Friday, November 16, 2018

Vale Maitland Ukestra - Long Live the Pluckers!


Hello Ladies and Gents,

It's not you, it's me.


It is with sadness that I am letting you know that I have decided to stop doing Maitland Ukestra.
It's been 8 and a bit years. That's a significant portion of my life, and it's been a wonderful journey, both socially and musically. Maitland Ukestra / Paterson Pluckestra has been so integral to the evolution of our musical life in the ukestras, and to the initial thought that perhaps I could eventually make a living out of this lark.

April 2018
Reasons are numerous, but in the main it's probably about simplifying my life a little, away from the ritual of driving to Maitland from Fingal Bay every Monday. I will miss the drive, and I will miss the Monday night camaraderie shared over a schooner of black and a wealth of good musicians. It is gratifying (and one of my main goals) that many of you already get together on other nights of the week. But life continues to move on, and so I will.

Reflections and thanks...

I started the first ukestra in Newcastle exactly 9 years ago. By July 2010 I had started one in Maitland, and with that I felt my immediate financial life was more secure. It seemed like a bloody miracle.


The People

We've been through numerous supportive and notable characters.  I believe Evelyn would be the longest standing of the old guard, always quick with a quip and suggestions. Not long after that it was Bob, who of course departed our Hunter shores late last year. Bob became, and still is, a good friend.  But of course, as Alfred E. Neumann once famously said, "absence makes the heart grow fonder...of someone else who's around". And so space and time now separate us. Bob wrote and suggested many songs - some parodies (the immediately execrable Kurri Kurri Eleebana), and the originals (the unforgettable and eminently singable and prescient 'Today Might be the Day'). Most of these I took to other ukestras, often to be performed at various festivals. I also have Bob to thank for my wedding venue, where Jane and I got married 4 years ago (almost exactly!). It was a splendid affair, and we were privileged (with my two bridesmaid daughters) to spend our wedding night at Bob and Liz's.


After starting at the Grand Junction Hotel (lovingly often called 'The Junkyard') in 2010, in mid 2012 we decided that we might be better served by moving to Paterson. On Monday 29 October 2012 two or three fellas turned up at the Paterson Tavern after a swell weekend at the Newkulele Festival. I was notably absent, thinking I deserved a rest.  I think those might've been Chris, Trevor and Cameron. The first two have been real regulars, and the latter one very sporadic, but I still know his name and talents. All three gentlemen are fine musicians. I know I've taught some of them some things, but probably I've probably learned more from Trevor than he has learned from me...although he is still shit at filing. I recommend that you do NOT attend any of his purported "filing classes".


The move to Paterson brought us two locals, one perhaps more irregular than regular in more ways than one. Judy has been extraordinarily supportive and forthright in her own quiet way. Ian too, but in his own peculiar way. Rest in Peace Campbell, you are well missed.


Farley, the Kates, and the Kens have also been regulars, as have Ray, Neil, Lynne, Maurene, and Annita. Some irregulars to be mentioned would be Vicki and Virginia. We managed to avoid getting any health notice slapped on us, but this never prevented a few people leaving the planet during my 8+ years, the aforementioned Campbell, Doug, and the real estate agent whose name I cannot remember. On the more youthful end of the spectrum we've had Rosie and Kia, and let's not forget Liam who grew up into the Junkyard Family through the ukestra from age 14. When he attained his majority, he prioritised other allocations for his limited discretionary expenditure.

These are the notable long stayers. There have of course been a constellation of others, coming and going for whatever reasons. But one defining factor of Maitland Ukestra over the years has been the building of playing skills and some of the rich and gorgeous voices, some there from the beginning, others discovered, some delicate, some blowing your head off. I am grateful for the friendships and acquaintances I have made, and for the support and inspiration.


The Venues

Liss of the Junkyard - Christmas 2010 
I have to say thanks to Ben and Liss in particular, from the Junkyard. It truly is Newcastle's greatest pub. Shame it's not in Newcastle. They have been such a support to me, farewelling us with grace to Paterson, and then welcoming us back, ready for our second marriage, all being forgiven. Not that there was anything to forgive, other than poor lighting. It is very odd indeed that as I write this requiem for the Maitland Ukestra, I receive a life-changing note from Ben & Liss saying that they are terminating their two decade tenure as active creators of that most wonderful musical oasis. Gosh they'll be missed and we can only hope that their custodial mantle will be passed on with the reverence that is due.

Many ukestrans of yore will not forget our first big Christmas party at the Junkyard in 2010. Novocastrians caught the train up, filled the restaurant and partied as if they had never enjoyed playing music together before. Prior to the rise of the ukulele that was certainly true for so many people, so it was understandable that it was a party to remember.


Nicole at the Paterson Tavern was also very welcoming, for four years or something like that. I wonder if the same blokes are still gathering on the front verandah as they've apparently done for aeons.
A balmy November evening at the Paterson Tavern
My apologies for the length of this dissertation. Too long and too many C#dims for Errol, I suspect. I miss Errol, the original Patersonian curmudgeon. He is, of course, still playing music, but he turned to the dark side....those damn banjos.

The Performances

The Pluckers have impressed at each Newkulele Festival, and at Ukestra Showcases, and numerous local festivals (Planet Dungog being notable), not to mention a variety of local bashes. Who can forget a major festival performance where one recalcitrant member had to be dragged swaying from the bar to complete their performance duties. Our most recent performance at the 2018 Newkulele Festival was clearly our best. Such finesse. More important than the performances however, is the preparation leading up to these. For it is in these crucibles that friendships are found, and community is formed. Rehearsals and time together brings people together, makes you aware of the foibles of individuals, and affirms the reasons why you play music rather than live with them. No affairs have ever occurred (to my knowledge, or at least become public knowledge).
An evening at Evelyn's.
What Now?
As mentioned before, many of you already get together as musical compadres. And some of you come down to ukestras in Newcastle. You are of course welcome to do that, and any uketen credit you have can be used there. Ken and his crew at the village in Morpeth are also now having regular sessions, and U3A in Maitland with Anne Robinson I hear is a pretty vibrant community.

However Chris Robinson has agreed to be a contact person for those who wish to keep Monday nights going. No money is forecast to change hands. This is so gratifying, and I am grateful to Chris for instigating this. He, Ray and Trevor (and I suspect others) have taken it upon themselves to take initial musical responsibility for the continuation of Monday nights. Chris's email address is crob4884 @ bigpond . net . au if you wish to involved. May it go from strength to strength!


For those of you who wish to get a refund on any unused portion of their uketens, please just write and ask. Our database works wonders, so we'll have tabs on where you are up to, so just let us know.
Plans are still a little uncertain, but it seems like the final Maitland ukestra session will be 26 November, with a dinner out somewhere to follow on Monday 3 December.


I really am grateful for the support I have received in Maitland, and for the various communities that our work has coalesced over the years. My goal has always been to help people make music together. We've been extraordinarily successful in the Hunter, and of course I am proud of this.


The Maitland Mercury photo that kicked it off in 2010
But for now my direct work in Maitland is done. Keep making music together, it is good for you.


Much love (excessively gooey, I know),

Mark.

Friday, July 20, 2018

An Icelandic Ukulele Workshop - Í örmum mínum, ó herra

Vesturbæjarlaug neighbourhood hot pools

Vesturbær's Kristin

The pleasures of íslensku society are not immediately obvious, nor are the ways of surviving in this marginal climate. But our daily visits to Vesturbaejarlaug - our neighbourhood hot pools complex - gently reveal the nuances and beauty of their culture.

A young woman says hello as she hears my Aussie drawl talking to Ja-a-ane, walking the streets of the Reykjavik suburb of Vesturbær. Kristin has been to the tailor to drop off some clothes for mending (not everyone has an amazing seamstress mother like mine). We talk as we turn street corners to her stoop.

In that short conversation we learned a lot, for instance where Björk lives (literally a few doors up from our Airbnb). But more real, we learn about Kristin's job, how much people earn, how much rent they pay (kr200,000 per month for a family of four). Her job is paid well - maybe kr380,000 per month? That maths doesn't seem easy living to me, and I know a beer is about $10 Australian. But, she avers, if you talk to the locals you can find ways to reduce the cost of eating out with two for one offers etc.

Jane. Fame stalking.
I pretty much always have my sopranino ukulele in my daypack. It is a great passport to winning friends and influencing complete strangers. I pull it out, and we sing a song on her stoop, with her two boys (rough age of 10) shyly watching on. As a reward for our song, she gives us 2 beers! I drink one on the spot. So lovely of her. Nice beer too, with coriander touches. We said our farewells and head to Vesturbæjarlaug.

The Captain of the Icelandic Cricket Team - Jakob Robertson

At Vesturbæjarlaug I finally crack the conversational jackpot in the shallow pool. The oppressive and apparently eternal clouds/fog have broken and the temperature has soared to 14.7deg C. Lying completely flat out in the 30cm 36-38deg pool, I chip into an English conversation about having the power to change the weather. I had just watched Geostorm on the plane, so it was apropos.

Are you Australian I asked the young lad.

Yes. My mother is Icelandic, my Dad Australian. 

Jakob now lives here mostly, and is the captain of the Iceland Cricket Team. He is also off the next day to Estonia for a Rugby 7s match. It floored me when he said he had met Mal Webb and the Formidable Vegetable Sound System at a permaculture event in Iceland. Jakob, apart from being an obviously all round nice guy and sportie spice, said he was perhaps best known for a short youtube on Icelandic language.

It occurred to me that I didn’t need a uke right there in the pool to facilitate my social life, for that is one of the key functions of Icelandic geothermal pools. Not only are they healthful and pleasurable, they are the social centre of the culture, akin to the pub in England, or the cafe in Europe.

The Iðnó Ukestration Workshop

The venue, but not the setup.
Our Thursday evening workshop at Iðnó went very well, Not as many as we hoped - 11 - and people were immediately saying, you should charge twice as much next time. You see we failed to take into our exchange rate reckonings, that a steak in Iceland costs the equivalent of AUD$50. C'est la vie.

Our venue - Iðnó (the Icelandic letter ð is pronounced like it has a 'th' in it) - is Reykjavik's original lakeside theatre building, and now seems like an arty refuge. The building, and the culture harboured there, are welcoming and beautiful. and they were so pleased to host us. The people who come are mostly in their 20s/30s, with the youngest (and best English speaker and player) being 12 year old Matthias. We are grateful, humbled and a bit ashamed that we could not contribute more in the Icelandic language department, because pretty much every Icelander has English in their language repertoire. Takk!

The Reykjavik Ukestration Workshop was a first for us in many respects. There was no established ukulele group in Iceland to network with (Ukulele Reykjavik didn't seem to have much going on), and we had to fly in blind looking for a venue. Thanks to René from Iðnó for having faith in us, and to Facebook for $30 of worthwhile advertising.

Jane and I worked our teacher magic well, assessing people for 10 minutes or so. Who knows their chords? Who does not? Rhiannon is the great winnower of strummers from the beginners from the riffers. Jane took three beginners into the next room, whilst I was able to work my acolytes through riffs in You Never Can Tell, and introduce them to the pentatonic (as usual) with My Girl. Everyone came together at the end to play together and then to hear a few songs from us.
Folk from the Reykjavik Uke workshop

Like Scandinavians generally, most Icelanders speak English well. So we had no problem, but we are always aware of being what one of our bus drivers called ‘English Fascists’. English speakers expect all people to speak English. I get what he is saying. The wonderful babble of íslensku, between children riding their bikes, deep conversations in the laug, or workers picking up litter on the fjara - it reflects a strong culture of 350,000 people. People who have a language have a common culture. They share something non-speakers cannot. It is what creates our human richness, not only in language and culture, but in how we think about the world - for instance 50 names for snow or somesuch in inuit? I have great respect for culture and languages, but I wish we Australians also did as a people. England, ironically the great colonising ‘fascist’, is similarly blessed (as we found out) with enormous dialectical diversity - the sorority of the scouser, the brethren of the brummie.

Into My Arms, Oh Lord - Í örmum mínum, ó herra

We finish our evening performing three songs - a  quiet acoustic set with a respectful listening audience - always such a treasure. In the beautiful hall, this great community space, our voices and ukes echo expansively.

As often happens for me, I have an idea during a song; and as often happens for her, Jane knows nothing until I say something midstream. Let's get the audience singing the chorus in their language. Into My Arms is a standard of ours for maybe 9 years and there is a Spanish woman from Galicia there (she is a student at Reykjavik University) so we start with Spanish (because I figure we can probably manage it) - Entre mis brazos, oh dios. Entre mis brazos.  Everyone sings that quite successfully, including us.

But now for the more difficult one. Difficult for us. But not for anyone else.

Í örmum mínum, ó herra. Í örmum mínum.
The Icelandic PM's flat - one of those.

Home for conversation

At the end of the concert we disperse. It is 9pm. The sun sets in another two and a half hours, and our bags need to be packed for a 5:30am trudge to catch a bus to the airport. As we walk home with Gudrun (our Airbnb host who we invited to come to the concert) she casually points out an apartment block. The Prime Minister lives in one of those apartments.
Gudrun and Gunnar's loungeroom view

At home we sit around with Gudrun and Gunnar chatting until 11pm. This is the real Airbnb experience, struggling with language and exploring topics of mutual agreement and verve. One of the pressing questions I have is: why has Iceland suddenly become popular as a tourism destination? Presciently, I wrote about the reason in this very blog way back in 2010!! As they say, there is no such thing as bad publicity, and Eyjafjallajökull proved that point.

A key to successful society - the Third Place

Vesturbæjarlaug and the ukulele have been little windows of opportunity welcoming us into Icelandic life. In The Ukestration Manual we talk about the importance of community, and the role of 'third places'. The first is home, the second is work, the third is your local hangout - the surf club, the beach, the pub, the coffee shop, the club.

Or the hot pool complex. Or the ukulele group.

I started our 3 day Iceland trip with a Facebook whinge, as Jane and I were questioning WTF we even came here. But it has grown on us - this nation, culture and country -  courtesy of the third places that we have visited, and which we have even helped enrich.

In other countries we might’ve gone for a coffee or beer with our new uke friends post-workshop, but here the expense is just too traumatic. Perhaps we should’ve just gone for an eleven dollar pool visit?

Do the Icelanders need the uke, given they have their pools? Of course they do! This culture is sooo musical - nearly everyone seems to play in a band or choir.  The airplane tourism guff on the back-of-seat screen skites that something like 1 in 4 Icelanders have written a book, so they know creativity.

I mean, go figure, what are you going to do in those loooong nights? I imagine have sex and play music. But we all know which one of these two options is ultimately the least complicated and more enduring.

Opportunities and sustainability. The ukulele or the gun?

What bothered us for a long time when doing ukestration workshops in far flung places during the last 8 years, was a concern about what the actual legacy was that we were leaving behind. This concern lead to us write The Ukestration Manual in the hope of helping people create something more enduring than merely admiring the cuteness of the ukulele and learning a few chords or nifty riffs. For our aim, ultimately, is to help people foster community through people making music together.

But we do leave, for we go home. And so apart from writing the Manual, we have to leave sustainability for locals to achieve. And Icelanders seem better equipped than most to achieve that (one example of the strength of the society is that they are consistently ranked first on the Global Peace Index).

At the end of the concert one of the young women says - We run a festival here. Would you be interested in appearing at it? And there's the rub. It's all about the opportunities that climb in through the open window, simply because we are putting it out there.

Jotting these thoughts on an airplane high above Greenland brings to mind the choices we have, and how we can actively create what we do have. For how different would our opportunities be if we carried a gun rather than an ukulele; if we carried fear rather than hope and creativity.
High above Greenland - an appropriate place to ruminate about Iceland.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

A home away from home. The Third Place and boy we'll miss The Edwards

So what? A building burnt down.

But it wasn’t just a building. It was a place. It was somewhere that friends gathered, hosted by the friendliest staff who were focussed on service, fun and conviviality. That word – ‘host’ – is the key to describing what we lost when The Edwards burnt down. You can’t just have a building and say “let’s meet here”.

It needs someone in charge, someone who invites others to be a part of a space, to be a part of a feeling. This is so much what we need today – places that are focussed on community, on bringing people together; and that means ‘place-making’.

But they don’t just get ‘made’ - it is key people who give them their life, who create living vibrant welcoming spaces for others to enjoy. Chris Johnson and Chris Joannau did that with The Edwards, and this is what we lost. Jacqui Lappin does the same at the Carrington Bowling Club. Welcoming visionary individuals are critical to creating welcoming spaces.

We seem to do the same with the ukulele - Come together and play! Make friends! Be a part of a community. That is our job. We’ve had a great synergistic relationship with The Edwards for over a year now. We’ve felt welcomed and invited by the different spaces. We’ve even felt inspired to come up with new ideas, like the One Song Sing. It is the spaces, and the combination of people that have inspired us, and that is what we have lost.
A One Song Sing at The Edwards
We do so hope that The Edwards can rise phoenix-like. We really do, and we hope that we can recreate that good Edwards feeling that so many felt in our ukestra there.

Toby, pup and chef at The Hop
Meanwhile we are making a new home for Thursday nights at The Hop (still, I believe, called The Hop Factory), in Darby St. It has the right vibe, but most importantly, it has the right host. Toby Wilson was the first person to invite us to The Edwards and to say – Hey! Pull up a chair! Relax! Why don’t you play some uke here? In some ways he started it at The Edwards for us. But in April he left The Edwards and took over at The Hop Factory. Toby and family (yes, ukestra teacher/leader Kathy Wilson is his mum) pulled out all stops at the last minute two weeks in a row in June to make us welcome at The Hop. So we reckon it will be a good substitute for The Edwards. Here’s hoping all the ingredients are there to sound good and feel snuggly.

I’ve written this somewhere above the bloody North Pole, on the Great Circle Route from Edmonton, Canada, to London, England. Strange.

Both Jane and I look forward to returning to Thursday nights at The Hop in mid July, after our ukestration sojourn in the Northern Hemisphere.

If you are wondering why we are so passionate about these things, we’ve just written about it in our Ukestration Manual. This is one of the key things that drives us. For the curious, here is an extract from Page 11 of The Ukestration Manual.

Vale The Edwards. Rise again! Long Live The Edwards!

++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Creating a ‘Third Place’

We all have two main places in our lives. The first is home, the second is work. These two places are very specific in their roles, and in what they expose us to. The rules of engagement are relatively well defined and the expectations of opinions and behaviours are equally regulated.

Third places are different. In his 1989 book The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, Ray Oldenburg describes third places as essential to a vital community life. These are places and venues where social equality is promoted and informal supports are provided to the individuals and communities that form there. Unfortunately modern society has lost many third places – churches, community halls and clubs, for example – places that were once the heart of a community’s social vitality.

Third places need two principal features to work well – a physical venue and social interaction. The venue is important for the comfort and familiarity it provides. However, a catalyst, activity, ritual or habit is essential to ‘activate’ a space. Therefore, if a weekly ukulele session can be the catalyst for coming together, this is a positive legacy of the work of a community musician. But we still need a tangible space for this ukulele-focused third place.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

If you are a uke teacher/leader, we are certain that your teaching and leadership would benefit from having a copy of The Ukestration Manual, available now for electronic download from www.ukestration.com

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Ukulele – a catalyst for engineering and climate changing fun.

The Coquihalla Highway hums every now and then in the distan... …aargghhhHHHHHh NO! It’s another damn mosquito. It’s not the Coquihalla at all. It is, instead, the #1 Mosquito TransCanada Highway that seems to have its final destination in our bedroom.

Take a ticket mozzies, there's a queue
The romantic lives of the gratefully hospitalitalised ukulele teacher. (Hospitalitalised? That’s the right word? No? Where people generously give you hospitality whilst you are on the road? Diminishing your costs and increasing your friendship networks?).

We are at (WHACK!) peace by Lac Le Jeune for a cuppla days, the bedroom (THWACK!) views are exquisite, the piles of food veritably (THUMP) cornucopian. We don’t know where the (OOMPH!) bastards are (BANG!) coming from but they continue un (OOMPH!) a (F&*^%&^&%G) bated (BASTARDS!) with the glorious dawn (that started at 3:30am in our south facing bedroom).

Dawn starts at 3:30am - here is a... 
....series of photos at different times...
But we aren’t the only ones blessed with this bounty of gnat sized bird food. The pine trees here were blessed some 10-15 years ago with the warm temperatures of climate change. The pine beetle needs (or more correctly doesn’t need!) beetle killing temperatures of -40deg Fahrenheit for a full week to keep them in check. Those winter temperatures are long gone, thanks to my home town and the unfilled coal-mining voids of the Hunter Valley. One year the beetles came in great armageddon-like proportions and wiped out vast swathes of pine forest across British Columbia. Whole forests just gone.

which are directly out of our bedroom window
Pine beetle remnants
Speaking of -40degF. This house is built on two concrete slabs, each one heated in winter hydronically from the lake. That means that, when the lake is frozen over, water from beneath the ice is what they call ‘warm’. This ‘warm’ water is pumped into the house then warmed further by compression (whatever that means, something like how an air conditioner works). Now at 90degF it keeps the house (via the slabs) warmer than the -40degF outside. They had it turned off during May because of the
Packing, drying, leaving, sad face...
‘unseasonable heat wave’, but turned it back on last weekend because an Arctic Front returned to snow on the area. Ye old circumpolar vortex (the winds that generally keep the really cold stuff up at the North Pole) is a tad sick at the moment, swinging more wildly as the arctic warms more quickly than the rest of the planet. Hence, last winter, iguanas were falling frozen out of trees in Florida -  that’s never happened before.
Portable head mozzie nets - happy face!

How do I know all this climate and house engineering type stuff? Because Dal, the Fahrenheit-speaking husband of our host, is a retired mining engineer, his wife is a ukulele nut, and that’s how we came to be here. And so the ukulele brings us more interesting experiences each day.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Rock n Roll Delusion Syndrome, the Ukulele, and the National Folk Festival

My best shot at fame - voicepopfoible
A less than four minute read. Plus a video or two if you are tempted. 

For years now I have taken pride in being the originator of a new term - 'Rock n Roll Delusion Syndrome' (R&RDS for short). It is a condition which I and many of my friends and acquaintances have experienced, sometimes for decades. You can see it in our eyes and hear it in how we talk. At its worst it is evidenced in our bank accounts. For most, this condition means a life of penury - "the mortgage will be paid off next year because I will be famous, and my artistic work will be known to everyone". This is R&RDS at its worst.

This stupid delusion and conceit - annoyance at my own lack of fame - exists despite massive evidence of mediocrity, and a firm commitment to a lack of discipline and thoroughness. I am clearly not talented to the degree that gets me instant global recognition. I barely practice, prepare or work hard enough at being a star, and chance has just not been on my side. Neither now is age. I get on stage with the mildly famous, contributing tentative tones on my pocket trumpet, and then I fluff my notes. I won't be asked back again. I grab a chance at an open mic and the talent scouts are just not present.
vpf won the Inspired Queen competition at the 2005 Nash

Newly emergent friends and relatives now overtake me on the full bore fame highway, screaming past me, shooting for the stars, until they also ignominiously crash into their own double brick wall of oblivion, band politics, the inexorable passage of time, and all the unnecessary yet ever-present encumbrances of being human.  The very very few will make it across the dark chattering fields between the PR trenches of the meaningful gigs. My hopeful imaginings of the influential critics remain strangely silent.

It is debilitating. But forge on I must, for like Aesop's Fable about the sons and the orchard, there is gold to be had, even though it is not that gold of fame which is going to enrich me. The fruit at the top of them thar trees is the sheer joy and motivation of making music together, and of being a part of a community wealthy beyond compare (beyond compare to material wealth - obviously).

The irony of the insidiousness of the condition, stands in stark contrast to the reality - it is a living for the soul, a pursuit, a certain style of happiness, one which I am more than happy to propagate, without (hopefully) engaging too much in the nasty world of the dodgy record company and immoral promoter. Like everything else it touches, capitalism has also ruined music.

It's been really wonderful to see friends and family manifesting symptoms at Canberra's 2018 National Folk Festival over this Easter - the highs and lows, some of them in the comfort of a new context - retirement wealth; some still enveloped in the lazy assumptions and bounty of youth. The 'retirement wealth' thing is perhaps a rare and emerging variation on a theme, and much of the blame for this new cohort of R&RDS sufferers can be laid at the foot of the ukulele. For all its grey nomad baggage, the ukulele has emerged as a way for new people to experience the highs and lows of music-making life.

As a community musician (someone who helps others to make music), R&RDS is one (aberrant) variation we can present to our acoloytes on their musical journey from beginner to performer. It isn't something to which they should aspire. But they might catch it, for unlike many other syndromes, R&RDS is contagious.
Ukestral Voices joins the street choir program at the 2018 National Folk Festival
I love where I am, as my mediocre musical skills have allowed me to introduce hundreds of people to the joys of music-making together. Bringing 40+ people to the Nash, one of the world's great folk festivals, represents one pinnacle of my achievements in community music. But I suspect that, should I have been a virtuosic musician, I would not been so successful. And that is a blessing.
Where has this been all my life?
...is invariably the response from uke-toting folkie novitiates. For me, the Nash's byline 'five days in a perfect world' rings so true. By the end of it (or even near the beginning), it is exhausting in its sensory and cultural richness. Dancing, music, blackboards, retail therapy, wonderful food, the sheer attractiveness of those on stage - all are honeypots for the R&RDS-vulnerable.

We leave deflated and disappointed that we have to leave this wonderful temporary community, unnerved that our permanent communities are nowhere near as idyllic.

My job is to help people realise that this should be their permanent level of existence; creativity and music-making should be the fabric which binds us - not dollars, jet skis, computer games and vacuous shiny baubles of fame, strung out along our increasingly always-on screen-time. The Nash, despite it dangling the fame honeypot, is anything but those things. Rather, it provides very real opportunities for engagement, for real people to meet in the beatific conditions of real interactions with real humans using real, flawed, enticing and incomplete creative processes.

Today digital distractions are ever-present, and the power of the media, be it social or traditional, continually tempt us from our true human path. In my quasi-intellectualising fog, the real meaning of life is to be a part of a real community, and to be contributing to the best of our abilities, and to keep our abilities expanding and growing, despite age or wealth.

Here's to the Nash. And here's to the power of the ukulele to introduce more and more people into the wonderful world of making music with our friends, despite our mediocrity. Maybe even because of it. Music-making is everyone's birthright, not just for those seeking the shiny baubles.

I rest my case, Your Honour.

p.s. here's Ukestral Voices' attempt to take out the Inspired Elvis Competition at the 2014 National Folk Festival.  We made it to the finals! It's rare footage, never before seen (for good reason. Try and pick the good reason).

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Whitsunday Ukulele Blues

The view from Whitsunday Peak.
2am musings. Let’s see what comes out. We are at anchor in Butterfly Bay, Hook Island, the Whitsundays, Queensland.

Yeah yeah, I hear you say, what a life. Damn rich musicians, bludgers. Maybe you don’t say it; maybe it is just my internal demons talking, for we do work really hard, just not in the way people normally conceive of hard work. Nor are we rich, at least not in the financial scheme of things. Our wealth is mostly in our life at home, teaching and leading a community of ukulele players.

I went to sleep at 9pm, exhausted on this beautiful catamaran owned by our lovely hosts, Ray and Chris. (Therein lies the significant point of ‘rich’ difference. We are rich in friendship, safe within the bosom of our musical community). Ray is a member of my Monday morning group, the Tomaree Ukestra.

Ray, viewing at Whitsunday Peak.
He’s one of those retired old bastards who flits off for the winter from the paradise of Port Stephens, to melt into the 20-25 degree winter of the Australian tropics.  That’s minimum AND maximum. His mobile home floats north in the winter, south in the summer. They call them snowbirds in North America. Here they are ‘grey nomads’.

We are so thankful and privileged for Ray and Chris' hospitality.

We’ve taken 6 days off our daily workload - ukestras and choirs nearly every day. Nearly every day. How hard we work can perhaps be measured by our tasks at the gorgeous festival we attended. (Go on, zoom the Google Map and drink in the satellite beauty). On Sunday, in our bucolic central Queensland valley that is Wintermoon, we ran a Ukestration Workshop, performed as Jack n Jel, got a bunch of novice uke players up on stage to perform their workshop songs, and walked into the audience and got about 35 people corralled into an instant choir – our One Song Sing. AND we jammed on stage with other musicians in the closing concert.

The rustic Chai House
We were buggered, exhausted. Particularly after the One Song Sing, floppy in our mouldy outdoor lounge chair, midst the white anted Chai House, blissed to be at one of our favourite most-musician-hospitality-laden festivals. But make no mistake, performance and helping people to make music is an exhausting activity. We then stuffed our gear into fiddle player Andy’s Hiace van, 3 slid across the front seat, and schlepped up to Airlie Beach for our rendezvous with a catamaran.

So the 9pm snoring sleep meant an 11:37pm wakeful period, talking with Jane about performance insecurities, a witching hour conversation about how we measure up at festivals:

  • How does our humour-laced, intimate and delicate condenser mic performance follow the heaving night-before crowd, revved up by the bass driven reggae doof of Floating Bridges?
  • About how touch n go it was to see if we could get an audience of self-confessed ‘non-singers’ to join us for a singalong (it worked! It was brilliant!)
  • Could we fill an hour with the results of an ukestration workshop (we needn’t have worried, the One Song Sing idea really stepped up to the mark)
  • Does the sensitive and shy ukulele have a festival home midst the cranked valve electrics of amplifiers?


“It’s ok”, we reassured each other. We put to bed our witching-hour demons, our at-anchor-lurchings. We have something unique, delicate, humorous, and participatory that really contributes to a music festival in ways that many acts cannot. Performance and teaching do not often go hand-in-hand, but our combo is a fruitful one, as many festivals who continue to engage us year after year attest. That is reassuring, and we are thankful.

We are wealthy beyond measure. We can count the dollars, albeit meagre by ‘real-job’ standards. But we cannot measure the friendships and experiences that bring us so much more.

Contemplating her musical future.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Nightmare on Ukulele Street

From Pinterest - click The Scream for the page
(600ish words. You'll be right)

This morning I was trapped in a nightmare vortex. Real? Not real? Can I awaken from this ukulele hell?

As problems go my ukulele trauma was on the super soft end of 'first world problems'. Worthy of derision I say. Get a life you say.

But I have a life. And my nightmare sorta came to life...just after I awoke.

The nightmare

Trapped in a room, with about 30 people, all of them expecting me to energetically, successfully and entertainingly lead a ukestra. It seemed like a one-off situation, so things were even worse: I had to be vibrant and organised.

But I was no such thing. I couldn't find my music. I couldn't find my bass. I couldn't find my ukulele. Things just went wrong. Give me a moment! I fiddled around, fussing here, procrastinating there, tried to find things, everyone waiting impatiently. Eventually all chairs turned towards a television screen. I had lost them all. How ironic. My nemesis. The big screen TV.

I thrashed in bed, trying to prise myself out of this eternal ukulele damnation.

Prelude to a nightmare

The nightmare seems to have shaped my mood today, but I think it started yesterday, when I did Surf Life Saving patrol. I finished at 1pm, then headed off at 2:30pm for my weekly Sunday hospital music. I rushed, packing the car for my usual night away. Fatally, I didn't do the idiot check (which we call the 'hands-free-check'). I didn't check to see if I'd left anything vital. Instead I just bolted. Fatal error.

Halfway to hospital (30 minutes away) I realised, no guitar. I'll be right, I can get away with just the uke.

Beach litter retrieved, including sandals
        Oh no! No sandals. No shoes. This is going to be 24 hours of barefoot in formal sorts of places (like bowling clubs, hospital wards), sneaking around, avoiding the disapproving glare of the shod. Thankfully I did find a pair of ugboot-like slippers for the hospital (only because I never clean out my car). Phew! I can be legal (of sorts). And besides! Slippers are such well approved hospital attire.

When I get to the Bay I go for a swim, and there, lo and behold, are the sandals I dug out of the sand the week before as litter! I had placed them in a spot near the showers awaiting their owner to reclaim them. But alas, they were instead joined by a child's pair of thongs. Clearly I, a man in dire need of respectable footwear, could now claim them, guiltfree, as my own. They were mine.

Nightmare fulfilled

Post-nightmare. All was not right. A fancy car heads gingerly over the lip of the driveway into the Fingal Bay Sports Club, our usual Tomaree Ukestra Monday morning venue. One of the bowlers accosts me in an officious manner. The bowler is now an official parking attendant.

Ahhh!!! Mr Ukulele! You and your mob will have to park down here today. Big functions on. Ladies Pennants Bowls, and the ladies won't want you playing outside. They need to concentrate.

But that wasn't all. The club is packed! Not just with lady bowlers so we find, but a big breakfast for the Jaguar Car Club. The noise is unbearable. My dream of losing control is all too real. I am living my nightmare.

But together we ukestrans plot and consider, and then remove ourselves from the clamour. Let's try the cafe down at the beach.

Nightmare averted

Blessings to the Longboat Cafe. They loved us and looked after us. Suddenly homeless, suddenly not homeless. The Tomaree Ukestra found a home for the morning, the sun was autumnally shining and the coffee drinkers all quite liked us! The coffee liked us! Thank you!

I reflect on a small life lesson. We do not need to live our nightmares. Our conscious worlds are much more subject to our personal control. Even for ukulele players. Praise be the ukulele gods.

16 of us. This is during the break. Damn fine spot. Damn fine hosts at The Longboat Cafe.
Me in left-handed bass mode

Emergency hat supply. All part of the service.