Beginner's pluck

HELEN PITT
Last updated 05:00 11/05/2014
Cairns Ukulele Festival
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UKE CAN DO IT: Strumming a tune at the Cairns Ukulele Festival.

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I play the ukulele (badly). Before you fall off your chair laughing, know you risk mocking one of the fastest growing travel trends the world over: The uke fest.

In Britain, HF Holidays is but one of many agencies offering uke-specific travel.

In California, where the ukulele is bigger than Big Sur, AAA (the US equivalent of our AA) offers uke-specific travel agents - often planning trips to the motherland, Hawaii, especially the Oahu uke festival which has gathered uke-philes for 44 years now.

I am not alone; merely one of the legions of converts for whom the phrase "have uke, will travel" has real meaning (I never go on a plane, train or road trip now without one).

Frankly, I could spend every weekend of the year travelling to a uke fest in some far flung corner of the world, should I have the money or inclination to do so.

Indeed, in my brief time on the circuit I've met many a well-heeled baby boomer uke enthusiast doing just that; a twist on misspending their retirement as a four-stringed travelling troubadour in the way some misspent their youth.

Who needs a Harley Davidson when you can buy a uke for your midlife crisis? (Watch out, though, some may cost as much.)

In Australia, the Everest of uke fests is the Cairns International, coming up for its fifth gathering in July.

Perhaps it's the tropical backdrop, and the fact it's held every winter when many want to escape the colder climes, but this is as close to Oahu as Australia gets.

Not only does it attract top international uke acts like the Sweet Hollywaiians from Japan (which has more hula clubs than Hawaii), it also offers masterclass uke and tiki-carving workshops, trips to the Great Barrier Reef and even a world record attempt for the most ukuleles playing together (the four-chorded and easy to strum Waltzing Matilda, of course).

Hawaiian Bryan Tolentino, a performer at last year's festival, says it was the Portuguese who brought the ukulele to his homeland of Oahu.

"It was 1879 when the Portuguese arrived playing a small guitar-like instrument on the SS Ravenscrag. We called it the ukulele which roughly translates to jumping flea - because that's how the movement of the players' fingers looked. It's been delighting us ever since."

Tolentino, who played at the festival with his friend, Halehaku Seabury, while his wife, Kalehua, hula danced, says "it's what we do at luaus: When we gather to eat we also gather to play and sing. It's more common to learn to play a uke in Oahu than it is to learn to ride a bike."

It's becoming that way, too, in Cairns where uke is taught in many primary schools, says Cairns Ukulele Festival director Gaby Thomasz, an aficionado since 2008.

"It's easy to pick up, but difficult to master," says Thomasz, of the ukulele.

"But it's a happy, cheerful instrument, and if you look around at the crowd at our festival everyone is smiling - it brings so much joy to so many people."

I was reminded of this mirth-making aspect of the instrument the moment I arrived in Cairns for last year's international uke fest.

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We boarded an open-topped double-decker bus, were greeted with floral leis and told to take a seat and join in the playing on our mystery tour.

The Cairns tourist circuit had certainly never heard such a harmonious crowd; we strummed the city streets and tourist spots.

A day trip to Green Island saw the crowd serenading Cassius, the local crocodile kept in captivity, to the tune of Crocodile Rock.

Throughout the four-day festival, at various venues from the Hilton to the boardwalk, Cairns is a sea of hibiscused hair and Hawaiian shirts. Along the waterfront, the palm trees sway, and Bermuda shorts, Panama hats and bad dad jokes abound (perhaps this is the first step to forming your own uke group - finding your own punny name for it, like the "ukes of Hazard" or "ukenasia").

We had a uke pub crawl through downtown, several concerts and countless jam sessions with the more than 1000 attending at the festival events - whose mission is simply to get people playing and making music together whatever the instrument.

The festival caters to all uke players, from beginners to virtuosos. I went to a wonderful rhythm workshop with Nicky Bomba, formerly the drummer of the John Butler Trio, who had us learning how to master the finer art of the reggae beat.

Another, from Hawaiian Craig Chee, held us spellbound by teaching us "hammers and pull-offs" - finger movements so technical my brain hurt as I tried to grasp it.

The best advice came from Tolentino when we were all labouring over the music sheet and a difficult-to-manoeuvre sound known as the Hawaiian vamp.

"I don't want you to sound like me," he said.

"I do," piped up one of the strugglers in the group.

"I give you the meat and potatoes which is the recipe for learning the uke - it's up to you to create the stew. I want you to close your book and just play. When you close the book you learn to emote," the key to mastering any form of music, Tolentino told us.

Another tip was his confession that he got acrylic fingernails at a manicurist, to help hone his finger picking.

"The beauty and the trouble with the uke," says festival director Thomasz, "is it isn't taken seriously. It looks easy to learn, but in the hands of a master it's as valid as the violin."

My own journey to ukulele playing began at one of the lowest junctures of my life, not long after my husband died. It was a wintry night in the Californian town where I was living just north of San Francisco. I was walking past a local community club when I heard a magical noise.

I wiped the foggy window pane, pressed my face to the glass and peeked in, to see a group of Hawaiian shirt and floral patterned muu muu-wearers strumming and singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

It was like a scene from a movie so beautiful I almost cried, but instead I walked in out of the cold to hear more. The welcome I got was warmer than a Hawaiian isle. They had me at "Aloha".

By Christmas that year, I found a Mahalo ukulele (made in Hawaii) under the Christmas tree for me. I was hooked.

I'm yet to find a better instant pick-me-up, than picking it up and playing. Now I find it hard to say the word without breaking into a smile.

Which is why I've joined a group of girlfriends who play once a week, and will be a regular again on this year's festival circuit.

My uke bag is packed with my instrument (I've upgraded to a Flea) and four-chord song book.

As Thomasz says of the Cairns festival: "It's a bit like going to Disneyland - it's a different world for a few days where you meet like-minded music lovers who may be strangers at first, but once they see a uke case there is an instant connection and conversation."

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Flights to Cairns depart all major Australian airports. Most connections from New Zealand are via Brisbane.

Playing there

Cairn uke fest 2014 July 3-6. See cairnsukulelefestival.net.

Staying there

The partner hotel for the Cairns Ukulele Festival is the Cairns Hilton, cairns.hilton.com.

Other festivals

Gotaukulele.com has a calendar for many of the world's big ukulele festivals during 2014. The New Zealand Ukulele Festival takes place in Auckland on Saturday, November 29; see nzukulelefestival.org.nz

- The writer travelled as a guest of the Cairns Ukulele Festival.

- Sunday Star Times

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