Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What is the future of Ukulele Festivals? Feckless?

I wonder if Ukulele Festivals will ever grow up? Folk Festivals have grown and morphed over the decades. Some have even got out of control and lost their original feel, but at their kernel, they are still Folk Festivals – celebrations of the diversity of music expressed by communities. And they're still around.
Ukulele Festivals are a different kettle of fish, all seeming to have elements of the following:
  • some sort of skill development smorgasbord;
  • a celebration of the nascent performing skills of hundreds of (mostly retired, but some children) amateurs in their fabulous newly formed large uke-focused friendship groups;
  • a few wonderfully, quirky, and competent duos or ensembles;
  • singular stellar highly paid professional international performer outshining everyone and adored by the few hundred attendees. 
How on Earth can Ukulele Festivals grow up? How can they appeal to a wider audience? How can they be sustainable beyond and through this Precambrian epoch of Tiny Tim novelty?

SPRUKE – the 2015 Brisbane Ukulele Festival 

Hard, fast, built to impress – this seemed the mode of choice for the Festival Organisers choosing their stellar ONE at SPRUKE. Aldrine Guerrero was certainly that. I'd not really heard of him before, but his chops were extraordinary, and he seems to be reaching out (and achieving) the Jake stars.

Where does that leave us? With an ukulele in hand, can we only aspire to these unachievable stellar heights, or must we remain true to the singalong set, yet stuck in musical reverie? Where does this dichotomy leave the rest of us, the Jacks n Jels of this world? This is where our morning-after conversation went.

Virtuosity? Or Canvas 

Jane asked, do you think you are better on the trumpet or the ukulele?

A strange, but useful question!

First answer – trumpet. I know my scales and arpeggios, I have a good ear for melody, I have a nice tone (when I get the right notes). I just know the instrument better, and have been playing it longer. But nevertheless, I am no master. I've only been mistaken once for James Morrison (when I was 18, and he was 18, and the case of mistaken identity only lasted as long as it took to purse my lips and blow my horn). So yes, I can solo better on the trumpet, and there aren't too many of them around, (especially at ukulele festivals). I have a certain advantage there.

But if I want a canvas upon which I can paint a much broader performance, then the uke is clearly my drug of choice. I could be talking about a guitar, or an accordion, or banjo, but for portability, adaptability, and airport security, the ukulele tromps all over those aforementioned instruments.  So the uke is my preferred canvas. It allows me to be a better musician and performer than does the trumpet.

Jack n Jel - painting on a four string canvas

Its perfection for this purpose was no better displayed than in our Jack n Jel SPRUKE set on Sunday. We stumbled quietly through our first selections – a song of the old western trails in the US, nice harmonies, demure and obscure that didn't belt anyone over the head with prowess, noise, volume or known nostalgia. However, what we do best is facilitate collaboration. Jane is crook, and so we shanghaied Anu Grace, a beautiful professional singer and uke teacher from Townsville, press-ganged into singing My Baby Just Cares for Me. She has a supple and sublime voice, and a humble yet powerful performance presence (assisted ably by some well place dimples). She's adorable, and we were able to shine because she shone so wonderfully. We were a great combo for the song.

But the trio was only possible because we - Jack n Jel (we are still looking for a permanent name) - are a good solid duo, who hold the responsibility for the message that WE want to convey, most often with an ukulele.

There is much applause for Anu and then we were permitted to easily return back to duo mode. We well acquitted ourselves with some great and diverse originals from Jane (how much more diverse can you get than a slide blues on a baritone in banjo tuning, and then a 7/8 Balkan inspired tune about refugees?), and then my cute fictionalised account of our meeting and falling in love.

The Final Sweep of the Brush from the Palette 

We finished with a feckless (the word of choice for right wing Australian politicians last week) and sparse number – Peggy Lee's (and Jessica Rabbit's) 'Do Right Man' – a song that allows the dubious couple dynamic between man-woman/Mark-Jane to be well mined. On Sunday the mining struck pure gold.

Set up with just two ukes - a baritone doing a rather restricted falling bass line, whilst my concert uke did some repetitive arpeggiated thing with some fiddly bits when permitted. The story painted over this is of a feckless (such a good word, it deserves repeating) man for which a duped (and, may I say, stupid) woman has fallen. It's a great song, and Anu apparently knew it, because pretty swiftly she came onstage to add something. She was more than welcome, although unplanned and utterly spontaneous.

Great. I now had two powerful women telling me to go out and get a real job. Just what a muso needs – two whinging, whining wailing women. Nothing for it but to pick up the trumpet and try to get a real (non-ukulele) job. We ended up sparring, wailing, whinging and whining at each other, two women and a hammered man with a horn shoved in his gob yelling, whining and whinging back. It worked a treat. I have never felt more berated yet musically powerful. From all reports the performance was like  stumbling into a smoky New York jazz bar (well, maybe not 'all reports'. But that was how one well-travelled woman praised us afterwards).

And all courtesy of some well crafted glued together pieces of wood hosting four taut strings. This is the canvas that allows us to musically paint and travel, whether it be across the globe, or from bedroom to lounge. A guitar would get in the way, often sonically too.

The Ukulele Siren is calling

The uke does not call us to be virtuosic. It calls us to participate, to come together, to express ourselves. It offers itself as a musical canvas for these things. What we need to learn is not always to expect that we are going to strum our hearts out. At times we can arpeggiate them, to alternate, to put in dynamic, to leave space for our whinging and wailing to be expressed. We need to leave room for this, midst our apparently interminable and unavoidable ukulele happiness.

Apparently the purpose of writing a good article is to answer one's first posed question. I'm not so sure I can do that, for only time will tell. But I do know that I want uke festivals to continue doing what they set out to do, but also to leave room for diversity of performance, and to encourage other instruments to be a part of this welcoming family. Perhaps we should more overtly recognise its role as a canvas, rather than as an objective in itself. It is, after all, predominantly about the music and the community it creates.

It is not about the instrument.

Leave that to the shakuhachi festivals.