Thursday, September 14, 2017

Whitsunday Ukulele Blues

The view from Whitsunday Peak.
2am musings. Let’s see what comes out. We are at anchor in Butterfly Bay, Hook Island, the Whitsundays, Queensland.

Yeah yeah, I hear you say, what a life. Damn rich musicians, bludgers. Maybe you don’t say it; maybe it is just my internal demons talking, for we do work really hard, just not in the way people normally conceive of hard work. Nor are we rich, at least not in the financial scheme of things. Our wealth is mostly in our life at home, teaching and leading a community of ukulele players.

I went to sleep at 9pm, exhausted on this beautiful catamaran owned by our lovely hosts, Ray and Chris. (Therein lies the significant point of ‘rich’ difference. We are rich in friendship, safe within the bosom of our musical community). Ray is a member of my Monday morning group, the Tomaree Ukestra.

Ray, viewing at Whitsunday Peak.
He’s one of those retired old bastards who flits off for the winter from the paradise of Port Stephens, to melt into the 20-25 degree winter of the Australian tropics.  That’s minimum AND maximum. His mobile home floats north in the winter, south in the summer. They call them snowbirds in North America. Here they are ‘grey nomads’.

We are so thankful and privileged for Ray and Chris' hospitality.

We’ve taken 6 days off our daily workload - ukestras and choirs nearly every day. Nearly every day. How hard we work can perhaps be measured by our tasks at the gorgeous festival we attended. (Go on, zoom the Google Map and drink in the satellite beauty). On Sunday, in our bucolic central Queensland valley that is Wintermoon, we ran a Ukestration Workshop, performed as Jack n Jel, got a bunch of novice uke players up on stage to perform their workshop songs, and walked into the audience and got about 35 people corralled into an instant choir – our One Song Sing. AND we jammed on stage with other musicians in the closing concert.

The rustic Chai House
We were buggered, exhausted. Particularly after the One Song Sing, floppy in our mouldy outdoor lounge chair, midst the white anted Chai House, blissed to be at one of our favourite most-musician-hospitality-laden festivals. But make no mistake, performance and helping people to make music is an exhausting activity. We then stuffed our gear into fiddle player Andy’s Hiace van, 3 slid across the front seat, and schlepped up to Airlie Beach for our rendezvous with a catamaran.

So the 9pm snoring sleep meant an 11:37pm wakeful period, talking with Jane about performance insecurities, a witching hour conversation about how we measure up at festivals:

  • How does our humour-laced, intimate and delicate condenser mic performance follow the heaving night-before crowd, revved up by the bass driven reggae doof of Floating Bridges?
  • About how touch n go it was to see if we could get an audience of self-confessed ‘non-singers’ to join us for a singalong (it worked! It was brilliant!)
  • Could we fill an hour with the results of an ukestration workshop (we needn’t have worried, the One Song Sing idea really stepped up to the mark)
  • Does the sensitive and shy ukulele have a festival home midst the cranked valve electrics of amplifiers?

“It’s ok”, we reassured each other. We put to bed our witching-hour demons, our at-anchor-lurchings. We have something unique, delicate, humorous, and participatory that really contributes to a music festival in ways that many acts cannot. Performance and teaching do not often go hand-in-hand, but our combo is a fruitful one, as many festivals who continue to engage us year after year attest. That is reassuring, and we are thankful.

We are wealthy beyond measure. We can count the dollars, albeit meagre by ‘real-job’ standards. But we cannot measure the friendships and experiences that bring us so much more.

Contemplating her musical future.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Nightmare on Ukulele Street

From Pinterest - click The Scream for the page
(600ish words. You'll be right)

This morning I was trapped in a nightmare vortex. Real? Not real? Can I awaken from this ukulele hell?

As problems go my ukulele trauma was on the super soft end of 'first world problems'. Worthy of derision I say. Get a life you say.

But I have a life. And my nightmare sorta came to life...just after I awoke.

The nightmare

Trapped in a room, with about 30 people, all of them expecting me to energetically, successfully and entertainingly lead a ukestra. It seemed like a one-off situation, so things were even worse: I had to be vibrant and organised.

But I was no such thing. I couldn't find my music. I couldn't find my bass. I couldn't find my ukulele. Things just went wrong. Give me a moment! I fiddled around, fussing here, procrastinating there, tried to find things, everyone waiting impatiently. Eventually all chairs turned towards a television screen. I had lost them all. How ironic. My nemesis. The big screen TV.

I thrashed in bed, trying to prise myself out of this eternal ukulele damnation.

Prelude to a nightmare

The nightmare seems to have shaped my mood today, but I think it started yesterday, when I did Surf Life Saving patrol. I finished at 1pm, then headed off at 2:30pm for my weekly Sunday hospital music. I rushed, packing the car for my usual night away. Fatally, I didn't do the idiot check (which we call the 'hands-free-check'). I didn't check to see if I'd left anything vital. Instead I just bolted. Fatal error.

Halfway to hospital (30 minutes away) I realised, no guitar. I'll be right, I can get away with just the uke.

Beach litter retrieved, including sandals
        Oh no! No sandals. No shoes. This is going to be 24 hours of barefoot in formal sorts of places (like bowling clubs, hospital wards), sneaking around, avoiding the disapproving glare of the shod. Thankfully I did find a pair of ugboot-like slippers for the hospital (only because I never clean out my car). Phew! I can be legal (of sorts). And besides! Slippers are such well approved hospital attire.

When I get to the Bay I go for a swim, and there, lo and behold, are the sandals I dug out of the sand the week before as litter! I had placed them in a spot near the showers awaiting their owner to reclaim them. But alas, they were instead joined by a child's pair of thongs. Clearly I, a man in dire need of respectable footwear, could now claim them, guiltfree, as my own. They were mine.

Nightmare fulfilled

Post-nightmare. All was not right. A fancy car heads gingerly over the lip of the driveway into the Fingal Bay Sports Club, our usual Tomaree Ukestra Monday morning venue. One of the bowlers accosts me in an officious manner. The bowler is now an official parking attendant.

Ahhh!!! Mr Ukulele! You and your mob will have to park down here today. Big functions on. Ladies Pennants Bowls, and the ladies won't want you playing outside. They need to concentrate.

But that wasn't all. The club is packed! Not just with lady bowlers so we find, but a big breakfast for the Jaguar Car Club. The noise is unbearable. My dream of losing control is all too real. I am living my nightmare.

But together we ukestrans plot and consider, and then remove ourselves from the clamour. Let's try the cafe down at the beach.

Nightmare averted

Blessings to the Longboat Cafe. They loved us and looked after us. Suddenly homeless, suddenly not homeless. The Tomaree Ukestra found a home for the morning, the sun was autumnally shining and the coffee drinkers all quite liked us! The coffee liked us! Thank you!

I reflect on a small life lesson. We do not need to live our nightmares. Our conscious worlds are much more subject to our personal control. Even for ukulele players. Praise be the ukulele gods.

16 of us. This is during the break. Damn fine spot. Damn fine hosts at The Longboat Cafe.
Me in left-handed bass mode

Emergency hat supply. All part of the service.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Well ok, maybe. One day. The serendipity and journey of Yes!

The koels are singing their dawn chorus. Should I stay? Is it now warm enough to stay here all year round? Or should we all gather and fly north to overwinter again? What do you think comrades? Not yet. But maybe. One day. Yes.

2009 – a phone call – brrr brrr. brrr brrr. Hello? Do you teach ukulele? No. Why do you ask? I've been thinking of it. Oh! Someone in Sydney said I was thinking about it? Well. Maybe. One day. Soon. Ok. Yes.

2010 – We have been invited to go and perform at the Hawai'i Ukulele Festival. Jaw drop. Can you come? No. Can't afford it. Here. We'll help out a bit. Really? Well. Ok. Yes.

2010 – Considering our options. Maybe when we go to Hawai'i we should go to Canada and learn ukulele teaching from James Hill? Yes!

2011 – A pub in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Loud New York accent. Hey, Mr Loud Sock Man! Why don't you and your girlfriend come and sit over here and have dinner with us? Ok. Yes.

2011 – Same people, next day, same city, different question. We played them a song or two. You guys are great! Next year will you come to Mendocino? Our town! Play concerts! We have friends! Gee?! Really? Well. Ok. Yes.

2011 – Same country, different place, different people. Did a cafe gig. You guys are great! Here! Have $2 or 10c. This sucks. We can't earn money like this. It's too expensive to live and not enough money to eat. Let's do workshops instead. Yes.

2012 – Mendocino. Good workshop. Other towns too have said yes to us in our travels. There is a folk music camp you should check out here. Lark. You should ask if you can do it. We did. They said no.

2013 – We ask Lark again. No.

2014 – Yes.

2015 – Yes.

2016 – Yes.

2017 – Da-a-ad? Can you put up my friends for a night? They are really nice. Yes.

North Country Fair
Friends – there is this really wonderful festival – you should try and do it. It's up near the Alberta tundra. Yes. And then yes. They said Yes.

Campouts, festivals, uke groups, concerts. Slowly more people are saying yes to us. And we are saying yes to ourselves.


Friday, January 27, 2017

Ko te take o tenei hui, ko ukureretanga

Tony Hansen of Taranaki, delivering his mihi. Me squinting in the sun next to him.
My 'normal' sleeping pattern must be returning after shaking off the two hour earthly time shift  disjunction - otherwise known as jet lag. The trucks on relatively quiet State Highway 2 have started at 3:30am and the wind has turned a cold hauwhenua off the highlands near Rotorua. Quite the change from the āwhā that has been blowing for 2 days.

I'm awake, and thinking about our mahi just finished, with a new cuppla days chapter beginning at dawn.

"Have you been learning te reo?" someone kindly asked me.

No, I replied, but I know and I have a good friend who has helped me.

(So, I respectfully ask the reader to refer to that Maori dictionary. Words are life and culture, and English translation does not always do the Maori way of thinking justice. But language and translation is the only poor cousin we have in the absence of growing up at the feet of a kaumatua).

Singing our waiata at the Festival pōwhiri
My whaikōrero at the opening pōwhiri of the Opotiki Ukulele Festival went so well. I was congratulated my many people, and others commented that our welcoming tangata whenua were most pleased with my mihi. As they say, in the old days, a pōwhiri was about deciding whether you would meet or eat the visitors. Thank goodness my mihi went well, for I was keen to settle down the bloke whose hands were shaking with visible anger. His wiri was calmed by our waiata.

As mentioned in the blog preceding this, it is the ukulele that has brought us here. That wee instrument and the music we create with it is a catalyst that gives us new experiences and new stories.

Welcome to the Torere Marae

Kiri, at home on her marae
Yesterday (Monday after the Opotiki Ukulele Festival) we were caught off guard. Quite a few Ukestralians had left, and were not able to make the planned pōwhiri to be welcomed onto the Torere Marae, the home of Kiri's ancestors. As it turns out, a tangi bumped our greeting ceremony, and so the Monday pōwhiri was cancelled.

You cannot (thankfully) predict death, and as we've found out many times at the bowling clubs we frequent in Newcastle, a wake takes priority over a ukulele jam session.

Nevertheless, we were able to visit Kiri's brother's property, and see her lands. About 30 of us hopped into 5-6 cars and drove to the boundary te whenua o Ngatai. I had a thrilling swim diving through the flying and floating pebbles of a massive shore break at Hawai (note the missing i). I was told later that no-one swims here. Too dangerous and lotsa sharks. Meh. I'm a Merewether boy. Kiri's hunter-extraordinaire nephew Matt watched me with wry bemusement. Is he ok? Kiri asked. Matt watched for a while...doesn't matter, he's the neighbouring tribe's problem now, he's floated across the boundary.

A large shore dump dwarfs me. Click photo
Prior to that personal challenge we all tentatively and uncomfortably gathered on the other side of the road from the marae, observing from afar. Kiri wandered across the road and spoke to Auntie Muriwai and we were welcomed to stand in the gateway on the same side of the road as the marae. Muriwai welcomed us, saying how unfortunate it was about the tangi bumping our pōwhiri, and the sadness their community was feeling about the passing of one of the iwi. She did mention that the tangi had not yet begun because a lot of the people were in Whakatane with the body.

Whilst this was happening an old bloke in a hi-vis orange vest was wandering around up near the marae house. Must be the maintenance man I thought. Muriwai walked up and chatted to him, and then they sat in the seat outside the marae house. Not just any seat. The seat. A shuffle of panicked whispering went around the group. They sat in the seat! Muriwai started to sing a karanga. It's on!

So we gathered into our pre-ordained order, women at the front, men at the back, and walked ceremonially up the path to the marae. One of our other members is also a Maori woman (as of course is Kiri), she started sobbing and was supported by her sister and a uke friend from her Australian home. The import of these ceremonies and the culture is so encompassing and present, and for the second time in the weekend I had to wipe away tears in relation to this aspect of our 'ukulele festival'.

Uncle Rangi (photo by Bob Beale)
When we got up to the front of the marae we sorta didn't know what we had to do. Back to those seats over there! Auntie Muriwai and Uncle Rangi (a very safe 40 metres away) gave us no clues as to what we should do, but Kiri and Matt tried to herd us pakeha cats into the appropriate protocol. Sit down! Sit down!

So we sat on the grass.

No! No! Get off the grass!!!! On the seats! John! Sam! Harry! Get off the grass! On the seats! Matt was whispering in an agitated voice.

Finally corralled into our seated order (men at the front, women at the back), Uncle Rangi began to speak in Maori.

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou kotoa.

As with any formal speech, it went on for a while, albeit this time in a language few of us understood. But it gave us time to come to our senses, and to recall what our obligations were as a visiting tribe.

Koha! More panic,... Koha?! Koha? The whispers go around the group. Has anyone brought in any money? Nope. Phones, cameras, no money. We have to put a koha on the other side of the path when we have finished our mihi!

Uh oh....

A mihi. That'd be me. Can I remember it? (No. No recall).

Hang on. My top pocket? Piece of paper. Oh. Phew. I just happen to be wearing the right unwashed shirt. It's there.

More whispering and furtive glances whilst Uncle Rangi continued - Hey Matt! (sitting next to me), I've got my mihi.

Kiri's nephew, Matt, on the path to the marae
Give me a look....

... That's really good! Do it!

And so, for the second time in our travels here, I deliver my mihi. And then I deliver the cobbled together koha from one or two people with wallets on person. Wrapped in an unsightly piece of scrap paper. I wander respectfully towards our opposing tribe, and gently place the koha on their side of the path. But we are not yet done.


This is where many ukulele players would come unstuck. I don't have my music! Or my lyrics... But here we were, spontaneous tourists with no ukes in hand.  More importantly, no-one has any sheet music or lyrics to look at. We just sang. Enough people knew the words to cover those who mumbled their way through. But they knew the tune. Without ukes or sheet music people just concentrated on singing, on feeling the song, on opening up and experiencing the gravity of this ceremony and our offerings. It was wonderful.

We don't have any worthwhile recordings of our waiata, but there is always this version, with a karanga.

Our cultural obligations complete, we lined up for the traditional post-pōwhiri hongi, and then as
Jane greets Ngaio as tangata whenua at the festival powhiri. Not quite a hongi, but close!
tangata whenua, we were granted a tour of the marae and the church. Nervous tangata whenua, but tangata whenua nevertheless. And other than the currency of folding stuff I placed on their side of the path, our currency was music. Waiata. Let's sing. If only there were more of it.

Rosina and Sue on Kiri's brother's back verandah.

Thanks to Tony Hansen from Taranaki for my mihi,

And to Sue, Jane, Penny and Bob for photos. And thank-you to Kiri Hata for welcoming us into her community and tangata whenua.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

It's not about the ukulele. But it is.

We have our final Ukestralia rehearsal in Australia today. We'll do a couple of rehearsals when in Opotiki as well, but the Australian buck stops here today. We are furiously rehearsing our music with our chosen talking sticks - the ukulele. 

The uke is what brings us together, and shows us ways to move beyond the original catalyst of 'ukulele'. Whilst it is just an instrument - which so many people have taken up - it is also our ticket to embrace a wider world of music and related experiences. 38 of us travelling from Newcastle to Opotiki, creating new stories for us to tell our children and grandchildren. Stories that we make, and that we tell.

This Ukestralia trip to an obscure small town in New Zealand's most easterly region came about because of Kiri Hata. Kiri is a Ngai Tai woman who lives in Newcastle and is a very active member of the Ukastle Ukestra. Kiri said 'come visit my tangata whenua'. A lot of ukestrans said 'awesome'. And so we are crossing the ditch.

The Opotiki Ukulele Festival is shaping up to be something rare in the world of ukulele festivals. It is more than ukulele and music making. It is very much about cultural exchange. Many Australians admire the prominent place of Maori culture in New Zealand life. Australians and New Zealanders (Aussies and Kiwis) are very close siblings. But the kiwis, and their relationship with the land and its people, reminds us of how far we aussies have to go to have a respectful and more integrated relationship with our land and its indigenous people. We look forward to learning.

We are being welcomed into this community through the common language and connection of music, and I am honoured and privileged to have been asked to do the mihi for us Australian visitors at the powhiri. These are rituals at which I will no doubt demonstrate my clumsiness and ignorance, (especially when speaking and singing in reo), but I will do my best. 

For years our ukestras have sung and played Pokarekare Ana - many Australians remember it from school radio in the 1960s and 70s. Like an oaf, I have counted this song in jauntily, and too fast. Our performances are nothing like this one here! If you have ever been a tourist in Aotearoa (the other name for New Zealand), for instance at Whakarewarewa in Rotorua, then you will have heard this beautiful love song performed. We have also sung and picked the national anthem, God Defend New Zealand, just because it is a good song. But for this visit Kiri has suggested we perform a more contemporary song in reo, and we seem to be doing a good job of it (for a bunch of aussie pakeha). We shall see. We shall see.

The ukulele has brought us together as a community in Newcastle, Australia. And now as a music-making community we are able to reach out to others of similar persuasions and enjoy each other's company and learn more, and experience more.

So it is about the ukulele. And it isn't. What joy and experiences making music can bring.