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.


  1. People haven't tended to write their comments in here. But there was a very active response on my Facebook page. But that gets lost in the mists of time, so I'm reposting many of the comments here.

  2. Kahiwa Sebire A very interesting question you pose (and don't quite answer)...

  3. Penny Creighton I agree with everything you wrote Mark. Nothing like a bit of variety I say. Clever man.

  4. Mark Jackson Hmmmm...wondering if I stir things up to much sometimes. Thanks Pen.... not sure what you really think Kahiwa!
    Like · Reply · 1 · 7 October at 08:37
    Kahiwa Sebire
    Kahiwa Sebire The comment about there being a very similar structure to all the uke fests is valid, as is the question about what comes next? I was talking to Karl about them yesterday, trying to explain a little about how uke fests are diff to mainstream music fests and folk fests... It'll be interesting

  5. Mark Jackson The grand ol uke curmudgeon of the UK, Barry Maz, has just written something with vaguely similar intent. RAther coincidental timing as well. Almost identical timing. http://www.gotaukulele.com/.../the-magic-ukulele-problem...

  6. Peter Scott Interesting that successful festivals feel either a real or perceived need to change or "grow up". My experience with the uke is probably similar to many others in that it's not the only way to make music but it is the only way I've found to make music (some would argue that what I do on the uke qualifies as music but that's another discussion!). The real question for festival organisers is not how festivals grow up but how do we make sure each festival improves from one to the next. What works and what doesn't. How can some stuff be tweaked to be better and what needs to be tossed into the bin of never to be revived ideas. I also agree that other instruments should be encouraged but you don't want to be swamped with acts with a big mix of musical input, it's a ukulele festival first and foremost and part of that attraction is being able to take part as performer and audience member. I'm not sure a trumpet festival would have quite the same appeal, but then again Trumpfest might be a goer in some right wing leaning US communities!

  7. Mark Jackson What a great response Ralph! Thank-you. I'm moving to America because the politics are so good (can't wait for TrumpFest - there'll be lots of guns there)! I love the quote from you ... "it's not the only way to make music but it is the only way I've found to make music". Really quotable quote.

  8. Stephen Sandilands I agree with you Mark about that comment "it's not the only way to make music but it is the only way I've found to make music". You must see a lot of people develop their skills as presenters and entertainers.
    Unlike · Reply · 2 · 8 October at 10:53
    Mark Jackson
    Mark Jackson Definitely....it is a gateway drug to other things, or an end in itself.

  9. Polly Ballantyne As always a great piece of writing Mark, and a few things to ponder as I plunk and whine along.

  10. Christine Garvin Very interesting blog Mark, and well said Ralph, the wonderful thing about the uke is that it can fulfil a need in people to make music, and the joy and difference of Uke festivals is the opportunity of players to perform, some are good some not so good but it is a wonderful experience. People who are very competent players or professional musicians may not realise or may have forgotten the wonder and excitement of performing. I am all for making uke festivals more diverse but let's not lose the accessability for everyone to participate and the joy that can bring.