From the Winter 2016 issue of Ukulele |BY CAMERON MURRAY
As I approach the Gladstone Park Bowling Club in Sydney’s vibrant Inner West, the unmistakable sound of massed ukuleles drifts into the night air. Inside, about 60 people are enthusiastically playing and singing, uke cases and glasses of wine and beer littering every surface. Welcome to the Balmain Ukulele Klub.
BUK, as it’s affectionately known, recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, a significant milestone, and something I could never have imagined when I arrived in Sydney from South Africa in 1995. Back then, I wasn’t aware of anybody who was interested in the uke. I’d learned to play from an elderly relative and was pretty much resigned to the fact I’d be strumming alone in my bedroom forever.
The beginning of a cultural change rarely happens at a singular moment, but the current Sydney uke boom can be traced back to a single event: In January 2004, musician Rose Turtle Ertler organized a concert called “Ukulele Land” at an arts festival on iconic Bondi Beach. “I wondered if there were enough uke players to make up a whole concert,” Rose recalls. “I didn’t know of anyone who played uke then, but I made a few phone calls and eventually found about eight acts who were interested in playing.”
Ukulele Land was a massive success and a few people who were in the audience that day were inspired to form the city’s first official uke club: the St George and Sutherland Community of Ukulele Musicians—SSCUM for short.
“Since 2004, the ukulele scene and the popularity of uke clubs has exploded,” says SSCUM founding member John Chandler. “I teach beginners at adult community colleges all across Sydney and beyond and have seen many of my past students form their own clubs and groups over the years.”
So why is the instrument so popular in Australia’s Harbour City?
Well, its location is definitely a factor. With 70 beaches along its sprawling coastline, Sydneysiders are introduced to surf culture from an early age. Ever since Hawaiian surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku shaped a board from local sugar pine and paddled out at Freshwater Beach in 1915, the city has been obsessed with the pastime. Summer in Sydney is all about long, hot days on or near the water, followed by barbecues with family and mates. Just add ukes (and maybe the odd cocktail) and you have an instant party!
Australians are by and large friendly, sociable folks who are always open to new ideas, so when the Third Wave of Uke started to hit, they were among the first in the world to throw on a lei and get plucking. But perhaps the most important factor of all is the people’s famous “have a go” attitude. No matter what the task, you can guarantee unwavering support and encouragement from strangers, just so long as you have a go or “give it a crack.”
“The most wonderful thing about the uke scene Down Under is that it doesn’t feel competitive,” says Grammy-winning uke master Daniel Ho, who’s toured the country many times. “People play their ukuleles to have fun and socialize. That’s the way it should be.”
There’s certainly no shortage of venues for a sociable strum in Sydney. The aforementioned Balmain Ukulele Klub was co-founded by John Penhallow after he attended a workshop and meeting of the Santa Cruz Ukulele Club in California in 2006.
“It turned out the workshop was with Herb Ohta Jr and Daniel Ho and it added to my understanding of music and how the ukulele works within it,” says John. “The musical theme for the club night was ‘The British Invasion of the ’60s,’ and it was finished off with a short set from Herb and Daniel, complete with spontaneous hula dancing from some ladies in the audience, which blew me away. I just had to borrow the format and massage it a bit to suit us in Sydney.”
BUK meets twice per month. The main meeting follows a predetermined musical theme, while “4 Chord Thursday” entails playing and singing 24 tunes in two hours with the help of a guest song leader.
Meanwhile, to the south of the city, John Chandler’s SSCUM club has around 150 members. “I’m always pleased to hear newcomers have had a wonderful time and that it has opened their eyes to the fun and social nature of playing the uke with others,” he says. “It’s very satisfying to see people’s passion for the uke start and grow from their first visit to a SSCUM meeting, so I hope they take away an experience that will change their life.” The group meets in the suburb of Caringbah on the first Monday of each month.
If you can’t possibly wait four weeks between meets, the Hornsby-Berowra Ukulele Group (BUGs) gets together in the city’s north every Friday morning, and there are also plenty of semi-regular jams to keep ukers interested. One such event is the Ukulele Strum Breakfast at the Ice Creamery & Espresso Bar on beautiful Cronulla Beach, which is also organized by SSCUM.
And then there are the annual uke fests. While Sydney itself doesn’t currently host an event, there are several within easy driving distance of the city, including the Blue Mountains Ukulele Festival in February, the Illawarra Springstrum and Central Coast Ukulele Festival in September, and the Newkulele Festival in October.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 12 years since the ukulele came to town. It’s given a lot of people a lot of joy, myself included. I’ve gone from playing in my bedroom to performing regularly at clubs and festivals, teaching workshops and writing about all things uke. But by far the most precious gift I’ve received is what I’m sure will be lifelong friendships.
Here’s to the next 12 years!
The GGF has stocked ukes since the late-’90s and has easily the best selection in Sydney, as well as an excellent repairer. The shop has also hosted workshops and concerts with the likes of Daniel Ho and Benny Chong. guitarfactory.net
505 is a great live-music venue in the center of the city that often puts on gigs for Australian and international uke stars. venue505.com
The location of the pioneering Ukulele Land concert in 2004, Bondi is a bona fide Sydney icon. With an eclectic mix of cafes and restaurants, as well as spacious grass areas featuring public barbecues, it’s a great spot for ukeing, organized or otherwise! Local tip: Bondi can get really busy, so grab your uke and make your way along the cliff walk to the smaller but no less spectacular Tamarama Beach or Bronte Beach. bondivillage.com