Strumming up summer

By Dionne Christian , Dionne Christian

Ukulele players (from left) Caitlin Casey, 14, Allen Karena, 16, Hannah Milo and Muriwai Waata, both 13, are enthusiastic members of the Kiwileles.
Ukulele players (from left) Caitlin Casey, 14, Allen Karena, 16, Hannah Milo and Muriwai Waata, both 13, are enthusiastic members of the Kiwileles.

For a small instrument, the ukulele makes a big noise.

Take, for example, a seminal moment in our music history: the 1949 release of Blue Smoke - the first song written by a New Zealander - Ruru Karaitiana - to be recorded and manufactured here and released on a local record label (Tanza). Sure enough, a ukulele played on that. (For the record, Blue Smoke sold 50,000 copies here and was covered the likes of Dean Martin).

Fast forward to 2005 and you'll see the soon-to-be Grammy and Academy Award-winning musician Bret McKenzie, from Flight of the Conchords, joining the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra and, soon after, New Zealand's "original" ukulele trio The Nukes performing at festivals around the country and world.

Now, thanks to the New Zealand Ukulele Trust, you'll also find thousands of school children - from one end of the country to the other - learning ukulele. It looks as if the recorder has been well and truly usurped.

The NZ Ukulele Trust organises tuition for teachers who teach pupils to play, sing and perform with confidence. It has donated about 1200 ukuleles to schools so the programme can be delivered free.

"It's portable, cheap, easy to learn, easy to teach and encourages singing. The ukulele is great for song writing and kids love it. It is the perfect gateway instrument, too," says trust chairperson Mary Cornish.

As McKenzie once quipped, "I grew up learning the recorder at school and I don't see many of my friends sitting around jamming out on the recorder."

Next Saturday, thousands of aficionados will jam together at Vector Arena for the 10th annual New Zealand Ukulele Festival. They'll do so in memory of Bill Sevesi, the Tongan-born musician who led the charge to popularise Pasifika music in New Zealand and was the trust's patron until his death this year.

The festival includes Malcolm Lakatani's Creative Souls Project, The Nukes and teen Hawaiian YouTube sensations Honoka and Azita, but the headline act is our very own Kiwileles. The Kiwileles are a massed orchestra of some 2500 children - from 122 schools in 31 towns and cities - who will perform a 75-minute set of mostly New Zealand music for an estimated audience of 10,000.

Sevesi co-founded the Ukuleles in Schools programme and helped arrange the first Ukulele Festival at Mt Roskill Intermediate in 2007. Around 300 children took part along with the then new Wellington Ukulele Orchestra.

Such was its success the festival has been strumming along since, getting bigger each year. The take-up rate for the four-stringed member of the lute family means the trust now has junior and senior development squads of primary and intermediate pupils.

To join a squad, students need to: play "advanced chords and strumming patterns, play melody lines, arpeggios, basic scales, read tablature or notation - and most of all - be prepared to train hard".

Listening to them rehearse one particularly jazzy number, it's easy to hear why they love their ukuleles. It has a summery, feel-good sound, but that could be the association with the sun-kissed Pacific Islands where the ukulele arrived courtesy of Portuguese immigrants.

The tune makes you feel like you should be wearing a bright shirt, sipping a cocktail in the bar of a Hawaiian club. Of course, the Kiwileles are too young to do that. But they're not too young to start writing songs and requesting more complex music.

An official songbook is released annually featuring new musical arrangements. This year's has 17 songs including Kiwi pop songs by Avalanche City, Six60 and Jordan Luck, traditional, Maori and Pasifika songs, the Kiwi Ukulele theme song and a ukulele mash up of Beethoven tunes.

It also includes We Are Aotearoa, written by Ellerslie School's Hannah Milo and Ella Dale, both 13, who won this year's Hook Line and Singalong. The song will be performed in NZ sign language, too.

The annual competition was started by Music Education New Zealand Aotearoa and the NZ Music Commission to celebrate NZ Music Month and encourage the writing and singing of songs.

Hannah, 13, started ukulele lessons aged 8 and also plays guitar, violin and the recorder.
"The ukulele is my favourite because it's so much fun to play. It's addictive - once you start, you can't stop."

A fan of Adele, Hannah says she wants a career in music and winning the Hook Line and Singalong contest has spurred her on. Fellow senior squad member Caitlin Casey, 14, says she can't believe they're going to be playing on stage at Vector Arena.

"I love that you can play pretty much anywhere. My other instruments are piano and double bass and those aren't exactly portable."

Ask Allen Karena, 16, what he likes about the ukulele and the Northland student says being part of the squad provides a sense of belonging. It brings him happiness and he imagines being without it would be like "being in a corner, all quiet and lonely".

Allen was born unable to hear in his left ear, but he started learning music - piano, guitar and later ukulele - from an early age. When he received a cochlear implant at 11, he says it only made the pint-sized instrument sound even cooler.

For Muriwai Waata, 13, seeing ukulele superstars Honoka and Azita will be a festival highlight. The Kowhai Intermediate pupil is moving to Australia next year and says she'll miss the squad but hopes to make new friends who are keen to play ukulele.

The NZ Ukulele Trust's Mary Cornish is enthusiastic about Honoka and Azita, too.

"Honoka and Azita are superstars of the ukulele world, and internet stars, but what excites me most about having them on the line-up is that they are young," she says. "They showcase how much fun music can be - and that it can take you places."

What: The 10th annual New Zealand Ukulele Festival
Where & when: Vector Arena, Saturday December 3

- NZ Herald

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