Sunday, August 29, 2021

An Ukulele Epitaph for Someone Not Yet Gone (but nearly)

Christmas 2011, Maitland.
Chris Morley is being shown the door.  

And this, friends, is the 'problem' with community. 

For despite all their frailties and foibles, you get to hang out with people; you get to know them. And then they die, and you miss them.

You miss their wordiness, or their caustic view of the world. Or you miss their compassion and loving heart. You miss a whole swathe of emotions, behaviours and tics that cleave them to you, and they colour you and your life. 

All of this because, together, you decided to act, to participate in some common purpose. Not because you necessarily liked them, or loved them, or that they are family or lovers - they are not your obligatories. Rather, they are part of a world that you have both decided to create. 

Chris played ukulele too loud. His rhythm would swamp others, and not necessarily in a good way. His songs and poems were deep - deeper, and longer than many had the time for. 

I didn’t know Chris all that well, but from what I did hear, he was a good human being focussed on social justice. I know he was a poet. A musician. A songwriter. A think he was a good leftie, and possibly some sort of anarchistic compassionate, generous church going Christian. I think I also heard he was handy with a hammer and screwdriver, with a renovator’s mindset. In one way he was an enigma to me, a person who appeared, and then would not be seen for a year or two, then return, covered in plaster dust and paint. He apparently was older than his dyed hair belied. (Well, someone once whispered to me their suspicions). 

Not everyone could see the way that Chris saw things. But I felt I did. He was my sort of guy, a complex, passionate, creative, intelligent, skittish and skilled oddball. I understood and appreciated his depth of compassion and inquiry, but at times I didn’t appreciate the time that some of his soliloquies took. 
Christmas 2011 - what a surly looking bastard

I’m using the past tense here, but you’re not gone yet, are you Chris? From what I hear on the interwebs, it sounds as though your passing is loving and peaceful. With a lover like Nicola, it surely will be. 

Thank you so much for the colour you brought to the outer circles of my world, and to many many others in our little ukulele world here in Newcastle. I hope you are around long enough, and with enough presence of mind, to appreciate my small piece of doggerel. I hope I haven't kept you too long. For at times I tend to be a little too much like you.

Love to you Chris. Loved your singing and passion.


Chris at Danielle Scott's farewell 2018

Nicola found the above video of Chris singing at Ukestra 4 years ago.  Their daughter then asked Chris to reprise it. He's still got it. Here's Chris singing Heavy Heart in August 2021, off by heart, with not a lot of energy, but full of passion.

Chris and Nicola's Facebook post from 29 August 2021

Dear friends of Chris, this is his wife Nicola. You may or may not know that Chris has been living with metastatic pancreatic cancer for the last 18 months. Unfortunately all the treatments have stopped working and now the cancer will run its course. Chris is fairly comfortable at home with his loving family, good pain killers and daily support from the palliative care team. I was thinking that he might get some pleasure from hearing some stories, memories or poems from friends (not soppy!!). You can send to me and I will read to Chris. Take care, stay safe. Love from Chris and Nicola.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Anzac Day 2021 - Ambivalence and Quinces

It’s dawn and I write. I don’t know what. But I know why. It's ANZAC Day, and I am never sure what to do.

I’m the son of a World War II soldier. He had shrapnel in his knee, he had tears when music, mates and memory collided. He was a good dad, with residual pain and occasional demons from losing a brother, and presumably from killing, and from nearly being killed. The horrors of war is not just a pithy phrase; it is literal and visceral. I have no idea how you carry those emotional scars with you for the rest of your life. I don't understand, and don't really want to accept the human culture that asks this of young men.

As a teenager I arced up about war and its place in our national identity. Me, the offspring who actually got accepted into the Navy, but then turned it down. When the two Navy recruiters showed up at our house in 1978 to see where they went wrong, Dad sniped: “I don’t know what happened son, but I think the peacies have got to you”.

He was right, albeit described with a word that was new to me.

Quinces, awake and a woke

I’ve been awake since 3:09am. Not because it is ANZAC Day, but because yesterday I was exhausted, and went to bed early. I have abluted, sliced and stewed quinces, and listened to a really interesting chat – Are the Australian Military too Woke? Let’s not forget, says the learned retired lieutenant / academic, that the military are here to be violent in sanctioned ways, to kill with the greatest humility and precision. This is the reality, and it is exactly what I decided that I couldn't come at. 

Upon realising that me joining the navy meant me possibly killing someone, my teenage self retreated. I didn't want to be that sort of human. Not too long after this I became a vegetarian. Still am.

I know the paradoxes and intersections of peace, violence and freedom  but I cannot reconcile them. I'm with Moxy Fruvous who so eloquently (and Canadianly) said: 

We'd like to play hockey, have kids and grow old.

When I ride my bike on the shared footpath/bikeway, I usually whistle, instead of ringing my bell. Instead, today in the pre-dawn light I sang their Gulf War Song. 

We got a call
to write a song 
about the war in the gulf, 
but we shouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. 

So we tried, 
but then gave up 
cause there was no such song, 
but the trying was very revealing.

Have a listen. It's a beautiful acapella number. 

A fractured ANZAC Day

In the ride to town, I pass a number of COVID-cautious ceremonial podcast blasts emanating from open car doors in auspicious ocean viewing car parks, broadcasting to small bemedalled gatherings in the dawn. At 6am I'm at Estabar. In front of me there is a COVID rump of people, listening to the murmur of an amplified speaker, a mumble from here, the occasional bagpipe there, and then the final resting trumpet.

Later today many people will be very drunk, celebrating whatever it is we celebrate about such complex matters. Drowning their sorrows, their own internal lifelong residual pain. Except most of those people ironically have never 'served'. That irks me. Just another day, just another excuse to get completely trolleyed and then perhaps punch a stranger.

I have played the Last Post ceremonially. Most poignantly it was at Dad's funeral some 30 years ago. My oldest brother was quite jealous of my act of common heritage with Dad, the damn peacenik who farewelled Frank Jackson with the Last Post, holding back the tears, keeping a stiffish upper lip so that that obligatory refrain could be completed through well disciplined lips.

I suppose life and death is just one big contradiction, and I clearly struggle, and have great uncertainty and definite unwillingness to participate in an ambiguous celebratory public ritual. Writing helps me acknowledge my internal conflicts and uncertainties. I am no saint, and I have no idea how I really would react in the face of violence that directly threatens me or others. I go out of my way to avoid any sort of violence. Other men cross the street to seek it out. 

RIP Dad, I will never know what you went through. 

With love, your quince loving son.

Friday, September 13, 2019

The Safari Suit - a story of Community

Robin and Batman

Identity Crisis

A bit like Bruce Wayne and the Boy Wonder, at festivals they never quite know who we are or what to call us.

Mark and Jane? Jack n Jel? Ukestra? The Sum of the Parts? One Song Sing? Batman or Dick Grayson? 

In the dog eat cat world of social media marketing we are the ukulele equivalent of that classic, and awfully unhealthy, Australian dessert. Trifle is made up of bits of sweet stuff, but you just can't put your finger on what makes it really good. Same goes for Jack n Jel.

Actually, we always know who we are, but Festival marketing people always seem to be in a quandary. And people walk up to Jane and call her Jill (an easy mistake – she is the 'Jill' part of the Jack n' Jel).  It Is our own fault, but I guess that can be expected when setting up a genuine-on-the-ground community music business. Are you a business or not? Why yes we are! We are called ... no ….  it’s called …. um, we call that thing ….  ah damn it. It’s community. It’s music. We make a living. Let’s call it quits.

In fact we are calling it quits for our hitherto annual North American jaunt. This is our 9th and our last. Hopefully it won’t be a ‘Johnny Farnham last’ (don’t worry, Australian readers will understand that reference).

Truth is we sorta can no longer reconcile this global gallivant whilst staring down the barrel of climate change. Something’s gotta give, and that something someone somewhere starts with us staying at home. It’s a nice enough place. Good people, beautiful spot, fresh fruit and veges. What more could a human want?

Enough of that. It’s too sad. Too real. Let’s talk about something else. Like this suit.

The identity of the Safari Suit 

This suit is my dress suit, all festival-pressed-ready for a series of festivals in Canada. The fashion is quintessential southern hemisphere 1970s colonial – the safari suit. It’s a laugh, but a laugh with a good story.

This safari suit is a special one. Very special, for it travelled through the fires and laundry presses of 1970s indigenous Australian politics.

Marion is one of my delightful ukestans at Port Stephens, a woman of, with, and within a lifetime commitment to community, health and social justice. She leapt into ukulele after her husband, Les, passed away.

But Les was not just Les. Les was Les Johnson, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the 1970s Whitlam Government. Les, like Gough, was a legend. In three turbulent years, Gough Whitlam and his team of merry madmen and women transformed Australia from a fusty 1950s dream, and thrust us on various paths of modernisation for our culture and our economy.

The iconic representative moment for Australia’s Indigenous people was when Gough passed ‘a handful of sand’ through Vincent Lingiari’s hands, symbolically returning the land to its original, more gentle, and less avaricious owners.

Marion gave me this suit. It was Les’s. I like to think it was there. At that very moment this suit soaked up the Whitlam Government's message of justice, diversity and respect.

I love it. And I trust the Canadians will also enjoy it. But unfortunately Jane just can’t seem to get beyond the bad out of date fawn fashion disaster that it no doubt is in 2019. My hope is that the story helps to redeem its apparently execrable fashion qualities.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Our taonga, our sacred object. That which brings us together. The ukurere.

Tucked under the head of my Maton ukulele is a piece of pohutukawa. But in the pōwhiri it has the honour of being rākau whakaara. And my ukulele? Let's call it my taonga in this ceremony. It felt like both got married last weekend in a wee town on the far side of Aotearoa.

We first did so 2 years ago. It was an incredible time then, and so it is again.

The gentleman is not being so gentle. 

He is visibly and audibly angry at me, and at the hordes of manuhiri (visitors) who have walked up from the beach, onto the land of these people, the tangata whenua. With no shirt (man is he buff!), a traditional flax skirt (piupiu) which clicks loudly with each lunge and sway, and a mighty whacking stick of some sort (taiaha), he, and his angry face, are something fearsome. I'm told that the apparent anger is the way they make people welcome in these parts, a ritualised challenge to we visitors, and to get us to display our intentions, good or otherwise. But the cultural legacy, for me, as pakeha, is fear. I can't help it. Otherwise I am just a tourist.

Thanks to Kiri, all of that anger is being channelled at me, for I represent the hordes of damn Aussies following me up the path. I am grateful that Kiri is there, guiding me in the protocols. Go Forward! STOP! WAIT! PICK UP THE STICK WHEN HE PUTS IT DOWN! All of these are whispers, but they are received with urgency. Don’t take a wrong step Mark.

Where’s the 'stick' (rākau whakaara)? The angry bloke, with his larger mate, are waving their taiaha around, right in front of me. I feel like they are threatening to take my head off, but I stand my ground, and hold their wide eyes. He reaches around behind, and pulls out a piece of pohutukawa, the rākau whakaara. I am struggling, holding my taonga, (my Maton ukulele), my crumpled piece of paper (my mihi), and his eyes which watch my every step. He places the rākau whakaara on the ground, and I make a move to pick it up. He gets even more angry, scything his taiaha, fiercely pointing at the rākau whakaara that I am to pick up, but I (truly) leap back in fear.

Things seem to calm down a bit, he takes a cautious move away, his eyes always on me. Kiri whispers ‘ok’, and I retrieve the rākau whakaara. Great. Now three important things to juggle, my mihi (now crumpled and sweaty), my taonga, and now the rākau whakaara, which somehow seems to represent a temporary agreement sacrament between me and the tangata whenua. The two warrior men seem satisfied, and go back to join their people.

This bunch of beautifully dressed, harmonising, fiercely haka-ing tangata whenua are Te Whakatohea. They are the original people of this region. They are the proud people of Opotiki. They are also the  regional winners of this year's Kapa Haka competition, and will soon be going on to Wellington to compete in Te Matatini - the National Kapa Haka Competition.

An older gentleman steps forward. He is bald, clean shaven, his entire head covered in tattoos. He is the showman running the pōwhiri. But to say 'showman' is almost to to imply disrespect. None meant, for this man is Dudu Maxwell, a kaumatua - a venerated elder. He explains, in English, all of the elements we are witnessing. He cracks jokes, they sing waiata, they haka some more, sing a bit, and then, something gets lost in translation. They forget that I too have a story and a waiata to share. After 20 minutes or so of being entirely immersed and educated, he seems to be winding things up. Has he remembered me? Us? Someone says something, and he goes ‘oh! Someone is going to respond’?!

That’d be me, the big man (who feels little inside). I uncrumple my mihi and commence.

‘Tena koutou! Tena koutou’.

In Te Reo (Maori language), I thank them for hosting us so generously in 2017. We are from the large swimmer crab to the left (or Ahiteraria – Australia – there are no ‘Ls’ in Maori), from Newcastle, from Yohaaba, from Merewether.

We are here because of ukureretanga (our culture, brought together by our taonga, the ukulele). It brings us joy, it brings us music-making – ko whakatangitangi, it brings us together. And then we offer our gift, our song, our waiata, which is one of theirs. Not awfully well known, but 30 of us start to sing, no ukureres, but we sing in Te Reo, and we do so with good voice. There are clearly murmurs from the other side. That pakeha fella, he has done well, speaking Te Reo (maybe they laughed a bit at my accent), and now his people are singing in Te Reo. They are alright.

And then it felt like the ultimate respect and tribute - they step forward, and sing with us. We all sing our waiata together. And with this we are joined together.

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

We are joined. We are joined. We are all joined together.

As Kiri said later in a Facebook exchange

Kei te pai, grasshopper

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),


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