Denise Leslie loves the ukulele. She loves its size and its tone. She loves its simplicity and the fact it’s an instrument where progress can be made by its player rather quickly. She loves the community that surrounds the instrument, groups of people eager to gather, learn and play. She also loves its price tag, as it remains an inexpensive instrument, accessible to many no matter what tax bracket.
Since taking up the ukulele, Leslie has spearheaded its growth in Durango, first by giving lessons to friends, to opening the Hideaway Ukulele Studio in the Smiley Building, to ultimately putting together Rocky Mountain UkeFest, the now annual ukulele festival that happens each summer in Durango. Rocky Mountain Uke Fest kicks off Thursday (July 7) with a performance in Buckley Park by Jack & The Vox and Company, followed by two days of ukulele workshops and performances at the Smiley Building. The festival will end with another performance on July 9 at the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College by the Rocky Mountain UkeFest All-Star Band, which features Victory Vox with Jack Maher, Aaron and Nicole Keim and Marnie Ward and Kevin Carroll.
If you go
WHAT: Rocky Mountain UkeFest, Durango’s annual ukulele festival featuring ukulele events throughout town.
WHEN: July 7-10.
WHERE: Venues include Buckley Park, Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College and Smiley Building.
MORE INFORMATION/TICKETS: Visit www.rockymountainukefest.com.
Leslie’s transformation into the “Uke Queen” of Durango began at a busy time in her life; knowing music had always been something that could ease her work stress, she started to hunt for an instrument. A visit to the old Canyon Music on East Second Avenue revealed that she couldn’t afford a new guitar, mandolin or banjo; the ukulele was recommended, and it fit her budget.
“It was a financial thing for me at the start, I needed music and I couldn’t afford a lot, and so I took that thing home, I had a cup of coffee every morning, and I just started strumming ‘My Dog Has Fleas’ and it just spoke to me,” Leslie said. “And it made me feel good and I just started playing and playing and playing and all my friends found out I was playing. And they wanted me to teach them. So that’s just how everything began.”
Seeing that there are uke fests around the country, Leslie knew that one could thrive annually in Durango. Next week’s festival is a mix of ukulele school with workshops and lessons during the day, while performances bookend the event, performances where the headliners will dispel any notion that the ukulele is a novelty instrument. Jazz, blues and rock and perhaps a rock ’n’ roll cover or two will be on display, all coming from a tiny, four-stringed instrument.
“You can play anything on it,” she said. “Everything is a ukulele song.”
For Leslie, it’s all about teaching people about the ukulele and creating community through the instrument, a community that continues to grow.
“During COVID, I did an online jam and had 50 people from all over the world show up,” she said. “Just to play the freaking ukulele!”
Newbies to the festival could be subject to Leslie’s two-minute challenge. It’s a test to get you to play your first song on the instrument, all in 120 seconds.
“I could pull out my ukulele and teach you a song within two minutes, and you’d be able to play Elvis Presley’s ‘Hound Dog.’ And it’s so easy,” she said. “I think that’s the joy of it and that’s what draws that community. I have students that have never played a musical instrument ever, but always desired to. They’re so excited the first time they play ‘You are my Sunshine,’ and are like ‘oh my god, I just did that’ and it’s so fun to watch that love and that joy, and that’s what drives me and keeps me going.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.