Monday, April 21, 2014

An Open Letter to Pam and Charlie

I dunno if it is funny or sad. But here I am, up at 6am, trying to find warmth and electricity and somewhere to write. You can't do that in a tent that is fractured by frost.

I can feel inadequate on so many levels at the National Folk Festival here in Canberra. I don't drink anywhere near enough. I don't have the stamina to stay up late. I get to bed before 11pm, get up at 5, and am here in the Session Bar, ready to write, when I should have been up all night, playing and drinking.
 Session Bar - 5:30am, Good Friday 2014
It's Easter Monday and the remnants are still still here. The sun is tinging the sky but they are craicing on. They do eventually wander off to bed (I presume), ignoring what must be an awful impending reality of significant headaches.

A mere shadow of a musician

Of all the shameful inadequacies I display at the Nash, my association with the uke seems the one that condemns me the most amongst my folkie peers. I am able to redeem myself occasionally, a bit of pathetic trumpet, or a traditional song on the guitar. But when acquaintances of musical stature introduce me to their enormously talented friends, there is a vague condescension, a whiff of inferiority, maybe a taint of disreputable musicianship about my UCV (ukulele curriculum vitae).

From the personal to the political

I am sure my personal feelings reflect what is happening with the ukulele community. It's great to see the Ukulele Republic of Canberra (UROC) integrated into the program at the Nash, even though their allocated presence is kept to 8:30 to the 10. Not pm. But am. That's in the morning. Unheard of for REAL musicians.

But it suits all the uke-toting retirees who keep reasonable hours, bed at 9:30pm, up at 7:00am. Showered, breakfasted and reading chords from the projector screen and playing their baby boomer repertoire with so much joy and satisfaction by 8:30.

UROC leading the uke-jam 2014 National Folk Festival

As great as the offering is, I feel uncomfortable about the folk-uke union at the Nash. I feel it in my own inadequacies, but I am sure that my antennae for making broader observations are well tuned. These personal and general observations speak to me of a quandary.

How do we harness this amazing revival in music-making that the ukulele has wrought?

Is there some bridge that needs to be crossed?

What sort of overtures and work needs to happen from and between both the experienced musicians and organisers of the folk movement, and the nascent musicians and organisers of the ukulele movement?

What UROC and the National Folk Festival have come up with is great, and it is clearly catering for a demand from the new musicians of the ukulele world. But much more needs to happen, which I suspect comes down to leadership, education and tolerance.

For as happy as ukers are in playing their sofa repertoire, musical leadership – which the Nash displays in buckets - means one thing. Education. Ukulele players need educating. I don't think there is any question about that. They need educating about musical skills other than just the chord shapes necessary to play songs together. They need scales for melody playing, and they need exposure to the vast swathes of musical culture beyond latest hits and greatest memories. That not only includes repertoire, but an openness and curiosity about all of the other instruments that are out there beyond the four nylon strings that has fleas.

Ukestral Voices - 2014 National Folk Festival in Canberra
That has been achieved to a small degree here at the Nash. We can see it amongst our Newcastle ukulele mob who came to be a part of the street choir program with Ukestral Voices. They have explored singing, various instrument workshops, and seen some of the world's best musicians performing, from cultures from all over the world, and displaying virtuosity on a bewildering array of instruments. Just being here is a wonderful education.

But there is something lacking which I'm not sure I can yet identify. Certainly there is disdain for the ukulele from some quarters, and in many respects it is understandable. The hotshot musicians sit with each other in the session bar, swapping tunes, egging each other on, challenging their skills to new heights. Just because the ukulele has offered an enormous cohort of (mostly older) people an opportunity to play music, doesn't mean that the hotshots have to nurse or pander to the inadequately skilled new musicians. But neither should they be dismissive. For many expert musicians (and people in general), tolerance for others less skilled is not one of their strong points.

Learning how to session - is this what we need?

My trumpet playing sessioning is just ok. But it really depends upon the culture or genre, and how sensitively I try to blend in. (yes. Those two words can work together – 'blend' / 'trumpet').

I sat in on a session the other night, of Mediterranean music, lead by a clarinet and accordion. They were brilliant and fast. It was well beyond my skill and knowledge level, but I jammed a mute in the bell, tried to find the key, and fumbled along. I got there on one slow song, and I got a quiet nod of approval and welcome from the session leader. In contrast there was a woman who was drunkenly honking on a euphonium or somesuch. I'm sure she could play well in her right context, but in this context she displayed little sensitivity.

Perhaps this is one thing that is needed at such festivals. An explicit overture to the ukulele community from festival management ...

How can we better help your members skill up? 

What do they need?

Perhaps one of the workshops could be specifically aimed at encouraging and integrating ukulele players with other instruments, and introducing them to the complementary ideas of sensitivity, listening and taking turns.

Yes we do need a continual stream of beginner ukulele workshops, but we are now at a point where the burgeoning ukulele playing population needs to take their skills further, and to become better integrated into the general folkie community. They need to start to be able to call themselves 'musicians', and not just 'ukulele players'.

It takes two to tango. And the benefits will be rich. Ukers will expand their musicality, and the folk movement will be able to embrace and grow from a rich seam of new and curious musicians.

Uke on folk!