There may have been many a giggle and plenty of derision when it was announced Cairns is considering hosting an international ukulele festival. But maybe, just maybe, we will be plinky-plunking all the way to the bank. Denise Carter reports
But when Mayor Val Schier announced Cairns Regional Council might consider a ukulele festival as a signature event for Cairns, it sparked many letters from angry readers who seemed to think it was the most ridiculous suggestion ever.
Perhaps people were thinking of Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii playing his trusty ukulele.
Perhaps they most remembered George Formby’s Leaning on a Lamp Post, or Tiny Tim’s Tiptoe through the Tulips, reminders of the vaudeville comic element that has followed the ukulele like a bad smell and often made it the butt of jokes.
And so there were spitters and sputters of angst.
Could a ukulele fest get the Cairns community behind it?
Even if people were vaguely interested at the novelty of it all, would they still remain at home because it was just too uncool?
Could a uke fest ever be a drawcard or would it more likely make Cairns a complete laughing stock?
For musicians in Cairns, who are trying to build a city filled with music of all kinds, even a ukulele fest is no
Tony Hillier, a guitarist with local bands Kamerunga and Snake Gully who is also a music journalist, says while the ukulele wouldn’t be his cup of tea, it is important to bring all varieties of music festivals to Cairns.
"Put it this way, it has great novelty value," Tony says.
"I can’t say locals would turn out in their droves, but enthusiasts might come from around the country."
Tony thinks it may also generate some good news out of Cairns rather than the usual croc stories that are synonymous with the region in the national papers.
"Locals might even have sufficient curiosity to come out and have a sticky beak," Tony says.
He says people only ridicule the uke through ignorance.
"They don’t understand what’s involved to play any instrument," he says.
It’s not as if the uke is some outdated and twee instrument which has died a death, and is being resurrected just to embarrass the city.
A brief look at the number of festivals popping up all over the world confirms there is already a resurgence of interest in the ukulele.
The London Uke Fest says there has been a "meteoric rise in popularity of the ukulele in recent years".
This year, festival organisers are trying to break the world record for the largest amount of ukulele players playing together in the one spot.
They are looking for more than 500 people and plan to donate the proceeds to cancer research.
Perhaps it’s because the global financial crisis has tipped most of the world into recession that there is a resurgence of the cheap and cheerful instrument, or even because the internet has allowed special interest groups to get in touch with each other and build networks of support.
These are a couple of theories of Daniel Siddhartha, aka Bosko from the Bosko and Honey ukulele duo based in Kuranda.
He says there have been three waves of the ukulele that have tied in with both the advent of new technologies; the radio, TV, and the internet, and recessions.
Now he says, special interest groups are connecting with each other more online, and connecting in the physical world. Daniel and his wife, Yukie Toda, have experienced this phenomenon first-hand.
They began learning the ukulele just three years ago, and following great demand for their act in Kuranda, they decided to combine their love of travel and making music, and do a ukulele tour of the world.
"It has changed our lives," Daniel says.
Relying on people they never met, except online, the couple accepted invitations from ukulele musicians, both amateur and professional, from America, Europe and Asia, and literally couch-surfed their way around 12 countries in 11 months, playing the uke with their hosts and posting the performances on YouTube in an online diary of their ukulele safari.
The couple have been to the New York Uke Fest, the Hollesley festival in Britain, the Vincenza festival in Italy and have met fantastic people along the way.
"It’s unbelievable," Daniel says, about the New York festival.
"People are ukulele nuts and there is a fantastic level of performers."
Daniel says the uke players the couple met on their travels were of all ages, but they all tended to like small things.
"They kept birds, cats and small dogs," Daniel says.
The couple plans to repay the hospitality shown to them around the world next year when they pay two ukulele musicians to come to join them on their tour around Australia, which they are hoping to have televised.
Much of the popularity of the uke is due to its simplicity to learn, and its portability.
Local enthusiast Jodie Brownlee, a full-time author, was keen to learn guitar, but when she saw a band with a ukulele at the Tanks, she thought a ukulele might be a better instrument to learn because of its size and portability, so she bought a ukulele for $25.
"I fell in love with it," Jodie says. "It’s a lovely form of self-expression."
Since then, Jodie has felt inspired to write little ditties; she wrote one about Holloways Beach, which goes something like, "A cyclone is on its way, we’re all happy and gay", and she wrote new lyrics to Waltzing Matilda for a friend who was being made an Australian citizen.
She says she even drives her partner crazy by attempting to play sombre and melancholy Scottish tunes on the happy-sounding soprano uke.
For Jodie, who is a member of the Cairns Ukulele Club, playing the ukulele is all about fun.
She can easily download chords and music online, so there is no need for formal lessons, and she brings her ukulele to Sydney for get-togethers with family and friends.
Gaby Thomasz, the organiser of the Cairns Ukulele Festival, which is going to happen with or without council support in July next year, says she just wants a happy event that is inclusive of multicultural groups.
Gaby started the ukulele club in Cairns last year on April 1, which is no joke, as she says on her website.
It has enjoyed attendances of 20 to 30 people at the Cape York Hotel on the first Tuesday of each month, from travelling and local ukulele players, who want to mingle, learn the instrument, or just have fun.
"I’m facilitating a group to make music from absolute beginners to advanced players," Gaby says.
Gaby, who works at Music City, loves the instrument and has played it for two years. Since starting the club, she has built a website with links to ukulele clubs around Australia and indeed, the world.
At the festival Gaby plans to have workshops for people of all ages, including children, who can choose the ukulele as a fun instrument with which to start their musical lives.
It’s obviously not an instrument too uncool for school because already Trinity Anglican School’s primary children are taking up the ukulele rather than the recorder under the tutelage of their music teacher, Eva Horn, and by all accounts they are loving it.
Other workshops at the festival for adults will include songwriting, and guest acts will range from comedy performers to jazz musicians.
One musician who says he’s interested in performing in Cairns at the festival is Azo Bell.
Listening to the ukulele virtuoso play an impromptu medley of Duke Ellington music on the phone is a rather humbling experience.
Anyone who might want to pin the ukulele as just a cheap, easy to play, and twee instrument might want to hear such a master in action.
The Old Spice Boys performer didn’t start his musical career playing the ukulele but came to it as a seasoned musician, transposing everything he had learned on guitar onto it, and toting it in his backpack to amuse himself in hotel rooms when he was on tour.
Azo can make a uke sing classical, jazz, blues, pop, or true island-style music. He has headlined the ukulele festival in New York, has been to the New Zealand international festival in Auckland and even attended a festival in Uki, a small town in New South Wales.
Azo does have some doubts about the current rage and thinks the uke may be "digging a hole for itself" with clubs rather like "drumming circles" and not having a lot to do with music.
On the other hand, he says, people already take music much too seriously.
Whether it’s depth to your music or just a bit of fun, the uke seems to have an answer for everyone.
The ukulele festival may not put Cairns on any international map, but for uke lovers, Cairns might be right where it’s at.
And there’s always space for other festivals.
As local musician Tony Hillier says: "I think we might look at the potential of putting the focus on a different instrument each year. Maybe, the year after the uke festival we could have a fiddlers’ festival."
Find out more about the Cairns Ukulele Festival.
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Plucky idea: Ukulele player Gaby Thomasz.
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