Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Talking Turkey (and leadership) at MUF

I'm napping again. People either get pissed off at me, or they know (and suitably ignore) me. 

As some plead - t'is oft better to seek forgiveness than to seek permission. Jane wouldn't have given me permission to lie across seven available chairs during the headline act at the 2014 Melbourne Ukulele Festival's opening night. But it's me, I'm tired, and, Jane, if you want to keep partying and chatting on into the evening, AND you want me to walk you home, then I need a nap.

MUF is the ukulele-once-a-year place to be in Australia. It's a community-focussed festival, with international artists, in the hippest ukulele playing ground zero in Australia – Northcote.

MUF14 is no different. Plenty of nearby peripheral groovster cafe/bar ukulele venues, a traditional Town Hall main place, and Lam Lam - a great well patronised cheap Vietnamese restaurant sitting square and innocent on the inter-venue trail. At Lam Lam, or on the couches next to Ian ZOT, (the historical ukulele expert), all one has to do is sit and wait. The passing parade of Alaskan / Japanese virtuosic jams, or conversations about relevant American visas will come to you. I choose this. And napping.

Jane is vibrantly gregarious, sussing out and being schmoozed by prospective and aspiring Newkulele festival participants, whizzing around the different venues with Elliot (potentially-virtuosic-anything-nephew). It's amazing how having that 'Festival Director Status' gets you noticed by the ukerati. 

Me? I recently retired from that committee so I have no responsibilities in that regard. I don't feel I'm that good at chatting about festival stuff anyhow, especially late at night when I want to be asleep. (Besides, I can have those conversations on the pillow some other time with the festival's artistic director - are you awake? Go on ... give me a gig ... please ?).

But I do like key strategic conversations, and the couches next to Ian serve me well in that regard. The topic du jour pour moi? US visas and travelling uke oil salesmen. The Lam Lam and couchside conversations really tweak my thinking about sustainability, for even though my geography degree formerly formally equipped me to rabbit on about global ecological sustainability, nowadays I am a  ukulele community sustainability expert (who could fall out of his self-appointed academic ivory tower at any time).

Anyone for Used Uke Oil?

You know the ukulele experts?! Those fellas and women who wander the globe, dropping in on uke communities, seeking their next hit of income, helping hundreds of us individuals to develop our playing skills, and wowing us with their skills. Well. In the on-the-couch conversations I got to wondering about how their good work intersected with our local community, and what that meant for where we are going.

The list is endless …
  • Jim D'Ville - Play Ukulele by Ear
  • Manitoba Hal - Blues
  • Bosko and Honey - CAGFD
  • AJ Leonard – chord wizardry
  • Mark Jackson and Jane Jelbart (known at MUF as Helbart. Thank-you typo)– ukestration
  • The Nukes - secret of the nukes
  • Ukulollo – ukulele philosophy
  • Ukulele Russ - Muting
  • Heartstrings Cabaret – write a song
  • Rob Weule - Intermediate
  • James Hill – Any and every bloody thing
  • L'il Rev – Essential strums
and it goes on... you see them at uke festivals, in bowling clubs, church halls and lounge rooms, all across the western world where there are cashed up retirees seeking ukulele wisdom, or the eastern world where enthusiastic gorgeous professional twenty-somethings dominate.

Jane and I learned a few years ago - if we wanted to hang overseas with people and earn a quid, then we couldn't just offer to sing them a song. Another cute mildly skilled duo couple was just not gunna cut it, especially if we wanted to offset our flights and travel expenses with some foreign income (unless of course we were James Hill and Anne Janelle - which we're not).

But finding the workshop wellspring changed the whole game plan, for it allows us mediocre performers to sorta 'perform', to earn a dollar, to get free accommodation, to eat BBQs, and generally have the privilege and opportunity to meet and hang with nice people.

As one of the aforementioned workshoppers said rather colourfully to me at the conversation couch…

… people wouldn't piss in a jar for me to sing them a song, but for a workshop they will gladly fork over $25 …

I remember when our growing community had one of its first international workshop visitors. The marketing and attraction power of the big man was biiiig, and where we might earn hundreds of dollars in a week doing what we love, said expert earned one or two thousand dollars in just a couple of hours! and free accommodation! and us organising it for him!

Needless to say, that got us on a path of thinking how we could tap into this generous wellspring of goodwill, and do a bit more travel. The ukestration workshops have become our uke oil.

But like all wellsprings, no matter how deep, or how old, they need a feeder, they need sustainability. In the ukulele community the juice of sustainability is leadership. At least that's how it seems to me.

Two visitors, abrogated leadership and what not to do

Just last week I heard a rather apocryphal tale. I was out at LakeMacUkestra when two strangers turned up. Of course there are no strangers here, only those “with whom we have not yet uked”.

These guys were even more welcome, for they were refugees, from another group in Sydney.

'Welcome! But what are you doing here!!? On holidays?' I ask.

'No', they say, 'Our leader just shut shop. Just seemed to have got bored and wanted to do something else. Just left. Left us all in the lurch. We don't really know what to do … '.

Indeed, upon checking, the old website seems as dead as the sense of community that this income generating 'leader' didn't appear to have. Not a sign of anything. No-one home.

And, of course, it gets me thinking (my Mum thinks I get the occasional headache from thinking too much) … if there is no leadership, then there are no venues for all of us uke oil sales people. For if 'leadership' is solely about making a self-serving income, with no broader sense of obligation to the wider community, then it may all be for nought.

Ukulele Sustainability = Education + Leadership

We aim to help people play music together, and for me that requires two ways of working –teaching music AND connecting people and creating communities of players/aficionados. But if we don't get the leadership balance right, then it just ain't gunna work out right.

Another international ukulele-god recently said that he had had little interest from Asia until the ukulele sales boom started to plateau. It was only THEN that a concerned uke-manufacturer realised that the key to sustaining the boom was EDUCATION, and approached him to help sustain the boom. Praise the Ukulele Gods!

But in this contemporary adult world of ukulele earnestness there is an additional ingredient that must be mixed in with education to create true sustainability.

... leadership ... 

And so we are currently planning running Ukulele Leadership Workshops. Almost an oxymoron, going into communities to try to boost local leadership, and then leaving! But we have learned a lot here in Newcastle, and are working on figuring out what and why we have done so well, and what and how we can best convey to others. Part of our success, I am sure, is the fact that we have run it as a business.

Some people don't see it this way, but I do. For as contrary as it might seem, taking a business approach may well be one really viable and important means of going about helping creating and sustaining community music-making. It's certainly been our experience, with a very conscious focus upon a tripartite conception of what we do – music, community, and making a living.

One day we'll be too old to effectively do what we do. At that stage I would hope that our business is of value to someone who would pay us good money to take over the community building / music-making making reins of The Sum of the Parts (music).

That'll be a while yet, but when the time comes, you better be the right person, coz we ain't gunna sell the farm to just any ol' cowperson! We've got responsibilities you know!

Go on. This is a dialogue. Make a comment. Am interested to know your thoughts!