Ukeleles not just good for firewood

16:00, Nov 23 2013
Bret McKenzie
LATEST GIG: Bret McKenzie is the official "face of ukulele" in New Zealand.

Sodden with spit, punctured with multiple tiny holes your clumsy fingers refuse to cover, capable of sounding like a roomful of whistling tea kettles, there's a lot to loathe about the recorder, a medieval baroque instrument that somehow hung around to torture us in modern times.

And yet, in the hope that endlessly tootling away on one might instil a love of music, I was forced to play the bugger at school. So was Wellington actor and musician Bret McKenzie. Part-time Tolkien elf, sporadic Muppet collaborator, occasional member of The Black Seeds and the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra, Academy Award winner and, of course, the more compact and beardy half of Flight of the Conchords, McKenzie has done all right for himself. Clearly, his early experiences with the recorder have not scarred him for life.

"I have even pulled out the recorder in Conchords gigs occasionally," he admits from Los Angeles, where he's busy writing the music for a new Muppet movie called The Muppets' Most Wanted. "It allows me to say unlikely things like - I've been dropping some recorder on my recent American tour."

Dropping it into the Grand Canyon, hopefully, to shatter upon sharp rocks. Both McKenzie and I remember recorder tunes we were forced to practise endlessly at school, to the extent that the very sound of them now makes us scan the Yellow Pages for the number of a good trauma counsellor. For McKenzie, that tune was Morning Has Broken by tremulous voiced future Muslim Cat Stevens. For me, it was Greensleeves, an English folk tune composed in 1580, though we just called it "the Mr Whippy song".

"If you imagine the schoolkids of our era all grown up, sitting around a campfire with a bunch of recorders, playing Greensleeves, it's a pretty depressing scene," he says. "Which is partially why I'm such an advocate of getting ukuleles into schools. Some would say the ukulele is just the new recorder, but there's so much more joy in the ukulele."

McKenzie was recently named the 2013 Ambassador of The New Zealand Ukulele Trust, which aims to get more ukes into schools. For the next 12 months he's the official "face of ukulele" in this country. He's the dwarf-guitar go-to guy, only a phone call away whenever a journalist requires sporadic ukulele-related pronouncements.


"The main reason I agreed to do it is that I love the idea of getting ukuleles into schools. It was a music teacher who first got me inspired about music. He was this hippy guy with a big beard who drove to school in his house bus, and us kids would sometimes drive around with him, singing Beatles songs. Really, the ukulele is the ideal first instrument for kids because it's easy to learn, and unlike the recorder you can sing along while you play it. The ukulele has an infectious, joyous quality you can't deny, and as Neil Finn once said, if a song works on a ukulele, it'll work on anything. It's an instrument that thrives on strong, simple melodies, so it's pretty hard to drop some Steely Dan on a ukulele, or some prog rock. And, of course, it's a gateway drug to the electric guitar."

The New Zealand Ukulele Trust stages its annual Ukulele Festival this coming Saturday, November 30, at Waitakere's Trusts Arena in Auckland, a free event that attracts more than 10,000 people. The headline act is the Kiwileles, a massed ukulele orchestra of around 3000 children - the largest nipper uke ensemble in the world. McKenzie's hoping to make it back for the event, assuming he has the new Muppet soundtrack in the bag by then.

"It'll be a great day, I'm sure, though some of my mates would disagree. Some of my friends hate the uke. There's a bit of a backlash, isn't there? Some say New Zealand is a little ukulele crazy at the moment, and I'm one of the people feeding that fire.

Actually, ukes would make pretty good firewood. But you could equally say that the ukulele is a useful personality test, letting you know how cynical someone is. If you take along a ukulele on your first date with someone and they're OK with it, they're probably a nice person.

And if someone's determined to hate the idea of a 7 year old playing a ukulele, they probably have a few unresolved issues from their own childhood. Besides, if nothing else, the ukulele is not a recorder.

Not only is it more tuneful, but also more hygienic. With the ukulele, you can learn to play music without saliva being shared."

Sunday Star Times