I’ve wandered both sides of the temporary fences erected by performing arts festivals and wondered what they (and I) were doing. Not all of the barriers are visible. Maybe you know what I mean. The word ‘festival’ seems to imply celebration, yet many performing arts festivals seem to be unsure of what they’re celebrating.
Public money is annually incinerated in the vague hope of shared warmth or illumination. Standing ovations obscure the object of applause. Marketing blurs it further. Most people in the town never attend. Yearly staff turnover results in a kind of organisational amnesia. Migratory artistic directors fly in and fly out. Observing these gigs from inside and out, I’d figured that’s just the way these kinds of ‘high’ art festivals would always be, and found my fun elsewhere – yet as I played at more and more ukulele festivals I wondered if these distinctive events might have something to teach the mainstream performing arts festival.
From the New Zealand Ukulele Festival’s stadium full of school-aged strummers, the Melbourne Ukulele Festival’s crowded bohemian cafes, the Sunshine Coast’s antique hall and showground full of campers, Newkulele’s rocking big top, the grand hotel at the heart of the Blue Mountains Ukulele Festival, the Asian and Pasifika strand of Cairns and the camaraderie of Brisbane’s Spruke, and many others, each Ukulele Festival that I’ve been part of has its own identity. Yet each seemed to share some common characteristics that set them apart from other festival experiences I’ve had, whether they be community, musical or performing arts events.
There are now around eighty ukulele festivals all over the world. A trip to the UK to play the 2017 Grand Northern Ukulele Festival as ‘Tyrone’ was an ideal opportunity to investigate this phenomenon more closely, through interviews, participation, performance and observation from within and without. I talked with professional performers, producers, punters, purveyors, participants and players for pleasure to find out how an international ukulele festival ticks.
Assumptions about the Ukulele and its Festivals
But first, let’s address the assumptions you might have about the ukulele. Ryo Montgomery, Cairns-based virtuoso, and the only other Australian artist playing at GNUF17 is living proof that the four strings of a ukulele present unlimited musical possibilities, yet “when people come into a music store and see the ukes, they think it’s just a toy – you know, Tiny Tim and all that stuff. But if you show them what you can do on the uke, and you can do anything on the uke, they’re pretty easily swayed.”
Cameron Murray, editor of Australian Ukulele Magazine Kamuke agrees. “Another silly assumption people make is that only happy or comical songs work well on the ukulele and that a festival will consist solely of people in straw hats and Hawaiian shirts pumping out clichéd nonsense. The truth is anything can be played on a uke, from a solemn dirge to a complex classical piece. The art is in the artist, not the instrument.”
The ghost of entertainer George Formby haunts perceptions of the ukulele, especially in the UK where he was extraordinarily popular. Dean Badger, of Biscuithead and the Biscuitbadgers knows this well. “The assumption I always get when I play the ukulele is that I’m going to play George Formby songs. People think it’s a lot of cheerful music, which I guess often it is, or assume it’s comedic in some way, because the instrument lends itself to that pretty well. People might think it might be a bit old-fashioned, maybe, or stuffy, maybe.”
Tiny Tim and George Formby are vestiges in the popular memory of past ‘waves’ of ukulele popularity in the 1920s and 50’s. They’re throwbacks and figures of fun to many, but form part of popular perceptions about the instrument and those that play them.
Formby’s quirky positivity and antique innuendo links the instrument to comedy, music hall and cinema. Tiny Tim’s status as an outsider artist who was holding a uke when the spotlight finally found him, enforces false assumptions that ukuleles are played only by nerdy misfits.
The instrument itself is accessible, communal, and a bit of a leveler, it a way that an oboe perhaps isn’t. As Australian writer Helen Garner suggests, “No one could possibly be afraid of this instrument…A uke is humble. It inspires in me no ambition, no duty or guilt. It’s so low in the hierarchy of things that the bullying super-ego can’t touch it.”
“No one could possibly be afraid of this instrument…A uke is humble. It inspires in me no ambition, no duty or guilt. It’s so low in the hierarchy of things that the bullying super-ego can’t touch it.”
Robin Evans, Esq. is a young performer who holds the world record for playing the ukulele for the longest time. When I talk with him on the first night of the festival, he doesn’t mince words. “People always assume it’s going to be incredibly naff, and incredibly twee, and it’s going to be full of grey nomads who tried to have a mid life crisis and didn’t, and just bought a ukulele instead and sit there strumming the same seven songs.”
The hair at might look greyer or sparser than it might be at a festival of rock or dance music, but a closer examination of any crowd at a ukulele festivals will reveal a highly varied, and family-friendly demographic. Robin’s image of the inexperienced player who has turned up to learn and strum for fun also rings true when you walk around a ukulele festival site. Groups of musicians gather in circles, or pore over chord charts, indefatigably strumming and singing for hours on end. Communing through music is a key feature of these events, for good reason.
Tricity Vogue, London-based ukulele strumming cabaret performer says “Ukulele Festivals differ from other festivals… the biggest difference is the fact that there is no line, or the line is very blurred, between performer and audience. It’s a very participatory culture in that everybody here is a player.”
It’s this blurred line between participant and performer that is a consistent theme. Almost everybody I have a conversation with at GNUF with mentions it. When I’m able to briefly catch festival producer and director Mary Agnes Krell for a quick chat, I come to understand that this is not by accident, it’s by design. She mentions the word porosity, which when I look it up means, essentially ‘full of holes’. This isn’t just about the soundholes of ukuleles, it’s about providing a structure that’s solid and shapely yet spacious enough to enable a flow between old and new ideas, between professionals and players for pleasure, performers and participants.
What’s so special about ukulele festivals?
A distinctive quality of the ukulele festival is that everybody, from beginners to experts like Andy Eastwood and Tobias Elof, who’ve studied the ukulele at university, feels as though they still have something to learn about the instrument. Robin Evans Esq. says “You can go to a ukulele festival and learn more in one afternoon just by watching people and speaking to people than you can for months and months and months of watching youtube videos and practicing stuff.”
This learning often involves performance. It could be watching the best the world do their thing, as Nick Cody, who runs the Original Ukulele Songs stage observes that “finding things that you’re not going to find on your doorstep. In this weekend I can see people from Australia, America, Canada, Europe, solo, in groups, all in one place.” As I talk to more and more artists I come to realize they’ve converged on GNUF from their own scenes, as diverse as cabaret, folk, rock, blues, singer-songwriter, variety entertainment, and in my case, music & theatre. With a bill of over 50 local, national and international artists, Cody compares GNUF to to Austin’s South by Southwest Festival. However, the learning and participation is also often modest, communal and omnidirectional.
This quality is readily identified at a ukulele festival. Walking around town with a ukulele case, one is instantly identifiable as a participant, and this can enable new connections. Without a word being spoken, raise our case to other case-carrying strangers in solidarity, as if in a toast.
I meet festival attendees Joy and Jude at a restaurant. They see my uke case and invite me to join them. They described how they’d initially sidelined themselves: “When we went to the open mic night, we didn’t bring our ukuleles because we didn’t think we were good enough, we just wanted to watch.” But they were instantly invited to join in if they wanted to, with strangers offering the use of their instrument “ They said to us ‘My uke’s under the table, you can borrow that’. I’ve not had that with any other genre of music where you really can speak and know everyone.”
Having played ukulele since 1980, Myrna (who’s travelled from Alaska to be here) has seen a lot of ukulele festivals. She says “I just love coming, I love the people that I meet, I love my instrument and I love playing music with all these wonderful people that come together for a weekend or a week and play music together. And that’s what it’s really all about is truly the music. Playing music with others.”
Dean Badger says that at a ukulele festival,” People are sort of bonded together in a way“. Ryo Montgomery puts it simply: “They bring people together. There’s no ego, arrogance, people having fun. They just want to play. For Andy Eastwood, “The atmosphere is what it’s about. Walking around, seeing people happy and smiling. It’s not like everyday life, is it? Where else can you go when you see people happy all the time?”
If you’ve read this far, you may be concerned that I’m writing about a kind of cult. In our post-modern, ironic age, this kind of simple positivity can inspire a kind of suspicion. And if you think it’s not ‘cool’, you’re probably right. Like many performers, I myself am at heart rather socially reticent, and I don’t slip easily into ‘hail fellow well met’ mode. At my first few ukulele festivals, I’d turn up, sort out the particulars of the gig, play and slip away anonymously into the audience. As I attended more and more I began to understand that in doing so, and not using the festival as an opportunity to share and connect, I had been missing out.
While Nick Cody senses that I’m seeking commonalities between ukulele festivals, he thinks there’s no point in suggesting that every one of these gigs is exactly the same. “When we talk about ukulele festivals, it’s like talking about restaurants, there are so many kinds – are we talking Michelin Star or Kentucky Fried Chicken?” He holds that the Grand Northern “Does not fit the brief of classic stereotypical ukulele festival. The early bird tickets sold out in 2.5 hours. The sheer amount of interest sets it apart.’
It’s true I’ve never seen as much interest in a yearly festival. Tickets for next year’s festival open on midnight of the last night of the festival, and I know from having talked to festival organisers that this is no small feat. Calendar placement is a balancing act between multiple factors including funding, venue availability and a desire to complement, rather than compete with other festivals held around the same time. This is perhaps less of an issue in Australia, where the scale and geography have their own part to play.
Festival veteran Myrna has noticed how each ukulele festival responds to its geography, and how the response of each event to its environment is a key factor in characterizing each event. “Here, we’re in an old British city, we’ll be going to a beautiful old theatre, and other venues all around to play and to listen – in other places for example the Menucha Ukulele Camp, it’s at a retreat centre above the Columbia River, so you’ve got the beauty of the natural outdoors as well as the instructors and people that you meet and play with.”
The essence of ukulele festivals
Knowing that the casual observer might assume that a ukulele festival is just a bunch of dags in Hawaiian shirts strumming old fashioned songs, I ask each of my interviewees to propose a single moment, that for them captures the essence of a ukulele festival.
Tricity Vogue immediately evokes a particular sound, “masses and masses of people strumming together. There’s that kind of real well of sound that’s created that kind of blurs around the edges. The strum, almost with an echo to it almost like across a mountain”. For Nick Cody, it’s a moment of unexpected discovery. “One ukulele and one song that just take you to another place…anything that gets your attention that transports you to somewhere else. There’s always going to be an artist or group that do something that engages a listener of viewer that makes you go ‘wow! What’s that?’”.
For Myrna from Alaska, “it’s when the entire group, who’ve been together, towards the end of the festival come together to play and sing as a group.” This making of music together, whether it’s large or small scale, planned or spontaneous is emblematic of the ukulele festival, and as well as the indefatigable group strummers, joyfully circled around the music they’re making, leaning in to the music as well as each other, the communitas of a large scale singlalong is more often than not built into the program of a ukulele festival.
The Evolution of Ukulele Festivals
I’m talking to players and participants from the third wave of ukulele who have gathered a lot of experience, so I’m keen to get their perspective on how ukulele festivals might have changed since they became involved. Andy Eastwood says “The main thing is that the standard of playing is getting higher. When the uke boom came along, suddenly there were a lot of players, but the average standard had plummeted. Because then you had beginners putting a tuition video on youtube and they’ve only had a uke for three weeks. In 1989 you had to take a train ride to find another ukulele player – and now of course, every town has a uke club.”
Tricity Vogue has noticed that the evolution is often interpersonal. “Principally I’m talking about performers getting to know each other but it has a wider reverberation in terms of community in the sense that people might come for the first time because they’re interested in the ukulele – then they make connections and come back to meet each other as well. It’s become more of a community and less of a ‘show’ as time has gone on.“
Victoria Vox, from Maryland talks about the role the makers play. As the number and quality of uke players has increased, so has that of luthiers making instruments for them. She says that as the quality of instruments have improved, so have the players. The economy expands, and the players support the purveyors. The foyer of the GNUF’s Lawrence Batley Theatre houses a range of maker’s stalls for the duration of the festival. Mim from Mim’s Ukes has come all the way from the USA to play, coordinate a stage, and promote the love of uke. She also fixes and sells ukuleles online and says she sees performing and stage coordination as a way of making new connections. But when I see her in sequins and bright blue hair playing and compering her very popular stage, it seems more like she’s doing it for fun and love.
On these stages I see people like Johan from Belgium (who’ve told me privately that they’re not good players) absolutely aglow onstage, and gathering wild applause. The word amateur has developed a negative connotation – someone who, as these people might describe themselves, is ‘not very good’. But let’s not forget the word ‘Amateur’ is derived from the French ‘lover of’, and people here love the ukulele, whether they’re paid to or not. Nick Cody observes that the festival headliners “might be seasoned professionals, but the idea that it’s only the people on the mainstage who are the talented people is a total misnomer.”
Sitting in the sunshine in the large courtyard of the theatre, as Mim’s outdoor stage fires up, and crowds gather, he finishes his cup of tea and tells me that “the festivals that have been around a long time are the ones that tend to evolve and develop and expand and bring in new audiences. GNUF is completely, constantly evolving, and stretching into a far more creative perspective. And of course the heart of any festival is the people who are organizing it. As we’re sitting here you can see it’s very much a community style event, people are really invested and interested in the whole experience.”
“It’s not about one artist. It’s a collection of all the people who cooperate who’ve got very different viewpoints but have all got a commonality in that they want to entertain, develop and communicate through the wonderful medium of music.” Nick Cody
GNUF just won the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, the MBE for volunteer groups. That’s a great honour. Surely she doesn’t hand them out willy-nilly. So what might mainstream, ‘high’ performing arts festivals have to learn from ukulele festivals? They’re quite different beasts, and always will be. Revolution will not come from privileged quarters, but here are some things to consider. A space to reach for.
In this space you’ll find inclusivity, encouragement, a porosity of program allowing flow between local and international artists and audience; depth rather than scale of participation; genuine responsiveness to community and environment; diversity of programming; activation of existing networks and creation of new ones and commitment to ongoing events, learning and evolution. There’s more effort put into building pathways than erecting barriers. There are multiple, shifting entry points.
Here, families are welcome. Here, both volunteer and paid artistic and administrative labour is valued with a professional ethos. Here there’s humour and intelligence in the thinking and writing behind and around the festival rather than the unadulterated stupidity of marketing or dull artistic jargon. Here artistic directors stand behind, rather than in front of a team.
Here, community engagement and artistic excellence aren’t seen to be mutually exclusive.
Here there are opportunities for communal meaning to be created, rather than imposed or assumed. Here the audience is granted active agency, or may take it without needing to ask permission.
The instrument that’s brought us all to this festival is both a tool and a symbol of these connections, and the way we’ll walk away away humming new tunes. It could represent the important role festivals can continue to play. As Helen Garner puts it, the ukulele “has a simple and benevolent purpose: to create a gentle bed of sound for the human voice; to enrich the single line of melody that a human voice is capable of.”
All photographs by kind permission James Millar @ https://www.jamestmillar.com
This project was supported by the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland
Read more about my experience of GNUF here.