Ramona is not the place you’d expect to hear traditional Hawaiian music, much less on a ukulele.
But the Island-style songs are rapidly catching on, thanks to Karla Brustad, who has been playing the ukulele for the past decade and has created two ukulele groups.
First came The UkuLadies, a band of women who strum ukuleles at special events and club activities while their audience sings along.
Ukuladies got its serendipitous start six years ago when Brustad locked herself out of her car in the Ramona 99 Cents Only Stores’ parking lot. She recognized a woman, Nancy Taber, who was a member of the Ramona Garden Club, and asked her for a ride home.
After the ride, Brustad asked, “How can I repay you?” Taber said she’d love to take ukulele lessons from her. That led to Thursday sessions, and one by one more women were invited to the lessons.
“A lot of members from the Garden Club were the first to join,” Brustad said. “I’m grateful I locked myself out of the car because it’s really been a fun thing.”
Fast-forward to 2022. The UkuLadies just celebrated their sixth anniversary at Ramona’s Turtle Rock Ridge Vineyard Winery on Oct. 27.
While the UkuLadies were first bonding, many of their performances were for the Ramona Garden Club and they played a lot of suitable songs — “The Garden Song” popularized by John Denver, and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” by Marlene Dietrich.
Teri Schmidt was among the original UkuLadies members who joined as a way to learn new things and stay active — and she stuck with it.
“I thought that would be a great way to learn and I love music,” said Schmidt, a Ramona resident, who noted that musicians can play hundreds of songs by learning the basic four chords. “We never dreamed it would go on every week for six years, but it’s been a nice experience.
“I play anywhere from 5 minutes to 3 hours every day,” she adds. “When I get together with the girls It’s so much fun to be a part of the group.”
Schmidt said she enjoys sharing ukulele music with an audience, which has included Ramona Senior Center guests, members of the Ramona Woman’s Club and Ramona Republican Women of California – Intermountain club, and residents of Ramona Senior Manor before COVID.
“There’s hardly a song I can think of that I don’t like,” she said. “I like all kinds of music and all kinds of songs. It makes me happy.”
Not wanting to leave men out of the fun, Brustad organized her second band, The Ukulele Jammers, in April.
“I knew there was a need because I couldn’t find any groups that played ukuleles around here,” said Brustad, who has drawn men and women from Poway, Escondido, El Cajon and recently from Lakeside. “You’d have to go down the hill. So, I put the word out to see if there are any other ukulele players around here, and low and behold there are.”
The Ukulele Jammers meet every Saturday at the Ramona Community Library. Beginners take lessons from 10 to 11 a.m. and seasoned jammers practice from 11 a.m. to noon. Sometimes the experienced players help the newbies, with borrowed instruments and sheet music, Brustad said.
Anywhere from a dozen to 26 men and women come to the Saturday ukulele jam group, she added.
The Ukulele Jammers are gearing up for their first “Ukulele Hootenanny” performance at 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12, in Ramona Library’s Community Room. The singalong will feature folk songs from the 1960s and ’70s performed by band members dressed in retro attire. The free concert will include singalong tunes such as “This Land is Your Land” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Brustad said.
“They’re so pumped up to do this,” she said. “I knew they were ready. They all know how to play the instrument, it was just a matter of getting the songs together. I asked the librarian if we could perform anytime and she said, ‘Sure, let’s do this.’”
Alpine resident John Dawson said he is looking forward to performing at the Ukulele Hootenanny. Dawson grew up playing all types of instruments, but his favorite was the guitar. When he developed arthritis, he found that the ukulele was easier to play — lighter with fewer strings made of nylon instead of steel.
He has a custom-made ukulele by ukulele crafter Dave Harding, a friend who had coached golf with him at Julian High School for 20 years. Harding inscribed the ukulele with the words, “For my golf partner.”
Dawson heard about The Ukulele Jammers from a friend while having a group dinner at San Vicente Resort one evening. The woman who recommended the Ukulele Jammers wanted to join, but never did, he said.
“I enjoy playing with other people,” said Dawson, who joined the Jammers about six months ago. “I tend to be a hermit sometimes. It’s good to get out and play with other people. I play in a bluegrass band, and I know a lot of banjo players and they’re all nuts. I’ve known some banjo players who are real characters. I appreciate ukulele players because they are really friendly. When you play a ukulele you almost have to smile because it’s a happy sound.”
One of Dawson’s favorite songs to play on the ukulele is “Sunny Side of the Street,” written during the Great Depression era to cheer people up.
Brustad learned to play the ukulele after she retired. She asked her husband, Wes Brustad, what was the easiest instrument to learn to play.
Wes Brustad recommended the ukulele based on his expertise — he had been CEO of the San Diego Symphony for seven years, and had also led the Spokane Symphony and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Over the years he had played just about every instrument, his wife said, and before the couple married 52 years ago, Brustad had performed in the New Christie Minstrels folk group.
“He signed me up for ukulele classes at the Poway Adult School,” Karla Brustad said. “The first night I learned a song and sang, and I was hooked.”
The ukulele did end up being completely easy to learn.
“If I can learn to play it, anyone can learn to play it,” she said. “The instrument is not expensive and it’s so portable. You can carry it on the airplane, or you can go to a campfire and sing with a friend.
“It’s not a solo instrument. It’s to be enjoyed with others, that’s what really attracts me.”