By Laurence Vittes
Ben Carr‘s life as a ukulele player began in 2005, the same year he moved from New Orleans to South Vermont and took a trip to Hawaii. Nearly two decades later, this graduate of the James Hill teacher certification program keeps busy teaching students ranging from preschool age to adult, mostly on the ukulele. He says his workshops attract people who want to get in touch with “their inner instrument.” As “Ben Carr Music” he provides live and post-production services.
Carr also does a lot of playing. Like the recent Vermont Ukulele Harvest in late October and the upcoming Brown County Ukulele Festival January 24–25 in Nashville, Indiana. In between, he’ll be at the Winter Farmer’s Market November 23 in Brattleboro where the motto is, “Support your local farmers and craftspeople!! Rain or Shine, Sleet or Snow.” Otherwise he won’t be doing much during the winter than playing drums and percussion for Bayou X, “Southern Vermont/New Hampshire’s signature high energy Cajun/Creole dance band.”
Carr’s also got a cool new digital recording out called Uke+Drums=Love on which he plays and sings like he’s talking to you, only the words are coming out on his ukulele. He’s obviously in love with his instrument. It’s worth a listen.
I caught up with Carr at the beginning of the month from southern Vermont.
Was it love at first sight with the ukulele?
Yeah. The guitar had never done it for me, but after just strumming a couple of chords, and then the owner gave me a 20-minute lesson, and I was hooked. The sound drew me in.
Was it love at first sight with Vermont?
Pretty soon after moving here it felt like home, a place where I could stay. At this point it feels like a place I don’t want to leave.
Tell me about the Vermont Ukulele Harvest
Every year in early autumn they reach out to musicians they know; it’s local farmers, crafters, fantastic community-based events, folks getting together, supporting each other. It’s nice to play and share the music.
How did it go this year?
It was our third year; we had a good turnout. Jim and Liz Beloff, Stu Fuchs, and a few local regional players, Amy Conley and Ron Kelley—they’re both music educators in this area.
What’s your teaching work like?
My weekly class teaching right now is primarily with ukulele, although with my younger classes I do some drumming; also, I do music and movement classes. Performance-wise it’s a bit of both, solo, duets with a guitar player, and then I play drums and percussion with some bands in the area.
What do you do in the winter.
I play gigs with a Cajun zydeco band from December through May. As long as the wood stove burns.
I really like the new recording. How’s it doing?
The new recording has worked fantastically. I’m very excited about having it released, getting a new collection of songs out. A handful are song ideas I’ve been bouncing around and playing with for a few years, and I really refined those and created this concept for the album and to put them out there. Self-producing has its trials and difficulties, but it’s a worthy endeavor.
How did you maintain the spontaneity?
There’s fine line between the spontaneity in a live setting and trying to capture that spontaneity and freshness on a recording. I tried not to over-produce any particular song. There can be a tendency to do too much sometimes when simplicity speaks for itself.
What are your instruments of choice these days?
I play a Koaloha as my main go to instrument. I tune it with low G string. I have a Graziano electric tenor which I take out to live gigs. I have a custom-made soprano from a gentleman in Michigan; I don’t play it as much as the other two, though.
I have a Fishman DI preamp, a Boss loop pedal, I use TC Electronics for some delay, reverb and distortion. I really like to create sonic landscapes for some live performances, to have the nice freedom to lay down a chordal foundation with an octave pedal and some bass tones.
What did you get out of the James Hill Ukulele Initiative?
Training and experience. You begin with an intensive weekend introduction, followed by a nine-month practicum where you’re working on material on your own. You’re also creating teaching lessons and lesson plans, and doing education work and writing notes about the process. The program is designed to make you a better educator through the use of the ukulele, but also to help make you a better ukulele player as well.
And now here’s something very different: Carr and a combo back in 2012 playing some funky jazz: