meetings.

The first CUL members hoped to share the easy-to-learn instruments and the lifetime gift of music with the children of Ajijic. They each dropped a small weekly donation into a bank aptly named the “Pigelele.” With ukuleles relatively difficult to find in Mexico, and priced significantly more than their U.S. counterpart, members knew they needed more than a piggy bank to fund enough instruments for a class of kids. Donations from a well-attended Christmas sing-a-long were unexpectedly generous but even that was not enough to purchase one starter uke. 

Just as the hopes of a thriving kids’ program waned, the promise of more than a dozen new Ohana ukes grew from a seed planted by CUL founder Sheila Ruof months earlier during the West Coast Ukulele Retreat in California organized by retreat guru Elaine de Man. Ruof aimed de Man’s attention toward Ajijic as the perfect location for a January ukulele-Mexican cooking event for U.S. and expat players. De Man jumped on the bandwagon, signed up an ensemble of north-of-the-border retreat enthusiasts, and in a stroke of genius added professional ukulele instructors and expert cooks Daniel Ward and Heidi Swedberg. 

Next De Man turned to Louis Wu, the founder and owner of the Ohana Music Company. Wu’s factories produce a full range of musical instruments. He delights in putting instruments into the hands of children in low-income countries around the world. 

The discounted price of a beautifully crayon-colored Ohana ukulele was built into each participant’s cost for the Ajijic January Semana de Uke-Culinary Fiesta. The U.S. guests traveled to Mexico with their own instruments and they each carried another new uke for a local child. 

CUL members quickly redirected the contents of Pigelele toward paying the salary of Jose Eduardo (Lalo) Garcia Espinoza, a recent music school graduate with an irresistible personality and extraordinary talent for drawing the best efforts from children. 

The young director was the perfect choice for the newly founded Academia de Ukulele de la Ribera. The first handful of students started with Garcia Espinoza at the Auditorio de la Ribera in February. In six weeks the dozen students were playing well enough to perform several songs during a musical fundraiser.

By late May the group has grown to 30 students divided into beginning, intermediate and advanced classes. Thanks to the income from the fundraiser and to the generosity of a number of donors (including CUL members) and parents, there are enough ukes to go around … for now.

At this year’s West Coast Ukulele Retreat, de Man presented multiple sets of ukulele strings to Ruof for the Academia and then turned the stage over to Ruof so she could describe Ajijic’s grass roots program to the retreat attendees. Ward presented an Ohana tenor ukulele for Garcia Espinoza to Ruof. Ward, De Man and Swedberg were so impressed with Garcia Espinoza on their January trip to Ajijic that they conveyed the qualities and talents of the young director to Wu, who responded with the gift of the special instrument which carries a retail price tag of over 6,000 pesos. Made from mahogany, the tenor uke features a built-in electronic pickup and cut out design to facilitate the style of music Garcia Espinoza enjoys playing for fun. The plush-lined hard case is personalized with hand lettering which reads, “Lalolele.” 

The extraordinary crop of ukulele players continues to grow and prosper in the artistic environment of Lake Chapala. Watch for details of the new concert by the Academia members, currently scheduled for July.