Born in Hawaii, with Portuguese blood, the subject of an upcoming festival is a colourful character. Its name means jumping flea and its silhouette could be politely described as pear shaped. The life of the party, full of toe-tapping goodness, it sings a sweet song and dances all night.
The ukulele. It has quite a following, with whole orchestras dedicated to its tone and a Palmy Ukulele Festival is set to celebrate the instrument's feel-good factor.
Jennifer Moss has organised the event for the past three years and she is a music and ukulele aficionado who says there is something about the ukulele.
"It's a happy sound, it makes you smile. It's easy to play, gentler on the hands to strum and it's portable. Ukuleles get people singing who wouldn't usually. I love it."
Moss has a beautiful collection that she has on display rather than packed away in the confines of cases. A yellow one with a smiley face looks particularly glad to be shown off; small, big, electric and beautifully crafted wooden ones are there too. They all have a different sound and tone and all have one thing in common, personality.
"They are a great party instrument, they bring people together. I never set out to collect them, but I have acquired a few."
The festival opens in a quiet way tomorrow but in a way that shouts out with colour. The Uke Fest Art Quest at the Square Edge Community Gallery is a nod to the ukulele's quirky and artistic nature. Pania Molloy is behind the exhibition which sees an eclectic mix of ukulele-inspired art. Molloy is a person people tag along with wherever her creative bend steers her, she is all about encouraging everyone, not just artists.
"It's all-inclusive. It's not about fine art. It's about getting involved and creative. It will be like the ukulele version of wearable arts."
There are pom-pom covered ukuleles, ones adorned with flowers, birds, musical notes. Upcycled, recycled and re-imagined, it's a bit of fun and an excuse to get a free exhibition into the public domain that doesn't take itself too seriously.
Molloy laughs when she admits she can't actually play the ukulele, but she can cover one in colourful crochet, which she taught herself to do, and says she may get around to learning, one day.
Something she can definitely do is get people together and get them creating. Her enthusiasm is infectious and her garage is so chocka block of art materials she has fossicked from op-shops that she needs an outlet.
"We have been spending weekends creating, it's been great. People pop in for a coffee and I plonk things in front of them and they are a bit hesitant at first but it doesn't take long for people to get into the swing of it."
Molloy has got the Women's Art Initiative involved and Speladd (Specific learning disability and attention deficit disorder organisation) and she is welcoming anybody to bring their art in.
Next Friday sees the sounds of ukuleles ramp up, with kids en masse performing at the festival's Schools' Uke Off at the Palmerston North City Library. Kids from all over Manawatu have been getting into ukuleles, playing in school orchestras and this is their chance to show off and have a fun face-off, ukulele style.
"It's a great instrument for kids to learn," Moss says. "It's really easy and accessible, good for little fingers. Anyone can play, you don't have to be hugely musical. Getting the community and schools involved is a big part of what the festival is about." Ten schools have prepared musical items and will be staging an entertaining and friendly battle that the public is invited to come along and watch.
Saturday will be a busy day with Ukes in Cafes getting ukuleles into the public forum with a variety of local and national ukulele artists performing for free in a number of central Palmerston North cafes.
"There will be a whole lot of different sounds. Soloists, duos, groups; it will be a nice atmosphere."
A crash ukulele course will be offered so people who have always wanted to have a go at playing will get a chance to do so. Moss herself will be leading people through the basics and her collection will be getting an airing for people who don't have their own.
"It will be a good time for people to see just how easy it is. Just the basic things, how to hold a uke, basic chords, strumming and basic techniques."
The playing will then be handed over to the pros, with Palmerston North musicians Amelia Shadbolt and Dave Boyack strumming some mellow chords before the riotous evening act pulls into Palmerston North.
The Big Muffin Serious Band take to the Globe Theatre stage, self labelled the second best ukulele band to come out of Te Awamutu in living memory. Moss says they are amazing players.
"A bit mad, they are very quirky and very entertaining. A bit of comedy and mayhem and some great lively playing, it should be really great, hysterically, achingly funny."
The Big Muffin Band will bring their unique brand of muffin method to the Palmerston North City Library with a ukulele playing workshop. Wearing gigantic chord diagrams, their lesson will be distinctively comedy driven and whimsically light hearted. Ukuleles will again be there to borrow and all skill levels welcomed.
Sunday rounds out the festival with a Palmerston North first. Ukes in Church hosted by All Saints Anglican Church promises to be an inspired service with toe-tapping hymns with local band Highly Strung and the Manawatu Community Choir. Moss' ukuleles will be having another day out for anyone that needs one and people are encouraged to bring their own and join in.
"It's all about having fun for the whole community. Something laid back and different."
The little instrument with a big heart will have its day in the sun at the Palmy Ukulele Festival and Moss' own eclectic collection will certainly have earned its keep at the festival's end. Will the little yellow ukulele still be smiling? Chances are it will.
The Palmy Ukulele Festival runs from September 5 to 8 and the Uke Fest Art Quest at Square Edge Community Gallery runs from August 30 to September 7.
- Manawatu Standard
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