When Jennifer Coram-Pigott walked into an afternoon concert at Newcastle University in May last year, one of the few spare seats was next to a man with a friendly face, Robin Bond.
They struck up a conversation, and Bond’s eyes started to well up. His wife, Yvonne, had died two months earlier and he was slowly easing himself back into life.
They walked together afterwards to the car park, where retired family counsellor Coram-Pigott, pictured below, wrote her phone number on his crumpled program, telling him to call if he ever needed to talk to someone.
‘‘She’d lost her husband 18 months earlier and wished someone had been around for her then,’’ Bond says. ‘‘She’s been there to lean against to this day.’’
‘‘It has taken me this long to get back to myself, because people don’t get there soon when you’ve lost a loved one of 45 years.
‘‘To get me to turn my life around [co-ordinator] Mark [Jackson] and the Ukestra people have brought me up; they’ve been the wind beneath my wings.’’
The gentle strumming of the ukulele now reverberates beyond Wickham, through Maitland, Lake Macquarie and Port Stephens, where 400 people have fallen in love with the instrument on which it’s impossible to play a sad song. Some have travelled to Melbourne and Hawaii, and auditioned, by invitation, for the TV show Australia’s Got Talent.
But it’s never been just about the music. At the heart of community musician Mark Jackson’s drive to establish ukestras is a desire to use music to help people form connections and create community.
It would become the Ukastle Ukestra, the flagship of Jackson’s groups, that has been meeting at Croatian Wickham Sports Club on Tuesday nights ever since.
Jackson and his partner, marine biologist Jane Jelbart, went to Melbourne’s Ukulele Festival in February last year and were inspired to establish more ukestras.
Later that month Jackson started the LakeMacUkestra on Tuesday afternoons with 17 people, and it’s still going. Numbers fluctuate, as the mostly retired participants also spend some of their time and disposable income travelling. ‘‘But they’re also spending it on me,’’ Jackson says, genuinely touched.
He started the Tomaree Ukestra on Monday mornings in May last year and about 15 people attend each week. ‘‘The sense of community up there is not really focused because everything is aimed at the tourist,’’ he says. ‘‘I wanted to put posters up, but there’s nowhere to put up posters unless it’s for a dolphin tour.’’
The group is a close one, and about five ‘‘fanatics’’ also travel down to the Ukastle Ukestra on Tuesdays.
Mid last year, Jackson decided there was room for one more group, and formed the Maitland Ukestra, which meets on Mondays.
Jelbart held the first session of The WestNewkestra in March this year. Between 20 and 30 people head to the Waterboard Bowling Club in North Lambton on Thursday nights.
Independently organised ukestras have also cropped up in Stockton and on the Central Coast.
Jackson says it’s easy to gravitate towards the instrument because it is portable, accessible and cheap. ‘‘There are four nylon strings that people can learn very easily. It lends itself to percussive qualities, and works well socially. It’s not so loud,’’ he says.
‘‘If you get all the parts going together it produces an almost harp-like quality.’’
The ukulele’s popularity peaked in the 1920s, and then in the ’50s, but died in the ’60s after the late Tiny Tim’s memorable Tiptoe Through the Tulips, sung in high falsetto.
It’s hard to pinpoint the catalyst for the recent revival, but Jackson says YouTube has exposed audiences to the likes of Hawaiian virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro (who can play an impressive version of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody), The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (which has covered Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights) and The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra (which has covered Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River).
Late Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s medley of What a Wonderful World and Somewhere over the Rainbow has remained popular since his death in 1997. It hit number one on the German singles chart in October last year when it was used in a TV commercial for deodorant.
Sales of the ukulele started to soar at Musos Corner last year. The Newcastle West shop used to sell a few during the year and about 100 in the lead-up to Christmas, mostly as presents for children. These days, 25 are sold each month, mostly to school-aged children or ukestra members.
Store owner Sandra Lindsay says supplies were particularly scarce through July and August. ‘‘The whole world seemed to become ukulele players,’’ she says. ‘‘We were pre-ordering for Christmas in huge quantities.’’
Lindsay keeps in stock 10 baritone, 20 tenor, 60 concert and 60 soprano ukuleles.
She says the instrument owed much of its popularity to its price – they start at $22.95, which ‘‘is not a mortgage breaker’’ – and ease of playing. ‘‘If more children started on a ukulele they would learn to play a guitar quicker and easier,’’ she says.
Lindsay taught a ukulele class to 15 children over the summer of 1970, when the instrument cost $5.95. ‘‘If I kept going I could have had 5million ukulele players in Newcastle by now.’’
Jackson hopes the renewed interest is not a fad and believes numbers will increase as baby boomers retire. ‘‘I haven’t cracked the 20-something market yet, we get some in their 30s, quite a few in their 40s, quite a few in their 50s but most are in their 60s; most are retired.’’
Some share the hobby with their partners, others are coping with life on their own, many just want to try something new.
Some, like Robin Bond, had played an instrument before. He had studied trumpet for 3 years at the Conservatorium of Newcastle, later performing in brass bands and orchestras.
But many, including Coram-Pigott, had never played music before. ‘‘It was something I thought I’d never do,’’ she says. ‘‘I was a complete and utter novice.’’
She had difficulty moving her hands because of the pain of arthritis, but Bond kept encouraging her. ‘‘He said there’s always a way around these things.’’
Once she went along to Ukastle Ukestra, she was hooked. ‘‘They were so warm and welcoming, I just couldn’t believe the atmosphere there,’’ she says. ‘‘Everybody was happy.’’
She attended a beginners workshop in January. ‘‘Everyone was so great, so helpful, there was no pressure on me to do anything, that’s the beauty of community music.
‘‘You don’t have to work at a certain level, you work at where you can. Just to be a beginner playing a couple of chords, it was like a revelation.’’
Jackson agrees the real value of the ukestras is in what happens before and after they play. They’ve become a comfortable place where people connect.
‘‘We certainly have people saying Tuesday is my favourite day of the week because we’ve got ukulele in the evening,’’ he says. ‘‘All we’re here to do is play music that we enjoy and to enjoy each other’s company.’’
This resonates with Coram-Pigott, who went to Melbourne to support the players. ‘‘It was a wonderful experience, they all had such a good time,’’ she says. ‘‘I made a promise to myself that I’d never be on the outside again. That was that.’’
She’s now found a way to play without pain, and experiences joy. ‘‘There’s no time to be sad when playing music. It’s such a little instrument that’s provided such enjoyment to so many people. It’s certainly turned my life around.’’
The former family counsellor says if she was still working she would introduce the ukulele to therapy sessions. ‘‘The benefits of how it makes you feel, it puts you in another space.’’
Far from traditional twee tunes, the ukestras are gaining an appreciation for modern classics. They’ve mastered Ben Lee’s Catch My Disease, a medley of Train’s Hey Soul Sister and Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours and are keen to give Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean and Black Eyed Peas’ Where Is The Love a go.
They received a standing ovation at the inaugural TEDxNewy symposium in November for their renditions of U2’s All I Want Is You and Jimmy Eat World’s The Middle.
They’re learning Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know and Jackson is contemplating attempting Coldplay’s Yellow.
They’re packing their instruments and taking their talent beyond Newcastle. They’ve performed at 1233 ABC Newcastle’s A Night At The Wireless, the Melbourne Ukulele Festival, and the 41st Hawaii Ukulele Festival.
Bond says the experiences are unforgettable, and Coram-Pigott had never held a passport before the Hawaii trip.
Scouts for Australia’s Got Talent rang in October, asking the Ukestra to audition for the show. They’ve made it through to the next round in Sydney in March, the same month The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain will play City Hall, and the Melbourne Ukulele Festival will be held.
Jackson says the challenge is now remembering why they’re playing, and not being lulled into delusions of grandeur. ‘‘I’m trying to keep people contained – this is all about fun,’’ he says.
Although the TV show is ‘‘a different sort of goal’’ it won’t influence song choice or arrangement. ‘‘I don’t want us trying to impress the judges, and [for the] audience to be a lens through which we choose songs.
‘‘There’s an innocence about [playing] – being too aware and sophisticated about it can break that innocence.’’
There are also challenges now about how to meet the needs of advanced students while catering for newcomers.
A beginners workshop is held in Speers Point each month (the next one is January 7). A six-week transition course is being offered to bring participants up to speed before they join a ukestra.
A Newcastle Ukulele Festival (dubbed the Nukulele Festival) is being organised for October.
This year Jackson also taught ukulele in schools at Waratah and Cardiff South, and is considering teaching parents and children together. ‘‘It brings them to the same level,’’ he smiles.
‘‘I have a saying that music of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from our community. A great cultural characteristic of our species is coming together to celebrate great occasions of happiness and grief.
‘‘For the same reason music evolved with speech, it’s helped us to express things and I think that’s really valuable.’’
Jackson and partner Jelbart play in a ukulele duo called Squidge, and are half of the bluegrass band The Do Riders, with Buladelah couple Mick and Nikki Legge.
The Legges have set up the Myall River Ukestra at Tea Gardens.
Until now, Jackson had worked part-time in order to devote energy to his music and children. But being a community musician has become so much of a full-time job that he talks with a trace of exhaustion about fitting in emails between 3am and 5am on a Thursday.
‘‘It’s taken a little while but now I do what I love,’’ he says. ‘‘I’ve got a lifestyle that I want, it’s different, it excites me, it’s still a challenge.’’
The music hasn’t stopped in Robin Bond’s Macquarie Hills home either. He’s learning the bass, planning to return to trumpet and is learning the drums, which his father used to play.
‘‘The whole family is astounded, they struggle keeping up with me because everyone has busy lives these days – but mine’s busy too.’’
To watch Ukastle Ukestra’s performance at this year’s TEDxNewy conference, go to youtube苏州美甲培训学校/watch?v=msN7ta-68Eo
AN INSTRUMENT OF CHANGE
Graphic designer Danielle Scott had only been living in Newcastle for a month before the accident that changed her life.
Among the pack in a Hunter District Cycling Club race on February 21 last year, she was sprinting along Steel River Road, Mayfield West, when her foot slipped off the pedal. Despite wearing a helmet, she fractured her skull and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Scott spent two weeks in an induced coma in John Hunter Hospital and another two weeks in rehabilitation in Rankin Park Hospital.
‘‘I thought they were joking that I had a brain injury,’’ she says.
‘‘I was using my iPod to try to make phone calls and change TV channels.’’
Scott started driving again in June, cycling again in July and working again in October.
But her confidence had dropped, it took a long time to remember things, and she battled to play songs she knew well on her guitar. She’d taught herself to play at nine, and had also learnt violin and piano. She played well enough to be in bands in her 20s and 30s.
‘‘I didn’t know who I was, I didn’t know what I could do any more,’’ she says.
‘‘My voice had been damaged from tubes and the left side of my body had been affected muscularly. It was, ‘am I always going to be like this, am I going to improve?’’’
She was with members of the Hunter District Cycling Club at the Juicy Beans cafe in Wheeler Place in September when she heard about the Ukastle Ukestra. She emailed Mark Jackson and went to a beginners session.
‘‘I expected there would be questions but Mark was very casual and really inclusive.’’
The ukulele has been her instrument of change: ‘‘I’ve always loved performing and music and it has been the tool that has started me on the path I’ve always really wanted to be on. It’s the intersection of what I love doing and what I can do reasonably well.’’
Scott now helps Jackson run beginners workshops and bridging courses.
‘‘I like to help people gain confidence in their own ability,’’ she says.