Wednesday, August 21, 2013

My Ted (n Betty) talk

Ted Campbell - Ukulele Player
Six weeks ago 83 year old Ted was still playing ukulele in the LakeMacUkestra. Six months ago he was hauling my PA in for the Tuesday evening group: every week, sometimes twice a week.

Jane n I sang today at Ted's funeral, “I'll see you in my dreams”, the song Joe Brown sang at The Concert for George. A small group of ukestrans then sang and strummed his coffin and cortege away – to the tune of “Don't Sing Aloha When I Go”. Ted was an everlasting ox - until one of those diseases that are meant to get you, got him.

Three reasons make my work worthwhile - Music, Community, and It's a Living. These pillars formed the backbone of my TEDxNewy talk, back in 2010.

It is #2 which underpins this Ted talk.

Ted and Betty came along in the first few weeks of 2010, just after the ukulele group had started. Since then they have rarely missed a Tuesday night. They performed at all the local festivals; took their motor home to festivals further away, except Hawai'i - you can't take a motor home to Hawai'i. But they went anyway, performed for ten minutes in the 2011 Hawai'i Ukulele Festival with 20 or so fellow Ukestrans, then went off on a ten day cruise around the islands. How I so love these tales, tales of people in their 80s being able to tell fresh stories of their active lives. Much better than watching the telly.
Ted made our first Ukastle Ukestra sign. He made, and sold, ukulele holders that attached onto music stands. Our greatest difficulty on Tuesday nights was drink spillage. So Ted invented a drink holder. I think sales of them funded a few beers for Ted.

I only visited their house for the first time the other day. We had scheduled to visit Ted n Betty Saturday afternoon, knowing that Ted wasn't at all well. But we got a call just before we were about to visit - Ted had passed away that morning. Nevertheless, we kept to our plans as we heard Betty was there. Susie, another Ukestran, was there for much of the day as the family still had to arrive.

We banged on all the doors, but deaf-as-a-post-Betty couldn't hear inside her darkened house, hermetically sealed from the traffic noise of the main road. We could see her fussing about, through the windows. Eventually she saw us.

About four walls were dedicated to the productive and reproductive life of Betty n Ted. Beautiful photos, and portraiture shots that everyone has. Though not everyone has a wall dedicated to your 60th wedding anniversary - official Congratulations letters from Betty Windsor, Barry O'Farrell, Quentin Bryce, Julia Gillard, etc., etc. You can't really lie about your age when you have that sort of thing on your wall!

But one thing really struck me as Ted's essential legacy - the floor. The lounge room floor is a beautiful sprung wooden dance floor, because 'the dance group needed one when the hall down the road closed'. In the corner, the familiar bags, instruments and detritus of any ukulele player.

Ted n Betty are testament to the benefits of a life lived actively and socially, creating and participating in community wherever they go. As a couple they were inseparable, but all of us need more than just the each other of any dynamic duo. We need broader community – the richness within which we swim, the safety net when we, or our partner, falls. 'Families' and 'economies' may be the lexical currency of elections; 'community' not so much. No government creates that for us. 'We' create 'community' ourselves, through dancing, music, children, school, tree planting, drinking, sport, work - through the myriad activities we do every day, morning, evening, afternoon or weekend – usually in an unpaid capacity.

In their life Ted n Betty, like most of us, had children and school, but I'm sure it was the dancing and music that sustained them most in their latter years. For three or more decades they were the backbone of the 'Rainbow Room' – a community of people who shared a love of dancing and concerts every Saturday night. Only in the last 3-4 years had they switched their focus to the ukulele. So we were privileged to have them. The dynamic duo sang 'Boots are made for walking' on microphone, and would argue about who it was who came in at the wrong time. This little clip shows Ted's care for everyone, and for every step he took, but it also speaks volumes of the loving relationship that he and Betty have.

At the funeral his son spoke of Ted's recent love of the ukulele. Gary said that of all the stories of the Ted n Betty travels that they would tell, the trip to Hawai'i was the one Ted loved the most. This reflects what I really value about our work. That people, even in their twilight years, can create new stories to tell loved ones or to share with a drinking buddy.

Surely the richness of our lives is measured in the stories we tell, and it is up to us to enthusiastically participate in life enough that we do actively continue to create our own stories. By his own account I think that Ted, the 83 year old concrete batcher / truck driver, had a very rich life indeed.

Vale Ted Campbell
13 June 1930 - 17 August 2013

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Droning on about the ukulele

It's a fine line between offending a nation and impressing an audience with one's dubious sense of humour.

At the end of last night's workshop in Chico a woman very purposefully walked up and said "keep on doing those drone comments, people need to be reminded of that". Usually the comments are ... "keep on playing music, you bring so much joy to so many people".

But no, it was the drone quip. The teaching moment went something like this:

..."finding your position for a chord or scale up the neck is helped by sliding your finger, seeking out your target fret with the precision of an American drone" .... pause ... laughter (from some).
No drones were encountered in the writing of this blog

The politics and history of the ukulele
I do get worried in these situations, particularly given the wide variety of values that ukulele people hold, but I also cherish that diversity. We come together over the uke, devoid of politics. Unless, of course, you are Dan Scanlon, or Jake Shimabukuro, or me.

Jake says it without argument, evidence or substantiation - the ukulele can bring peace to the world. A pleasant phrase to say at an important gathering.

Me, I gave a TED talk a couple of years ago where I said the ukulele is as much about its ability to bring people together, as about its music. This is inherently political, particularly in an age where we are herded into the individualism of consumption or television or poker machines etc. Music and dance is how we celebrate, express and grieve, together, as a community. Not with the push of a button, but with all of our physical bodies. Unfortunately so many of us haoles (Hawaiian for 'white fella') have lost that ability. The uke is our easiest pathway to reintroduce music-making to our lives.

Dan Scanlon is the guy on 'The Mighty Uke' who says "There's a lot of music in the ukulele ... a lot of music". He is a wise, (wizened is not yet the right word - give him another ten years), wily, twinkling and welcoming man. Joan and he welcomed us into their house, about 11:00pm, after being lost on the back  roads of Nevada County in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Nearby city - Grass Valley - was built in a rush of gold, like Maldon or Carcoar. Substantial two storey brick buildings, narrow winding streets, button-cute.  A city which is a town by any other Australian name.

At midnight Dan gave me a live, if occasionally out-of-tune, history lesson of the uke, in his house where the walls themselves are its history. The braguinha, the rajoa, an original Manuel Nunes ukulele - an unholy Hawaiian alliance / bastardisation of the Maderian instruments. And the experiments - the tiple (10 string), the taropatch (8),  the one I don't remember. All of them there, to lift off the wall, try out and compare, right here, right now. Such an opportunity, I am privileged, if somewhat tired, but his history is definitive, and based on a wonderful collection of direct connections. You can read about it here.

Dan has similar views to me. He has been playing uke since 1961. I've been playing on the earth since 1962. He likes lyrical quips that speak to his politics - replacing 'cannonballs' with 'drones' in Bob Dylan's 'Blowing in the Wind.

Droning on about urban planning and civic pride.
The small town politics and geography of American civic life is fascinatingly different to ours in Australia. Cities with populations of 50-100,000 abound. It is almost as if there is a very neatly groomed and parochially loved Bendigo or Maitland around every highway turn. Cities that singularly pay tribute to their benevolent white founder (and maybe his wife - for the parks, or the school grounds). Cities that pack a two storey brick punch, recently sullied by non-descript shopping malls and their fossilising carparks.

Such gathered and tasteful civic pride seems rare in Australia. We cluster, proud of the fact that we live by the beach, that we own a jetski, or dirtbike. We have more embraced the latterday American penchant for conspicuous consumption, tarred to within an inch of the shopping mall's entrance. Or maintain a vigilant civic pride over dusty outback mainstreets and their important pub facades.
Civic pride - Mendocino style

In contrast, places like Chico seem to rest proudly on the laurels, oaks and elms that line the platted streets, the legacy of 1860 founders John and Annie Bidwell. The city centre is white, coffee-shop lined, idyllic. But just beyond the city limits is the most enormous monocultured Great Central Valley of California, staffed by the underpaid Mexicans labourers whose language now seems to dominate the Californian lingua-franca.

You must have a valid passport to travel
The ukulele has been my passport and lingua franca for 3 weeks, the conduit to making friends, to entering other people's lives, to understanding and enjoying the diversity of American life, politics and geography.

Dan and Joan's valley perched terrace (where their double bed is located in summer) is a fit place to muse, midst medicinal gardens, walls of ukuleles, seven county vistas and sugar feeders, from where you can swat the flitting hummingbirds like blowflies.
The local blowflies
I should reserve the word bucolic for times like these, but on this trip I have sprinkled the word far too liberally. These are my people.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Once is a mistake. Twice is a theme

Hold on to your precious moments. Last night was one of those, a perfect gig.

Inland from the Oregon coast is an arc of volcanoes, part of the Pacific Rim of Fire. We first saw The Cascades two years ago when, ignominiously, we were thrown off our flight from Vancouver to LA and forced to catch two flights hopping down the coast via Portland. On our left reared these mighty volcanoes in various stages of aliveness. Mt St Helens, Mt Adams, Mt Rainier, Mt Hood. Spectacular from an aircraft. Wouldn't it be great to visit there one day?
The end of Mt St Helen's as they knew it.

I now sit at dawn behind the range, staring west at the Three Sisters, from our humble abode in the town of Sisters. Another perfect ukulele host, Peggy, has let us occupy her granny flat for our sojourn in Central Oregon.

We are on the eastern side of the range. The sunrise should be spectacular on the snow flanked peaks. This is 'high desert' in Bend and Sisters, a place which you'd think would be forsaken to the coyotes and sagebrush, but which actually has a city the size of Bendigo, populated by plain people with a mix of outdoorsie environmental types. Erratum - just slightly smaller than Bendigo - in name and in population. Bend has 80,000 people. Bendigo has 100,000 people and three more letters. It almost seems like the Ecotopia that Ernest Callenbach wrote of does exist. They have just made pot legal in Washington State.

OK. I exaggerate. But not about the pot.

Sisters is only 2,000 people, with a city planning order that deems that any new construction must look like a 'western' cowboy town. You gotta do what you gotta do when the logging industry that you once relied on just dies. They have managed the transition to eco tourism well.

The best little whorehouse in Sisters
Bronco Billy's is the town's saloon. Built in 1912, it seems like a two story rickety building (I presume the City ensures its structural integrity). Swinging doors, and a long upstairs room that feels like it was once the rooms of an old whorehouse.

We met, we performed, we separated.
The best little whorehouse in Sisters. Horny devils.
Into the long upstairs room we crammed 30-40 people, who came along to see us, a trio who had barely met each other. We rehearsed pretty much in the arvo, and expected hardly anyone at all. But it turned out to be a spectacularly successful evening. The most fundamental thing to go wrong was the weather, so we had to decamp inside. That was fortunate because we had a loaned PA system, with no microphone stand. Upstairs was so acoustically perfect, we didn't need it.

So we performed entirely acoustically (except for the bass amp). In my opinion nothing can replace an acoustic performance. It is superb as a performer, and (insert some other grandiose adjective) as an audience. The last time I remember such an acoustically wonderful space and performance was the debut of the Bendigo Folk Club in the dungeon of the Gold Mines Hotel.

We put together a set of songs that were reasonably complementary, Kevin's Texas honourings, our mellow Australian reflections. Jane's n my voices blended well, and Jane blended superbly and smoothly on Kevin's songs. I didn't offend anyone with my verbal offerings. Bonus. Who'da thought you could capture an audience with just three ukes, three voices and no PA!? We did and the audience listened and appreciated every note (or so it felt).

In our newly acquired vocations, as community musicians, performing is a financially risky luxury. Unless you are famous, or virtuosic, or you have an excellent PR team who spend lots of your unearned money, the chance of getting people along to pay is pretty spartan. We now know that people are keen to pay for tuition and active participation, but to passively sit back and listen, that is a different offering and expectation for which many are unwilling to release their grip on the TV remote.

Mr Carroll doesn't need a guitar.
Kevin Carroll is a professional listener.
Kevin. Listening. Silver Lake, Oregon.
He identifies musical spaces and occupies them with taste, slide and silence. He has the first musical skill: listening. He is engaged by, and engages the music around him and all he needs to express himself is a ukulele. He used to be a country rock guitarist but has forsaken that rather tourbus laden lifestyle for a pared back one, with a pared back instrument. The country still infuses his MyaMoe Ukulele stylings, a bottle slide here, a judicious fill or chord there. He is an utter pleasure to perform wit (sic), and the one original song of his that we played is one that stays with you in your sleep and gently wakes you in the morning, with its vaguely Lennonesque lyrics and gently hooked chorus.

Entertain and include
The evening was well rounded off by a jam with the participants from our Sisters (Tuesday) and Bend (Wednesday) workshops, performing the songs that we had learned. After everyone had left, dear Nancy from Bend insisted that we do Price Tag (we kept forgetting it - perhaps conveniently). She is a great player of uke, a nice singer and an endearingly enthusiastic participant. On Wednesday night she was the only person who indicated they she was planning on coming over to Sisters for our concert. It is fortunate that she brought others - a 30 minute drive is rather hazardous for the blind.

Performers are nothing without an audience, but an audience needs to be trained. These were a well trained and well behaved mob. Bless a good audience.

Conclusion. Or not. Mistake. Or not.
Our main problem on this trip (ostensibly our last to these parts as we are finished our obligations to the James Hill course) has been the constant offers to 'see you next year' at this or that festival / event / weekend, and the guarantees or recommendations that more people will come along. The temptations of Ottawa, Toronto, Sisters, Bellingham, are ever present. We shall see what 2014 brings.

My toes are freezing. Peggy said last night that a frost can occur here on any day of the year. As a gardener this provides a particular challenge. Today we venture further south, back into the coastal valley and to places where my toes will be warm and the smoke from the bushfire haze is thick. (I have just read that Vancouver has had its driest July ever. Forgive me father, for I have carbon-sinned). Two more ukestration workshops to go with Kevin, then 3 more without. We are busy beavers.

Kevin made a mistake last night, starting his solo early in a part of the song that wasn't for him, but he recognised the mistake after a note or two. What does one do in those musical situations?

You use it. Once is a mistake. Twice is a musical theme.

Why did we come here? Because of an email error, because people are encouraging, and because we ran into some really nice people in a pub on Vancouver Island two years ago.

Be open to happy coincidences and mistakes, in music and in life.