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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(Dis)United Kingdom

Daffodil by Dave Morris

Daffodil, (CC BY 2.0) Dave Morris, found on flickr.com

So Happy Saint David’s Day, or as they say here in Wales, Hapus Dydd Dewi Sant, though I’ve also seen a Gwyl in there, and I may have the order wrong. I’m mostly relying on Twitter for these things; my children, who are being educated in the English system but are of course learning Welsh as a subject, are not really better placed to correct me yet.

We’re figuring it out.

The move from Scotland, which as I’m fond of saying is distinct because of its institutions, to Wales, which is instead distinct due primarily to its language, is full of opportunities to learn. In fact, Wales has always been about learning for me: I remember doing a class project in Grade 3 about Wales, drawing the flag (ineptly), making a map full of mountains and castles, and drawing Sir Percival in his red-gold armour. In truth, I’m all about Wales.

Our first St David’s Day in Cardiff was grey, windy, and wet. Really, it felt like we hadn’t left Edinburgh at all. These things should unite us, but every St David’s Day, I can’t help but remember an object lesson of disunity.

In 2013, I was in Glasgow, doing field work for my PhD, and I had to get from one site to another rather quickly, so I took a taxi. We pull up outside Location #2 on a gloriously sunny March day (yes, in Glasgow), and I ask the driver for a receipt.

“What’s the day?” he says to himself as he fills it out. “First of March.”

“Yeah,” I say (in my Boy Scouty Canadian accent). “Happy St David’s Day!”

He snorts. “If you’re Welsh.”

“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

Shrove Tuesday, or On the Plasticity of “Fixed” Culture

Tough Gig

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Sad days for the newspaper industry – in my current home, the UK, with my beloved Guardian, but also in Canada, the country where I learned and practised journalism. The bleeding at Postmedia was painful and shameful (and, thanks to the dubious blessing of social media and the courage of people like Jana Pruden, completely exposed in all its personal minutiae), and then Friday saw the shuttering of the Guelph Mercury and, less significantly for the country (we all know where the power sits) but more significantly for me, the Nanaimo Daily News.

My parents gave me the drop on the Daily News by Skype this week. Nanaimo’s their home, the Daily News their daily, well, news. They knew I’d care because it’s big news from where I grew up, because I study media for a living, and because I used to be a journalist myself until, as happened to so many of my fellow travellers in this reporting game, the axe fell.

But my history with the paper is more entangled even than that paragraph suggests. Barring a mighty letter to the editor of Maclean’s when I was in Grade 9 (yes, I was That Kid), the Daily News was my first gig in journalism. Continue reading

Primary Socialisation

Religion in Life Certificate

Started young, I did.

My dad sent me this scan of a certificate I got when I was in Cubs. I needed images of me in any Beavers or Cubs kit to go with a blog I was writing for the Messy Table. Seeing it now, there’s an eerie resonance with the MA I took at King’s College London in 2010-11 (Religion in Contemporary Life). Maybe I could be cheeky and call my Master’s degree “II Stage” of the programme. It cost a chunk of change, but there’s a qualitative difference between Zone 1-2 of London and the Cub Camp near Bragg Creek in the Alberta foothills…

Could I have imagined then that I would now be lecturing on religion and the media at a Russell Group university? We don’t know which from among our early experiences will have an impact on our later ones – and maybe, to a degree, we’re complicit in writing that script. That’s a bit of what the blog post is about, musing about a friend who is torn over enrolling his child in Scouting when he doesn’t believe in the God his child would be asked to profess.

Here’s some of what I had to say in the post:

The fellowship my friend wants his child to encounter in the Scouting programme, as well as maybe some groovy skills that include cooking beef, potatoes, and carrots in tin foil on a fire he helped make, is one set of experiences that will shape him. The utterance of belief in God is another, and the way the child is brought up in his home is yet another. The dream of a seamless meld here is a fantasy, because we are ourselves contradictory, before we even get to the contradictions we experience when we meet other people.

You can read the full piece here.

Ultreia

Cathedral of Santiago de CompostelaFor some people, this is the goal. This is what they are walking to. Whether from Saint Jean Pied de Port, their front door, or the Galician town of Sarria, a convenient 106 kilometres from the cathedral and therefore just far enough to “count” as a pilgrimage – from any of these points of origin, this is their destination. To stand in the Plaza del Obradoiro and gaze up at the ornate facade is to stand at the foot of the holy mountain. Only, you don’t climb up, you climb in; it is your eyes, and your heart perhaps, which ascend the peak.

For some, this summit is only a plateau. It is not enough – they feel, as we use the word sometimes, that they have plateaued: reached a height and flattened out, with the unsatisfying feeling lurking inside that greater heights are possible if only they can keep going. They arrive at Compostela and feel that their peregrinations cannot possibly be over. They have reached their ostensible destination, but they keep on walking.

For us, it was neither. We walked into the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on 29 October 2005 neither overawed nor underwhelmed. Our Protestant leanings may have had something to do with this: pilgrimage “proper” is one of the traditions the Reformers were wary of, and the piece of paper we received from the official office will not, in our estimation, be of much use in clearing our own or our sinful forebears’ souls from purgatory.

So what was it all for, then? Certainly it was still, as they say, a mountain-top experience. Three mountains stand out for me, and I guess I’ll relate them chronologically. Continue reading

One Line to Last You

Galician hillsideI popped into the bank a little while ago. I seldom need to go in, as I can do most of what I need on the internet or at the hole in the wall, but we had recently moved from Scotland to Wales, and I had a mittfull of Scottish bank notes which are not widely embraced as currency south of the border (even though they’re still pounds sterling. Even at the food shops in King’s Cross Station, where the Edinburgh train tends to arrive. Don’t get me started.)

Anyway, I was at the bank, as I said, and they had a table out with some used books for sale, raising money for some charity or another. Cancer, I think. Most of the books on the table looked pretty carcinogenic, if you ask me, but that’s often the way of these things. The dregs and the disposable circulate, whilst the books that are actually worth reading tend to stay on our shelves. Funny that.

But I looked at the table anyway, and on it was Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist. I know a lot of people get pretty jazzed about his stuff, and his books and his thoughts were present with many of our fellow peregrinos on the camino, which we walked ten years ago on the button. I was not tempted, nor did I put much faith in Shirley MacLaine’s also-influential account. She got a lot of people scared about dogs – people practicing their faux-fencing skills with those wonderful Nordic poles in case they had to defend themselves on the journey. (We did meet a dog – a yappy thing with a blue ribbon around its neck. I wanted to take a picture for Shirley’s sake.) 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