Kiwi ukulele joy is spreading

UKE CRUSADER: Mary Cornish is chair of the NZ Ukulele Trust and an organiser of the NZ Ukulele Festival.
UKE CRUSADER: Mary Cornish is chair of the NZ Ukulele Trust and an organiser of the NZ Ukulele Festival.

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it's not." 

Dr Seuss said that, way back in 19-something-something and, temporal inaccuracies aside, it's a sentiment which holds much relevance now. It's about making a difference where you can, and those people who do will always be needed and respected. 

Mary Cornish is one of these folk - an energetic mum who also happens to work tirelessly as chair of a sparsely-funded charity. You may have heard of it - the NZ Ukulele Trust.

The most public activity of the Trust is its annual NZ Ukulele Festival, and, along with her two other volunteer offsiders, Mary is a hands-on organiser for the event.

It started out smallish - a day of ukulele fun held at Mt Roskill Intermediate and orchestrated by a teacher who was also a uke-enthusiast. One of his own pupils thought up the name for the then-400-strong Kiwileles, the now-3,000-strong (and still growing) uke band who perform an hour-long, interactive set at each festival. They're officially the world's largest ukulele orchestra - Japan tried to beat the record last year and failed.

Five years ago Mary joined up with the trust and the organisation of the festival - "because it sounded like fun" - and by then the scope and appeal of the event had grown so much they had to shift the whole shebang to Mt Smart Stadium to fit everyone in. And that's where Bono came in. 

"We lost Mt Smart the year that U2 came. They bumped us off because they needed the whole complex - we were just up in the annex grounds, but they needed that too, for their backstage crew, I guess!" 

Mary is laughing but I feel like shaking a fist. 

"It was a shame, we used to get Mt Smart for free because it was covered by the Auckland Regional Council. We had to come up with the money to pay for another venue, one big enough to hold us." Bloody U2.

Anyway, the shift from Mt Smart to Waitakere Trusts Stadium actually worked well. Being held in a spacious and mostly uncovered property meant the festival was able to become even bigger, and, crucially, there were enough stadium seats for those ever-growing Kiwileles. At this year's festival they'll fill the entire grandstand.

"The problem we have as a trust is managing a festival that draws 10,000 people. There comes a time when you can't do that on a volunteer basis. The funding for the festival is sorted, we have a good relationship with the funding bodies, but now we want to be able to pay people for the work that they do."


Clearly, the behind-the-scenes work has to be top-notch in order to cope with so many kids in one place. 

"We're nothing without the teachers. It's up to them to teach the kids the material, to get them to come along. And actually sometimes it's not a teacher, it's someone from the community. It's cool, because it means that even people who don't have a musical background, who haven't been trained musically, can get involved with taking a group. Our job is to empower these 'teachers'."

It's enough to give someone the warm fuzzies, thinking of those community volunteers game enough to take on the role of ukulele instructor to a room full of kids who will inevitably grow to become better at playing than them.

"The teachers only need to stay one step ahead of the kids, but of course the kids soon overtake them," Mary says. And she'd know, having become a ukulele player througout the course of her relationship with the Trust. She now plays and sings with Marmaduke, a seven-piece uke-and-other-instruments group.

With a background in choral work, Mary knows how important it is to not only get kids involved with playing an instrument, but to also teach them how to listen to each other, musically - a necessity when you're part of such a large ensemble as the Kiwileles. 

And once the gathered crowd of family, friends and fellow uke lovers is encouraged to join in with those Kiwileles, playing their own instruments, using info posted on the festival website weeks beforehand, it really becomes an exercise in group dynamics. It's certainly something to behold, either as a player or an eager spectator.

However, if you're not into that participation stuff (or even the singing-kids stuff), the festival will still have more than enough on offer, and adults are amply catered to.

A new featured event will be the Island Uke Strum-Off, a competition based around the particular Pacific Island style of playing ukulele which is very, very fast and nimble.

People of all ages can register to show off their flying fingers, and the talent will no doubt be amazing to watch. 

There's also a whole indoor stage dedicated to community ukulele group performances. These are often groups that haven't had the opportunity to perform in front of an audience before and the Trust is dedicated to setting them up on the day with the best sound and lighting they can, to make it an unforgettable experience. 

Keeping fledgling players and go-getters happy this year is the whole new area of the festival dedicated to workshops. Whether you want to try your hand at songwriting, learning fancy strum techniques, the delicate art of busking, or if you just want to get to grips with basic ukulele playing, the club rooms will house the Ukulele Institute and some truly talented tutors.

And there will be Uke Jam, otherwise known as ukulele karaoke. I cannot even begin to tell you how excited I am about this. Chords and lyrics to songs will be up on a screen, and, as the 'karaoke' part of the description would indicate, people can dive in with their own ukes and play and sing to their hearts' content. This will be a real crowd-pleaser, I can tell.


In line with the Trust's music-education strategy, and possibly even to some degree because of it, the ukulele bug is biting Kiwis hard.

It's clearly an instrument on the rise all over the globe, but wielded by artists closer to home like Annah Mac and the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra, this wee pocket rocket is making its mark on Kiwi pop music and showing up on albums and in live shows.

Whether you like the fact that it has a lot of coverage in the music industry or not, there's no denying its wide appeal, and Mary is enthusiastic about its potential as a 'gateway instrument' of sorts.

Playing the ukulele pairs naturally with singing and because the kids can accompany themselves they're encouraged to sing more - especially the boys, says Mary, who are inclined to balk at any kind of acapella vocal work. Strumming creates a cacophony of musical 'safety' that allows expression to blossom and grow. And for some of these kids, who knows where it could end? 

The Trust fosters more advanced musicianship from its Kiwileles nesting ground, creating a Youth Development Squad from its best players who perform as a ukulele orchestra in the APPA Music Festival, held annually at the Town Hall.

From my own very amateurish school performances in various choirs I know how liberating performance can be, and I envy these kids who are so supported by this hard-working trust that they have the opportunity to grow their skills and play at this hallowed venue.

Once again it all comes down to the people who give their time and expertise, who learn along with the kids and contribute to the growth of the community, wherever it might be located. The NZ Ukulele Trust is not just an Auckland-based outfit, and schools around the country are now beginning to benefit from the work of the volunteers drawn to its ethos. 

Mary and her team of ukulele champions are worthy of our respect, and what greater way to show it than to come along to the NZ Ukulele Festival on Saturday December 1 and enjoy the fruits of all their hard work.

Read more in fortnightly publication Suburbanite.

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