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.

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