Thursday, February 16, 2017

Well ok, maybe. One day. The serendipity and journey of Yes!

The koels are singing their dawn chorus. Should I stay? Is it now warm enough to stay here all year round? Or should we all gather and fly north to overwinter again? What do you think comrades? Not yet. But maybe. One day. Yes.

2009 – a phone call – brrr brrr. brrr brrr. Hello? Do you teach ukulele? No. Why do you ask? I've been thinking of it. Oh! Someone in Sydney said I was thinking about it? Well. Maybe. One day. Soon. Ok. Yes.

2010 – We have been invited to go and perform at the Hawai'i Ukulele Festival. Jaw drop. Can you come? No. Can't afford it. Here. We'll help out a bit. Really? Well. Ok. Yes.

2010 – Considering our options. Maybe when we go to Hawai'i we should go to Canada and learn ukulele teaching from James Hill? Yes!

2011 – A pub in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Loud New York accent. Hey, Mr Loud Sock Man! Why don't you and your girlfriend come and sit over here and have dinner with us? Ok. Yes.

2011 – Same people, next day, same city, different question. We played them a song or two. You guys are great! Next year will you come to Mendocino? Our town! Play concerts! We have friends! Gee?! Really? Well. Ok. Yes.

2011 – Same country, different place, different people. Did a cafe gig. You guys are great! Here! Have $2 or 10c. This sucks. We can't earn money like this. It's too expensive to live and not enough money to eat. Let's do workshops instead. Yes.

2012 – Mendocino. Good workshop. Other towns too have said yes to us in our travels. There is a folk music camp you should check out here. Lark. You should ask if you can do it. We did. They said no.

2013 – We ask Lark again. No.

2014 – Yes.

2015 – Yes.

2016 – Yes.

2017 – Da-a-ad? Can you put up my friends for a night? They are really nice. Yes.

North Country Fair
Friends – there is this really wonderful festival – you should try and do it. It's up near the Alberta tundra. Yes. And then yes. They said Yes.

Campouts, festivals, uke groups, concerts. Slowly more people are saying yes to us. And we are saying yes to ourselves.


Friday, January 27, 2017

Ko te take o tenei hui, ko ukureretanga

Tony Hansen of Taranaki, delivering his mihi. Me squinting in the sun next to him.
My 'normal' sleeping pattern must be returning after shaking off the two hour earthly time shift  disjunction - otherwise known as jet lag. The trucks on relatively quiet State Highway 2 have started at 3:30am and the wind has turned a cold hauwhenua off the highlands near Rotorua. Quite the change from the āwhā that has been blowing for 2 days.

I'm awake, and thinking about our mahi just finished, with a new cuppla days chapter beginning at dawn.

"Have you been learning te reo?" someone kindly asked me.

No, I replied, but I know and I have a good friend who has helped me.

(So, I respectfully ask the reader to refer to that Maori dictionary. Words are life and culture, and English translation does not always do the Maori way of thinking justice. But language and translation is the only poor cousin we have in the absence of growing up at the feet of a kaumatua).

Singing our waiata at the Festival pōwhiri
My whaikōrero at the opening pōwhiri of the Opotiki Ukulele Festival went so well. I was congratulated my many people, and others commented that our welcoming tangata whenua were most pleased with my mihi. As they say, in the old days, a pōwhiri was about deciding whether you would meet or eat the visitors. Thank goodness my mihi went well, for I was keen to settle down the bloke whose hands were shaking with visible anger. His wiri was calmed by our waiata.

As mentioned in the blog preceding this, it is the ukulele that has brought us here. That wee instrument and the music we create with it is a catalyst that gives us new experiences and new stories.

Welcome to the Torere Marae

Kiri, at home on her marae
Yesterday (Monday after the Opotiki Ukulele Festival) we were caught off guard. Quite a few Ukestralians had left, and were not able to make the planned pōwhiri to be welcomed onto the Torere Marae, the home of Kiri's ancestors. As it turns out, a tangi bumped our greeting ceremony, and so the Monday pōwhiri was cancelled.

You cannot (thankfully) predict death, and as we've found out many times at the bowling clubs we frequent in Newcastle, a wake takes priority over a ukulele jam session.

Nevertheless, we were able to visit Kiri's brother's property, and see her lands. About 30 of us hopped into 5-6 cars and drove to the boundary te whenua o Ngatai. I had a thrilling swim diving through the flying and floating pebbles of a massive shore break at Hawai (note the missing i). I was told later that no-one swims here. Too dangerous and lotsa sharks. Meh. I'm a Merewether boy. Kiri's hunter-extraordinaire nephew Matt watched me with wry bemusement. Is he ok? Kiri asked. Matt watched for a while...doesn't matter, he's the neighbouring tribe's problem now, he's floated across the boundary.

A large shore dump dwarfs me. Click photo
Prior to that personal challenge we all tentatively and uncomfortably gathered on the other side of the road from the marae, observing from afar. Kiri wandered across the road and spoke to Auntie Muriwai and we were welcomed to stand in the gateway on the same side of the road as the marae. Muriwai welcomed us, saying how unfortunate it was about the tangi bumping our pōwhiri, and the sadness their community was feeling about the passing of one of the iwi. She did mention that the tangi had not yet begun because a lot of the people were in Whakatane with the body.

Whilst this was happening an old bloke in a hi-vis orange vest was wandering around up near the marae house. Must be the maintenance man I thought. Muriwai walked up and chatted to him, and then they sat in the seat outside the marae house. Not just any seat. The seat. A shuffle of panicked whispering went around the group. They sat in the seat! Muriwai started to sing a karanga. It's on!

So we gathered into our pre-ordained order, women at the front, men at the back, and walked ceremonially up the path to the marae. One of our other members is also a Maori woman (as of course is Kiri), she started sobbing and was supported by her sister and a uke friend from her Australian home. The import of these ceremonies and the culture is so encompassing and present, and for the second time in the weekend I had to wipe away tears in relation to this aspect of our 'ukulele festival'.

Uncle Rangi (photo by Bob Beale)
When we got up to the front of the marae we sorta didn't know what we had to do. Back to those seats over there! Auntie Muriwai and Uncle Rangi (a very safe 40 metres away) gave us no clues as to what we should do, but Kiri and Matt tried to herd us pakeha cats into the appropriate protocol. Sit down! Sit down!

So we sat on the grass.

No! No! Get off the grass!!!! On the seats! John! Sam! Harry! Get off the grass! On the seats! Matt was whispering in an agitated voice.

Finally corralled into our seated order (men at the front, women at the back), Uncle Rangi began to speak in Maori.

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou kotoa.

As with any formal speech, it went on for a while, albeit this time in a language few of us understood. But it gave us time to come to our senses, and to recall what our obligations were as a visiting tribe.

Koha! More panic,... Koha?! Koha? The whispers go around the group. Has anyone brought in any money? Nope. Phones, cameras, no money. We have to put a koha on the other side of the path when we have finished our mihi!

Uh oh....

A mihi. That'd be me. Can I remember it? (No. No recall).

Hang on. My top pocket? Piece of paper. Oh. Phew. I just happen to be wearing the right unwashed shirt. It's there.

More whispering and furtive glances whilst Uncle Rangi continued - Hey Matt! (sitting next to me), I've got my mihi.

Kiri's nephew, Matt, on the path to the marae
Give me a look....

... That's really good! Do it!

And so, for the second time in our travels here, I deliver my mihi. And then I deliver the cobbled together koha from one or two people with wallets on person. Wrapped in an unsightly piece of scrap paper. I wander respectfully towards our opposing tribe, and gently place the koha on their side of the path. But we are not yet done.


This is where many ukulele players would come unstuck. I don't have my music! Or my lyrics... But here we were, spontaneous tourists with no ukes in hand.  More importantly, no-one has any sheet music or lyrics to look at. We just sang. Enough people knew the words to cover those who mumbled their way through. But they knew the tune. Without ukes or sheet music people just concentrated on singing, on feeling the song, on opening up and experiencing the gravity of this ceremony and our offerings. It was wonderful.

We don't have any worthwhile recordings of our waiata, but there is always this version, with a karanga.

Our cultural obligations complete, we lined up for the traditional post-pōwhiri hongi, and then as
Jane greets Ngaio as tangata whenua at the festival powhiri. Not quite a hongi, but close!
tangata whenua, we were granted a tour of the marae and the church. Nervous tangata whenua, but tangata whenua nevertheless. And other than the currency of folding stuff I placed on their side of the path, our currency was music. Waiata. Let's sing. If only there were more of it.

Rosina and Sue on Kiri's brother's back verandah.

Thanks to Tony Hansen from Taranaki for my mihi,

And to Sue, Jane, Penny and Bob for photos. And thank-you to Kiri Hata for welcoming us into her community and tangata whenua.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

It's not about the ukulele. But it is.

We have our final Ukestralia rehearsal in Australia today. We'll do a couple of rehearsals when in Opotiki as well, but the Australian buck stops here today. We are furiously rehearsing our music with our chosen talking sticks - the ukulele. 

The uke is what brings us together, and shows us ways to move beyond the original catalyst of 'ukulele'. Whilst it is just an instrument - which so many people have taken up - it is also our ticket to embrace a wider world of music and related experiences. 38 of us travelling from Newcastle to Opotiki, creating new stories for us to tell our children and grandchildren. Stories that we make, and that we tell.

This Ukestralia trip to an obscure small town in New Zealand's most easterly region came about because of Kiri Hata. Kiri is a Ngai Tai woman who lives in Newcastle and is a very active member of the Ukastle Ukestra. Kiri said 'come visit my tangata whenua'. A lot of ukestrans said 'awesome'. And so we are crossing the ditch.

The Opotiki Ukulele Festival is shaping up to be something rare in the world of ukulele festivals. It is more than ukulele and music making. It is very much about cultural exchange. Many Australians admire the prominent place of Maori culture in New Zealand life. Australians and New Zealanders (Aussies and Kiwis) are very close siblings. But the kiwis, and their relationship with the land and its people, reminds us of how far we aussies have to go to have a respectful and more integrated relationship with our land and its indigenous people. We look forward to learning.

We are being welcomed into this community through the common language and connection of music, and I am honoured and privileged to have been asked to do the mihi for us Australian visitors at the powhiri. These are rituals at which I will no doubt demonstrate my clumsiness and ignorance, (especially when speaking and singing in reo), but I will do my best. 

For years our ukestras have sung and played Pokarekare Ana - many Australians remember it from school radio in the 1960s and 70s. Like an oaf, I have counted this song in jauntily, and too fast. Our performances are nothing like this one here! If you have ever been a tourist in Aotearoa (the other name for New Zealand), for instance at Whakarewarewa in Rotorua, then you will have heard this beautiful love song performed. We have also sung and picked the national anthem, God Defend New Zealand, just because it is a good song. But for this visit Kiri has suggested we perform a more contemporary song in reo, and we seem to be doing a good job of it (for a bunch of aussie pakeha). We shall see. We shall see.

The ukulele has brought us together as a community in Newcastle, Australia. And now as a music-making community we are able to reach out to others of similar persuasions and enjoy each other's company and learn more, and experience more.

So it is about the ukulele. And it isn't. What joy and experiences making music can bring.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Apply Learning From Ukulele Yoda I Can!

Titanic Struggle #1: Maggies Defending Home

Maggie. RIP.
Ukestra this morning was witness to a titanic struggle. We are blessed to be in the beer garden at the local club, once a week, and the bushland across the carpark is home to beautiful animals, kangaroos and birds alike. Butcherbirds, koels, tawnies, magpies et al. Because of a recent adoption (and subsequent death), I have a renewed fondness for maggies. But clearly magpies have no fondness for goannas.

The goanna was on a mission. Eat a baby magpie from a nest on high. The troops were screechingly warbled in from all neighbouring territories, and despite the best snapping efforts of maybe a dozen hysterically community-minded maggies, the goanna retrieved its lunch.

The classic Tawny Frogmouth pose: You can't see me! I'm a tree!

Titanic Struggle #2: Student Retention

In the beer garden I had an equally titanic struggle. Prevent someone giving up in disappointment.

It's too hard! I don't understand what you mean by 'riffs', they opined.

All this time, and I didn't know that this was their aspiration, and with what they struggled. If they had said nothing, then I would be none the wiser when the day came that they were inexplicably 'no longer there' .

But this word came at just the right time - before I had planned the class (let's face it, I rarely plan). And so, in 15 seconds, I had formulated a plan of attack to retain and teach. To take the teachable moment by the horns.

No! Don't distract the class on my problems! They plead.

There are no silly questions. I comforted. If you are asking about this, others are bound to be. Some could do with the revision.

And so the pentatonic and My Girl came into the class plan at the last moment. And it worked a treat. Tentative learner retrieved. Students revised. Loose ends gathered. Until the next time.

Wisdom of the 30-Something Year Old

Learned from Ukulele Yoda in these last two months, one thing I have. This, it is.

A good teacher, what makes. hmmmm? ... the Wise One a class full of teachers ask.

A cascade of advice emanated from the Gathered Padawans. Be Observant! Be Well Resourced! Be Skilled! Know Your Scales! And on...

Yes.Said He ...but...this the nub of the good teacher be.

Be Prepared for Anything.

Good one Oh Wise One. Good. One.

And no. There is no good connection back to the magpie story. That's it. End of story.

Except - isn't that a beautiful tree? --- >

The Tree of Yoda

Monday, September 26, 2016

I'll have a Cabin and a Wombat Thank-you - Rosewood Folk Music Camp 2016

Picture this...arriving at Folk Music Camp and finding your assumed 'shared cabin' with unknown others is actually just for you two, and it's got an ensuite to boot. On the strength of this alone, I consider my 2016 teacher experience at Rosewood Folk Music Camp a rampant success.

Listen to a rehearsal whilst you read.

Add to that a wombat and 160 ukulele players and it was a crazily good weekend. I've written about Victoria's folk music camps before but this was a new high.

Rosewood is September-tucked in a valley of the Strathbogie Ranges (Central Victoria) at Charnwood Bush Camp (an old private school camp with various camp-type things – a zip line, canoes, wildflowers, kangaroos and a tame wombat).

Intermediate class
We were hired as the 2016 ukulele tutors, and for us it is a pilgrimage back to the Australian heartland of community music. Despite all of the competing and fascinating alternatives to our workshop (Instant Band, Youth Band, Whistle, Fiddle, Ensemble), our classes attracted record numbers.

Our first programmed session was 'intermediate ukulele'. That was crowded out in a small tent with 60 people. We complained to each other that the committee had programmed our venue in error. The small tent couldn't contain the 60 intermediates, and we were pretty sure that putting us in the large marquee for a beginners session was surely overkill. We couldn't get more than 60.
Beginners class, including tanbark covering some vomit.
100 came to the beginners session. Ouch.

What we know we do well is to get beginners and intermediates to a level where they can mutually support each other in an engaging and uplifting performance. We clearly achieved that, after a total of only two sessions each. We came together in a full-throated, harmonised uke-riff driven, strum-supported inclusive singalong.

But it is the first time ever that we have included a wombat in our performance. We highly recommend it, although they are rather short.

Every Band Needs a Wombat

The wombat had been hanging around camp all weekend. Chasing children (really just trying to attach to a new mother) and seeking food. At the evening concert it thought it would like to be one of the 300+ people crammed into the marquee for Sunday night's climax. Weaving between chairs, tripping people up, and occasionally making unauthorised crossings of the stage.

In the corner of the marquee a space had been allocated as a crashpad for small children to snuggle up in the cold in their sleeping bags. At one stage a parent was seen hauling said wombat out to an appropriate bush or dugout, but it just came rushing back into the warmth and fervour. Understandably what sane wombat wouldn't prefer sharing a toasty sleeping bag with a small child on a cold spring evening.

It came our turn to perform two songs, with 160 ish people. We told most of them to stay in the audience, and just to perform from there, but we got a few key players, riffers, singers and children (who wanted their turn in the sun) up on stage. It was mayhem, crowded, and glorious.

Our performance ended and we milled our way off stage, except for one teenager who remained reluctant to get up from his position next to a foldback speaker. The wombat had crawled into his lap and fallen asleep, an ukulele perched in front, strumming or riffing for the performance, surrounded by a wall of (apparently comforting) sound.

Comes a time when we have to leave our mumma

Jane with a wombat
Difficult to pack with a wombat
Next morning everyone packs and leaves. I went down to reception to finalise things with the committee and they were packing up, complaining that the little rascal was still around. I shunted him/her outside, providing a rather certain foot in the bum to get outside. Not hurtfully, just insistently. They did. But then a new problem began.

Are you my new Dad/Mum/Foodsource? The wombat galloped up with me to our bunkhouse, like a good dog at heel, into the cabin and the delighted arms of Jane, other adults and children.

This never happened at Lark. But this is Australia, not the USA. Wombats, not human-maiming bears.

What a great weekend.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Just sing. Everyone can do it.

It is difficult to highlight one person over another, but it is a privilege to watch a voice blossom. Yes we are ukulele teachers, but the uke allows us to sing. The goodness of our work was highlighted for me last night when the Jukestra performed at a school function.

I have taught Meabh since she was 7 or 8. She has always wanted to sing, and kept trying, but never quite got it, not quite the pitch, not pure or strong or confident enough. Even a year ago her lack of confidence wouldn't let her voice out in public. But this year it has started to emerge, and last night everyone went WOW!

For me this moment was the culmination of listening to the student and of conveying basic vocal technique. But the most basic attribute that I bring to that student-teacher relationship is the belief that everyone can sing, (at least in some style - think Tom Waits). It is my role, as teacher, to hold that belief for the student until they know within themself..

For me successful singing is about expressing our love for life. Fame, fortune, "The Voice" can hold no candle to that.

Just sing. It is good for you. And everyone can do it.

Well done Meabh, you inspire me.


Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What is the future of Ukulele Festivals? Feckless?

I wonder if Ukulele Festivals will ever grow up? Folk Festivals have grown and morphed over the decades. Some have even got out of control and lost their original feel, but at their kernel, they are still Folk Festivals – celebrations of the diversity of music expressed by communities. And they're still around.
Ukulele Festivals are a different kettle of fish, all seeming to have elements of the following:
  • some sort of skill development smorgasbord;
  • a celebration of the nascent performing skills of hundreds of (mostly retired, but some children) amateurs in their fabulous newly formed large uke-focused friendship groups;
  • a few wonderfully, quirky, and competent duos or ensembles;
  • singular stellar highly paid professional international performer outshining everyone and adored by the few hundred attendees. 
How on Earth can Ukulele Festivals grow up? How can they appeal to a wider audience? How can they be sustainable beyond and through this Precambrian epoch of Tiny Tim novelty?

SPRUKE – the 2015 Brisbane Ukulele Festival 

Hard, fast, built to impress – this seemed the mode of choice for the Festival Organisers choosing their stellar ONE at SPRUKE. Aldrine Guerrero was certainly that. I'd not really heard of him before, but his chops were extraordinary, and he seems to be reaching out (and achieving) the Jake stars.

Where does that leave us? With an ukulele in hand, can we only aspire to these unachievable stellar heights, or must we remain true to the singalong set, yet stuck in musical reverie? Where does this dichotomy leave the rest of us, the Jacks n Jels of this world? This is where our morning-after conversation went.

Virtuosity? Or Canvas 

Jane asked, do you think you are better on the trumpet or the ukulele?

A strange, but useful question!

First answer – trumpet. I know my scales and arpeggios, I have a good ear for melody, I have a nice tone (when I get the right notes). I just know the instrument better, and have been playing it longer. But nevertheless, I am no master. I've only been mistaken once for James Morrison (when I was 18, and he was 18, and the case of mistaken identity only lasted as long as it took to purse my lips and blow my horn). So yes, I can solo better on the trumpet, and there aren't too many of them around, (especially at ukulele festivals). I have a certain advantage there.

But if I want a canvas upon which I can paint a much broader performance, then the uke is clearly my drug of choice. I could be talking about a guitar, or an accordion, or banjo, but for portability, adaptability, and airport security, the ukulele tromps all over those aforementioned instruments.  So the uke is my preferred canvas. It allows me to be a better musician and performer than does the trumpet.

Jack n Jel - painting on a four string canvas

Its perfection for this purpose was no better displayed than in our Jack n Jel SPRUKE set on Sunday. We stumbled quietly through our first selections – a song of the old western trails in the US, nice harmonies, demure and obscure that didn't belt anyone over the head with prowess, noise, volume or known nostalgia. However, what we do best is facilitate collaboration. Jane is crook, and so we shanghaied Anu Grace, a beautiful professional singer and uke teacher from Townsville, press-ganged into singing My Baby Just Cares for Me. She has a supple and sublime voice, and a humble yet powerful performance presence (assisted ably by some well place dimples). She's adorable, and we were able to shine because she shone so wonderfully. We were a great combo for the song.

But the trio was only possible because we - Jack n Jel (we are still looking for a permanent name) - are a good solid duo, who hold the responsibility for the message that WE want to convey, most often with an ukulele.

There is much applause for Anu and then we were permitted to easily return back to duo mode. We well acquitted ourselves with some great and diverse originals from Jane (how much more diverse can you get than a slide blues on a baritone in banjo tuning, and then a 7/8 Balkan inspired tune about refugees?), and then my cute fictionalised account of our meeting and falling in love.

The Final Sweep of the Brush from the Palette 

We finished with a feckless (the word of choice for right wing Australian politicians last week) and sparse number – Peggy Lee's (and Jessica Rabbit's) 'Do Right Man' – a song that allows the dubious couple dynamic between man-woman/Mark-Jane to be well mined. On Sunday the mining struck pure gold.

Set up with just two ukes - a baritone doing a rather restricted falling bass line, whilst my concert uke did some repetitive arpeggiated thing with some fiddly bits when permitted. The story painted over this is of a feckless (such a good word, it deserves repeating) man for which a duped (and, may I say, stupid) woman has fallen. It's a great song, and Anu apparently knew it, because pretty swiftly she came onstage to add something. She was more than welcome, although unplanned and utterly spontaneous.

Great. I now had two powerful women telling me to go out and get a real job. Just what a muso needs – two whinging, whining wailing women. Nothing for it but to pick up the trumpet and try to get a real (non-ukulele) job. We ended up sparring, wailing, whinging and whining at each other, two women and a hammered man with a horn shoved in his gob yelling, whining and whinging back. It worked a treat. I have never felt more berated yet musically powerful. From all reports the performance was like  stumbling into a smoky New York jazz bar (well, maybe not 'all reports'. But that was how one well-travelled woman praised us afterwards).

And all courtesy of some well crafted glued together pieces of wood hosting four taut strings. This is the canvas that allows us to musically paint and travel, whether it be across the globe, or from bedroom to lounge. A guitar would get in the way, often sonically too.

The Ukulele Siren is calling

The uke does not call us to be virtuosic. It calls us to participate, to come together, to express ourselves. It offers itself as a musical canvas for these things. What we need to learn is not always to expect that we are going to strum our hearts out. At times we can arpeggiate them, to alternate, to put in dynamic, to leave space for our whinging and wailing to be expressed. We need to leave room for this, midst our apparently interminable and unavoidable ukulele happiness.

Apparently the purpose of writing a good article is to answer one's first posed question. I'm not so sure I can do that, for only time will tell. But I do know that I want uke festivals to continue doing what they set out to do, but also to leave room for diversity of performance, and to encourage other instruments to be a part of this welcoming family. Perhaps we should more overtly recognise its role as a canvas, rather than as an objective in itself. It is, after all, predominantly about the music and the community it creates.

It is not about the instrument.

Leave that to the shakuhachi festivals.