Put Yer Ukes Up: Ukevangelism, Part 2

Michael playing the uke at a tribute concert for Bob Froese, May 2009

Photo (c) Laure Kolk 2009

So I wrote about a change in my ukulele fortunes a while back, when Child Number 2 started singing in the choir and I lost my Monday night pupil. (We still have not fixed a new time for lessons, and this is really bad, but he can still play the hell out of “Taps”, so all is not lost but merely on hold.) I referred to a book on the uke by Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain member Will Grove-White, and I sorta intimated that I would write a review of it soon. Sooner, later, whatever: here it is now.

The book is called Get Plucky with the Ukulele, and it’s a gift to the modern world, coming at the right time now that the second wave of ukulele has crested and the Good Ship Jumping Flea has come down the other side, not upturned. The wee instrument got rather faddish, to the point where US comedian Ria Lina could sing “Not Another Ukulele” at the Edinburgh Fringe on the ukulele with as little irony as is possible in such a setting. You still see them in shop windows, but I think the surprise factor is gone. Those who bought them in the swell of the hype may still have them kicking around the house, so when you talk about playing it, the response is no longer a) are you kidding?, b) oh, I do that too!, or c) ukulele? pfft, that’s so Hackney-three-months-ago now where’s my beard oil? We can confront the instrument as it is, unironically and neither undersold nor overhyped. Continue reading

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“We All Cherish Strange Things”: A Meditation on Ukulelevangelism

100_6369Last night, I would have been giving my middle child a ukulele lesson. I taught his sister when she was his age, and she has augmented this with violin through school and, this year, singing in the church choir. I would have been teaching him, only last night, he joined his sister for choir practice, a step he’s really excited about.The author on uke and his daughter on violin

We’ll have to find another time for uke lessons, though, because he’s been progressing really well and there’s still so much to learn. But with a vacant hole in my early evening, I picked up a book by Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain member Will Grove-White – I’d thumbed through it when I bought it, but I was writing up my PhD at the time, so I didn’t give it a proper “look”. It’s fun and good advocacy, and maybe I’ll pop a review of it up here shortly. But reading it sent me back to an old piece of writing of mine. Before I started “maintaining” this blog (that may be too grand a word for it), I would put occasional longer pieces of writing on Facebook in the “notes” category – remember those? Thing is, those don’t always get a lot of reading, and they’re rather buried. But I thought this was a rather good piece of writing that deserved a second public.

So, it’s a recycled blog post (20 January 2012), reviewing two records – one dated even at the time and the other largely inaccessible outside the snug Ottawa market. Obscure, as the ukulele itself is. But not small: it’s a long read, so grab some popcorn.


“We all cherish strange things”
– Neil Gerster, “Set Me On Fire”

This is partly a review of two albums – Neil Gerster’s Hearts and Other Shipwrecks and Eddie Vedder’s Ukulele Songs – and partly an essay on the ideas these records inspire for the strange thing that I, or we, cherish, the ukulele. (Vedder’s record barely qualifies as “new” anymore, but both were released in 2011, so I’ll take that as “recent” enough to give me licence for writing this.)

First, my own interests on the table: I am a ukulele performer, and so my appreciation of these records is overly informed and rather biased. I like the instrument, and I want others to like it, too. As well, I am personally implicated with both these artists. I’ve known Neil for 13 years – though we’ve not been in close contact for all of that time. But we played at Carleton University’s sadly (for all intents and purposes) defunct pub, Rooster’s, and shared a love of good lyrics and melodies. More recently, he played bass and sang on my own record, I Am with the Hunters; and while he was putting his own record together, he asked me for thoughts on arrangements and such. Whilst I have no such direct contact with Eddie, I might as well have done. From the release of Pearl Jam’s second record, Vs, I have faithfully followed his musical progress, memorising and personalising his words, learning his changes and riffs, and letting myself get swept up with thousands-strong audiences during his performances. Continue reading

Better Down the Road without that Load

Michael and Maxime in Villar de MazarifeMusic has been a constant fellow-traveller in my life. Last week, I wrote about the music in my head on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, which my wife and I walked ten years ago. I did manage to make some music on the outside, too, where other people could hear it. I didn’t bring a guitar with me – I had to carry everything I had for 800 kilometres, so toting a musical instrument would have been foolhardy (but more on that later) – but some of the places we stayed in had a guitar propped against the wall. To pull it down and play was a welcome act.

The most memorable of those nights – indeed, one of our most memorable on the whole journey – was in Villar de Mazarife. We had heard about this albergue by reputation: the Albergue de Jesus sometimes offers the queimada, which is an apparently impressive flaming alcoholic communal drink experience (not this). The account we read made the place out to be a hippy party spot, and I could see how it might become such a place in the right conditions. This guy, describing the queimada at another spot on the route, is of the opinion that those conditions involve several attractive peregrinas. Perhaps he’s on to something: when we hit Villar de Mazarife, it was off-season and getting chilly, and there was nobody in sight as our hospitalero showed us to our bunk room. The room slept eight on military-style metal bunk beds with bare, unadorned mattresses, but we had it to ourselves. The albergue had dorms on four sides facing into a quad, but all was lifeless.

Not all: we went to the kitchen to prepare our dinner, and a scruffy, curly-headed, bearded Canadian guy (hey, wait a minute!) was just taking his off the hob. His name was Maxime – a francophone from St. Isidore. He ate his meal whilst we cooked, and we made small, brief conversation. He seemed very internally focused and perhaps uncertain about speaking in English. The kitchen was the only warm room in the place, though, so he hung out, plucking the guitar from the corner and strumming softly as we finished our meal. Katie did our washing up, and I gestured for Max to pass the guitar. Continue reading

The Sound Somebody Makes When They’re Getting Away

Playing guitar on Camino

Playing guitar after dinner in Villamayor de Monjardin.

We were back in Canada in July, and I now curse myself for not thinking to fish out my journal from the Camino. Ten years ago, my wife and I walked 800 kilometres from the Pyrenean border to the grand cathedral city in the corner of green Galicia. I kept a couple of journals, in fact – one for the reflective narrative of the walk, and another thin black notebook that fit in my pocket into which I scrawled immediate notes – images, distances, quotations, particularly good meals.

Its two most potent functions, though, were musical. First, I wrote song lyrics in it – and I composed four good ones whilst walking. Okay, three good ones and a comic riff on a comic song called “Rick the Newfie” by Ottawa folk writer Charlie Gardner. Charlie is one of many who met at Rasputin’s most Wednesday nights to play songs at the legendary open stage. Rick, the aforementioned Newfie, was another, and Charlie’s song was a tribute to him, with a stompy jangle and a drawled-out accent. In the original, Rick has an encounter with Death whilst fishing, but the naïf manages to outwit the spirit visitor. I jotted down “Mike the Pilgrim” with a similar motif, in which Mike meets Death; but before he is taken prematurely to his eternal rest, “up come three lads from Belleville” who “left Leon this mornin’ – where ya goin’ to today?” They thump the Grim Reaper with no trouble and invite the protagonist for a beer, so all’s well that is well in the end. I played it back at Rasputin’s with both Rick and Charlie in the house, and it went down a treat. Continue reading

If You Want to

Referendum day in Scotland. It’s been murky of weather and murkier of heart for me and my family today. I have been attentive to the arguments for and against the independence of Scotland since the referendum was announced two years ago, one year after we moved to Edinburgh for me to start my PhD.

We did the math. Unless my studies went freakishly fast or I got a sweet job moments after submitting the thesis (to which I remain, in these unsteady post-submission days, totally unaverse), we would be here to vote. My wife is a dual citizen; I am a Commonwealth citizen. The franchise was ours. So – we could vote.

Yet I felt reticent about marking a ballot on this one. I have voted in Scottish, local, and national elections, and I voted in 2011 on a referendum for electoral reform at Westminster. I felt aware enough to take part, but this was something different. The future of a country I was not born to and am not a citizen of… So – should I vote? Continue reading

Complicity

I was unfortunately and personally reminded of a trend today: the demise of the independent record shop. I’m not ignorant of what’s been happening: as an independent musician, these were the only places that would stock my albums; as a music lover with growing purchase power as I left my teens, I knew these were the places that carried the music I wanted to hear and where my dollars would go farther in support of that music; and as a moderate Nick Hornby fan, I felt a twinge of hipster duty to eschew the big retailers.

As music sales have increasingly moved online (tardily following “file sharing” or “piracy” – take yer pick), I participated cautiously. I still preferred CDs, for my own enjoyment and increasingly for the ease of my young children finding something and putting it on, and when we lived in Canada, where CDs are generally cheaper and where there was a great indy shop just around the corner, it was easy. Moving here was more of a challenge, but it coincided with studenthood and its accompanying penury and parenthood and its accompanying fuddyduddyism. Continue reading

Dive in Me

I’m writing today, as many others are, on the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. For many around my age (34), it was a significant moment–one of those nodes you trace your appreciation of life through. I even planned to write a novel in which a young chap of… oh, let’s say 14 had just awakened to “good” music through Nirvana only to realise as his enthusiasm rises that this icon has killed himself. Then I read Nick Hornby’s About a Boy and decided I needed a different dramatic arc.

But it’s true: I owe my love of good music to Nirvana. And Aerosmith, to be honest. Pearl Jam captured my soul and my passion, but it wouldn’t have happened without “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Before that, I had been a techno-hip-hop enthusiast, following my dedication to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Anything with electric guitars was obviously heavy metal, i.e., music my brother liked, and therefore worthy of rejection tout court. (Oddly, Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet evaded such classification, but that could be because of my Aunt Barb. Or maybe I liked the thought of one small patch of common ground between me and my brother.) I was the first in the family to have a CD player, and the first CD I got to go with it was X-Tendamix Dance Mix ’92, a lively compilation from our friends at MuchMusic. I would go crazy, dumb-dancing in the corner at school dances while all the other kids lined up, boys on one side of the gym, girls on the other, and met in the middle song by song to hold their rigid hands against the appropriate waist or shoulder, bobbing back and forth like zombie buoys in an ocean of crappy music. Continue reading

With One Hand Waving Free

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free

Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

-Bob Dylan, “Mr Tambourine Man”

My wife bought a tambourine the other day. It is a prop to help her with a Sunday School lesson: she’s working through Moses and the Exodus, and she wanted to include Moses’s sister Miriam singing and playing her tambourine after the Israelites cross the Red Sea in their providential escape from Pharaoh’s army. This, she will freely admit, is largely to

Statue of Boudicca by Thomas Thornycroft near Westminster pier.

Picture (cc) Kit36

please our daughter, who as a musical wee blighter has latched on to Miriam as a hero of the same order as Boudicca.

Tambourines are loud, obnoxious, and infectious. As a doctoral researcher in the last few months of my PhD writing, I could wish for Bob Dylan’s tambourine man to play a song for me, and I could lose myself as Bob describes. But, as the man said elsewhere, “we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate.”

Continue reading