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!


  1. I agree that education is the answer, when I took an adult education course in Guitar, 50% of teaching was not playing, but Music history/fundamentals of music and notation. In fact very little tab was on offer.

    That being said, the resurgence of the Ukulele is, in part due to older people who 'failed music as children' or gave up young. The 'hum and strum' brigade only seem to want to play the same ole same ole, and resist any kind of advanced techniques.

    What surprises me is sitting alongside people who have been coming to classes for at least 2 years who still have little understanding of how to play a 3 chord progression without a sheet of music with C, F and G7 on it.

    In part the issue is large community groups to which I will admit, I belong to.
    In the early days I was in a group that did a public performance, largely singing and playing childrens songs. I remember looking at my Ukulele partner and saying "Never again"

    We promptly left and joined another, more progressive group.

    However, on finding myself at a small provincial festival in New Zealand, I sat there realizing that 'there was more to this instrument' and made a decision to organize workshops for adults who wanted to take Ukulele playing to a higher level. This is how the New Zealand International Ukulele convention came about.

    What I do now realize, is that most of the top players, including Lorenzo Vinando, Tomoki Sato etc come from the Youtube generation. They never sat in a room full of retirees. And this is where early childhood eduction will probably evolve in the next few years.In fact, we are already seeing it.

    Incidentally I love being in our community group as it has a huge social benefit. Do we play what 'I'd like to'? Not always, however I have to say that we tend to choose crowd-pleasers for our audiences.

    I just think we have to get good at it. When Lorenzo did a secret Gig in our local pub, he converted all the locals who thought previously it was at best 'a toy' or something their Grandmother used to play Ten Guitars on at parties!

  2. Thanks John. Very thoughtful. I might post some responses from my facebook page here too.

    1. et voila!!! Here they are. Below. I swear. It is not me writing (unless stated). Identities not shared.

  3. FB1. Well thought out, well said and sadly true. A very fine banjo playing friend of mine who was at the nash suggested that the uke is the cane toad of the musical world.

  4. FB2 - Yep... getting a lot of "hey, I play the uke too" then being subjected to another round of Sloop John B. Alas it's an easy go-to as a 'lowest common denominator' instrument which means that's what a lot of potential audiences are hearing & failing to be impressed by. BTW I'm finding it's quite nice having an excursion into the world of being a trombone player at the moment

  5. FB3 - Most uke groups are basically colourful choirs, using the uke as an easy accompaniment to singing. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. But with that many people in each group, it's very hard for a good uke player, eg someone who can play lead breaks or do sophisticated strumming, to be noticed. I think the best option if for small groups, duos, trios etc, to form to do complex stuff, or talented uke players to be given space to perform solo within a group set. The best players will leave the groups and do their own thing if they can't showcase their talents. And I think more work needs to be done to explore traditional Hawaiian ukulele songs and playing techniques. I'm surprised how few uke groups even attempt proper Hawaiian material, or even the fake Hawaiian stuff from the 1920s. It's great to play and great to sing.

    1. I'm surprised how little we seem to learn from Maori and Pacific people who can play

  6. FB4 - I can't believe I'm entering into the uke fray ... but here goes. There's nothing wrong with the instrument or with novice adult learners wanting to learn to play it. My suggestion is that if learners want to be accepted as musicians they need to be good at it. A festival like the Nash (or Port Fairy) is where interested learners can see accomplished performers play this beautiful little instrument well. There were some good role models for all uke lovers and learners to see last weekend. A few lovely players who immediately come to mind are Maggie & Elsie (The Mae Trio) and Lucy & Rowena Wise. There was a wonderful ukulele player at Port Fairy in March called Bobby Alu. He learnt to play the instrument as a child from his Samoan mother. He's also an ace drummer and plays drums with John Butler. Seeking these and other players out and learning from their musicianship is the best education any wanna-be muso or a common-garden music lover like me could ever get. It takes a little bit of humility and a lot of practice but those who are going to be any good need to practise just that. The rest is fun, community involvement and socialising - worthy pursuits in themselves but not to be confused with a quality listening experience at a major live music festival. And nothing's stopping a group of uke players from getting together at 3.30am at the session bar and playing till 6 just like a 'real' musician. I'm going to see Jeff Beck tonight and I'm not taking my guitar with me so I won't be jumping up on stage to jam with him but I'll be watching and listening ... in awe!

  7. FB5 - Like a lot of human activities ukulele participation is a sea where some people swim and others paddle. One lot can be just as happy as the other. No need for justification...

    1. FB me - The uke is allowing a lot of people to paddle. I think it is really health if we can use this curiosity to teach people to swim!

    2. FB5 again - True, and progressive groups should make swimming lessons available to those who want them.
      I also believe that an important element of ukulele playing is giving people the chance to get out there to perform as a group as often as possible, in the street, in malls, markets and aged-care places. Great fun and the chance to improve by getting in plenty of gig chops(got that term from a guitarist)...

  8. FB6 - Nice piece, Mark. I believe anyone who plays music is a musician, no matter which instrument they choose or how good they are at using it. To look down on any instrument is just silly snobbery. How serious one is about it or how much they want to learn is entirely up to the individual. All the resources are readily available, whether it be online, in books or person to person through lessons or workshops. I think the Aussie uke community in general is ready for slightly more advanced workshops at festivals and clubs, but as long as people keep buying ukes, there will always be a place for beginner workshops. But ultimately it comes down to the individual and what they want out of the musical experience.

    1. I agree. Playing the uke gives so many of us a musical voice. We aren't all old and uneducated and we aren't all so unsure of ourselves that we need to continue our musical education to prove ourselves.
      I learned piano to 5th Grade and violin to 6th Grade as well as musicianship.
      Although I can play these instruments, the hours my parents spent waiting in the car and funding exams was mis-spent when you contrast it to the fun we all have when I play the ukulele.
      Maybe it's time to relax and tell the other musicians to do the same.
      The uke brings joy and relaxation and the chance to rehash those favourites that the other instruments think they are too clever for now.
      Surprising how many popular musos are releasing uke music.
      I don't think we should be chasing their approval and get busy getting educated musically.
      I think that, like meditation, they will eventually realise that relaxing into things that aren't complicated can be a virtue and there isn't always a need to make the simple complicated.

  9. Great stuff Mark. It's all been said here. This is not a plug.. (much) I hope the album Amber and I have made will help the cause. It makes no difference whether we performed these songs on uke or not really... the difference is... in my case, the uke enabled me to feel I could offer up an album.

    Being a drummer first, I can't tell if I'm one step up or one step down on the musicians ladder. We are currently trying to have the album reviewed... it will be interesting to see what transpires.

  10. FB7 - It could be worse - It could be a banjo movement? On a serious note though Mark...great piece of writing, lots of things I have thought for years, not only about ukes but many kinds of music and those of us not able to be brilliant musicians!

  11. FB8 - Well said, Mark Jackson (from someone who also can't stay up long enough for the good sessions these days.)

  12. FB9 - Play any instrument well and you'll be welcome in a lot of sessions.

    1. FB3 Responds with - Except bagpipes that only play in E flat, Zena.

    2. Then FB9 responds - Bagpipes are a whole other class of vilified instrument! Knowing how to join in a session is pretty straightforward - say hello and join in if you know the tune. If you want to play Irish put the time in to learn the tunes and to understand the music. Learning the difference between jig and reel rhythms is essential, especially if you are playing rhythm. In my experience Irish players are welcoming of people who know the tunes and play them well. If you don't know many tunes sit up the back and soak up the music, noting all the tunes to learn between festivals. Musos spend a long time acquiring their chops and festivals are all about getting together with others to play well.

  13. FB10 - Not sure about the reference to "retirees" and "golden oldies". It may be a little more complex. When I hear or even play a song like "Boom Sha La La Lo", it evokes memories of Saturday nights at the old Arts Factory. The atmosphere was resplendent with the burning embers and the unmistakable aroma of Mary Jane. Hans Poulsen was one of the several acts on an extensive bill of great quality and diversity. To sum of us, these are more than "golden oldies". These are the songs of our lives.