Burn That Ukulele! Vol 2 & 3: Uke Transmissions 2011 – 13

The Burn That Ukulele! series is one of several projects that have been idling at the edges for over a decade. I haven’t tended to these projects because they all involve retrospective recordings, and my focus has been on creating (ie inundated by) new material. This year however has opened a very different process, one that is entirely about reviewing my life, my previous selves, accepting my embarrassments, celebrating my achievements, letting go of old pains to clear the runway for a whole new, and uncertain, chapter in my life. The Burn That Ukulele! series, Ramshackle Alchemy, Deadbeats Live At Norths, and Caja De Huesos are all retrospective projects that express this process of review in different ways. In the case of these uke recordings, I’ve been able to find a new appreciation and even pride in my compositions from that period, and really acknowledge the hard work I put into navigating my psychoemotional health through my commitment to musical practice during that time.

The ukulele is a remarkable little machine. While guitar has accumulated a certain self-importance in musical history, uke seems to retain an authentic aura of innocence and humility that is utterly endearing. Its simplicity is what makes it so creatively versatile. Often in a creative process I set myself restrictive parameters or limitations, to see what I can create from as little as possible, as a form of explorative problem-solving. If you’re unencumbered by technical and theoretical structures, uke can be a perfect fit for that approach.

When uke first nuzzled itself into my life, I had been heavily focused on acoustic guitar, pushing myself into increasingly complex territory. As a self-taught musician, relying on ear / feel / memory instead of music theory, I had been refining a fingerstyle approach that drew on many exotic flavours – Eastern European folk, Middle Eastern, Near Eastern, Latin & South American, Rom Gypsy, klezmer, rembetika, classical, gypsy swing. For many years I immersed myself in acoustic music from around the world, my autistic pattern-making brain noticing particular melodic motifs, riffs, offbeat moods & rhythms that repeated themselves across many cultures – building blocks I could deconstruct & reconstruct into my own playing. My CD collection had been swelling with exotic flavours since the 90s, and through deep listening & countless hours at the forge, I refined my fingerstyle technique and my love of melody, harmony & dissonance, unusual chords & polyrhythm, through these rich musical traditions. Recordings of my guitar playing from that time include Anthology Of Revised Ambiguities, A Month Of Moonbeams, Camel Lips and Marzipan.

After the frenetic, demanding guitar music I’d been playing with The Spondooli Brothers, ukulele was a relief to my hands, my brain, and my ears.  With its completely alien tuning it was a delicious mystery, a creative conundrum, a code to be cracked & a lock to be picked. While I began by learning some basic chords, I had no idea (still don’t!) what notes I was playing as I explored. My fingerpicking guitar habits immediately adapted to its four small (soft!) strings, and I was surprised by its many voices. I heard echoes of classical guitar, African harp, even banjo, and I began to move from skewed & somewhat manic neo-gypsy into sweeter sounds – Appalachian hillbilly, classical, 20s jazz, ragtime, crooner music and, later, western swing and lounge stylings.

From around 2006 – 2016, I shelved the guitar indefinitely and devoted my attention to ukulele. After learning in 2006 that playing a musical instrument is the one activity that exercises our whole brain, my hours of playing each day became a deliberate meditative practice to strengthen my frontal lobe brain function as I worked through a long period of clinical depression. Most of the tunes in the Burn That Ukulele! series were born of that process, and I’m astonished at the brain’s capacity to remain creatively curious, to learn, problem-solve, translate and reorganise itself, even in the midst of psychoemotional chaos.

From late 2011 to early 2013 I documented the songs & instrumentals that emerged over the years, by filming & posting them on YouTube – an exercise in carefully re-emerging from the cave. To archive these ‘folk’ recordings, I’ve extracted the audio from the videos & compiled them into three albums – the Burn That Ukulele! series. While Vol 1 concentrates on songs with lyrics, my main interest was instrumental music, and Volumes 2 & 3 contain the 40 ukulele instrumentals I posted on YT during those years. The tracks are listed in the order they were posted, not necessarily when they were composed, as many were earlier pre-YT pieces.

My tech at the time consisted of the internal mic on an aging laptop, so the audio quality is far from pristine, and many of the performances are less than perfect, but they is what they is: a body of work, an honest document of my self-guided creative learning process at that time. I put countless hours into crafting these tunes, there’s a wide range of styles and I think the musical ideas still hold up well.

Blacksnake Hop was one of the first instrumentals to spring from my ukulele honeymoon, as I discovered how beautifully uke lent itself to a bluegrass fingerpicking feel. I’d been listening to a lot of early Appalachian music, Alan Lomax recordings etc, as well as many contemporary players, and especially liked the quirkier moments, the offkilter rhythm skips and dissonant angles in some of the melody lines. Blacksnake Hop began as a fingerpicking noodle on a road trip from Hobart to Melbourne in late 2005, when The Spondooli Brothers played at the Folk, Rhythm & Life Festival in rural Victoria. Its bright shuffle captured the sense of excitement & adventure as we set out from Hobart, and as I glanced out the car window I noticed a signpost to a Black Snake Rd – for no apparent reason, the name stuck. Many years later it became one of my favourite pieces to play with doublebassist Ross Sermon, and a version of it was recorded for our Limited Emission CD.

I continued to explore this bluegrass / Americana vein later on Head Like A Haystack, Jes’ Happy, My Kids ‘N’ Me, Shootin’ Stars N Chocolate Bars, Give My Heart Wings (recorded later with additional instrumentation as Black Mountain Hypothesis on the album Threestringbox), Yankee Strut and Brain On Fire. This particular thread led me deeper into oldtime, ragtime, folk and blues fingerpicking traditions, and I discovered a plethora of inspiring contemporary uke-pickers devoted to those styles – Del Ray, Brian Hefferan (of The Fabulous Heftones), Ukelelezaza and many more.

Another of my first uke instrumentals was the lively Mexican-inspired Chipolata, which began as a rhythmic exercise to practice the first few chords and basic scale I learnt. I had attended an incredible performance by ethnomusicologist / slide guitar master Bob Brozman & La Reunion musical elder Rene Lacaille that year; Bob had transferred his previous (virtuosic) ukulele skills to a similar instrument, the South American charango. Much of the music centred around the polyrhythmic possibilities of layering 3/4 over 4/4, and Chipolata drew inspiration from the same.

Over the years my Latin explorations dipped into tango, bossa nova, Cuban and lounge, represented here by Rosita Rose Eater, Froza Nova, Indecision Tango, Black Martini and The Cuban.  Later in 2018 I revisited ukulele with several other Latin / AfroCuban / Mexican-inspired pieces, which I recorded with additional instrumentation for the albums Gringo! and Is Land.

The Eloquence Of Spiders was probably my first realisation that ukulele could also be a very lyrical, tender, classical-oriented instrument. I had been listening to the early classical guitar composer Agustin Barrio Mangore, and was taken by his way of incorporating Paraguayan folk music in his compositions. Other pieces influenced by a ‘classical’ approach (ie often more delicate, prettier, pensive or wistful in mood) emerged: Dreams Of You, Lullaby (a mazurka, I’m told), Wintering (baroque), Hoots Mon The Socks & Sandals and Such Is Life (both inspired in part by early English folk & lute composers like John Dowland). Once again, in my ongoing deep-dive, I discovered many masterful uke players whose primary focus was classical music – Wilfried Welti, Rob McKillop, Valéry Sauvage (UkeVal), and the remarkable multi-instrumentalist Pascal Fricke, who creates elegant classical articulations of Tom Waits’ music (and much more). Of course there are many others worthy of appreciative ears, but these are the players I found most inspiring, and worth aspiring toward, at the time.

Having access to a classical voice on ukulele enabled me to freedive much deeper into many moments of dark water, the abyss. During those years I was still navigating my relationship with grief & depression, and with my naturally melancholic streak; the minor tones, gentle textures, complex relationships of harmony & dissonance, the space for subtlety in classical music, have always resonated emotively with my Being. As a boy I was drawn to Eric Satie, Fur Elise, Moonlight Sonata, Gregorian chants, Baroque and Ravel’s Bolero. To my nature, these flavours of classical music express the rich beauty and full passion of all the human sorrows; musicking in that language helps me transmute pain into more deeply-felt insight.

Meanwhile, somewhere around 2009, I bought an antique 1920s banjo ukulele, an ill-considered impulse but I was hooked by its aesthetic as an artefact in time. It was a clunky machine with steel strings like a banjo, and ultimately not a very forgiving instrument, but it birthed a handful of tunes that I later recorded for the YT sessions, using my metal-bodied resonator uke (Pigbox – another clunky but more forgiving uke).

I find that every instrument offers up its own musical territory, and encourages my playing to plunge down a particular rabbithole of musical history; in the process of my research, I inevitably expand my understanding of human history, cultural patterns & sociological events. Each time an instrument takes me into a different ‘style portal’, I feel a bit like I’m absorbing a layer of the World, of human consciousness, our collective scrambling and blossoming throughout time. This cranky banjo uke was a living time capsule, and now my rabbithole was ragtime, tinpan alley, hokum blues, oldtime, minstrel show music, even soundtracks to silent films. Although I didn’t keep that uke for long, I’m still happy with the gaggle of tunes I wrestled out of it. When I bought my metal-bodied resonator uke in 2011, it carried me deeper into the same regions of musical history, the regions of Clunk and Rattle.

Head Like A Haystack and Jes’ Happy are straight-up happy, kind of skip-in-the-step oldtime banjo pickin’ tunes. A YT fan at the time refused to believe I could write music like that if I was depressed! In World War You I was really just working out chord sequences that seemed familiar from old silent movies, and Tied To The Tracks is intended as a soundtrack to the stereotypical scene of the dastardly villain tying the maiden to the train tracks (as we gasp in mounting anticipation – unfortunately in this version, the hero doesn’t arrive in time…). There is one other tune from this cluster, Apple Pickin’ Blues, which never made it to YT, but you can hear a 2009 recording of it using the actual banjo uke itself, on the album Ramshackle Alchemy.

About half of the pieces on these two volumes were performed on my beloved Cordoba concert ukulele; while its voice can be bright without being brittle like a soprano uke, it is a warm, feminine instrument especially suited to jazz, classical, anything requiring a more intimate and mellow tone. This makes sense considering Cordoba is a brand usually known for making classical guitars. This uke gently guided my playing into more refined waters, less vaudeville and more elegance. This was the uke that took me deeper into jazz, especially the era of crooners, jazz standards and swing. While there were plenty of ukers revisiting jazz standards, I’ve never been that interested in ‘covers’ – I prefer to take the essential musical elements of a genre and reconfigure them into something of my own. It engages my brain differently, and it generates a deeper learning process. Swingaling Thing was a breakthrough for me into exploring the rich chordal & melody-centred world of the jazz standard, in ways I could never access on the guitar. As a boy, I often listened to radio shows that featured jazz crooners of the late-40s / early-50s, and when I finally began discovering those sounds on uke it was quite a revelation. Jazz chords are so much simpler to work out on uke!

In 2012 a couple of events shifted my uke jazz up a gear. For a semester I attended a songwriting course at Hobart Conservatorium; I was surrounded by ‘serious’ jazz musicians, the music seeped through the walls and worked on me by osmosis, and my playing stretched deeper. I had to quit study later that year, but my brief time in that musical environment had given me the confidence to reconsider collaborating again. I approached local doublebassist Ross Sermons, we immediately hit it off, and initial rehearsals quickly led to Ross recording us for the Limited Emission CD. Ross’ consummate mastery of his instrument, and his genuine enthusiasm for my primitive plunkings, inspired me to compose more sophisticated pieces, with his playing in mind, and having this to bounce off elevated my playing considerably.

In particular, Burn That Ukulele! Vol 3 tracks the more complex end of my jazz explorations. Earlier pieces like I Left My Brain In My Other Pants and Fenski Swing (dedicated to my youngest son) were my first forays (on uke) into more upbeat swing, the former inspired by the likes of Glenn Miller, the latter revisiting sounds of the gypsy swing I’d dipped into with The Spondooli Brothers. The ‘jazz ballad’ When Is A Cow? was in part a poke at the viral uke revival of Somewhere Over The Rainbow at the time, but it was also a personal high point in my use of jazz chords and melody. Another masterful uke player on YT who had a powerful influence on me in this smooth, quiet jazz style was Steven Strauss, whose playing is well-documented on Pip R Lagenta’s YT channel. His relaxed, understated presence and fluid playing reminded me of elements of Ry Cooder’s earlier work, a way of seeming simultaneously loose and tight, clearly knowing his way around the instrument without being showy.

The other event in 2012 that ramped up my uke jazz technique was a video of Gerald Ross, a longtime pedal steel player, afficionado of Hawaiian and Western swing, playing fingerstyle swing tunes on his new Mya Moe wooden-bodied resonator ukulele. His effortlessly laidback playing was immediately inspiring to me, as was his instrument: I had no idea wooden-bodied resonators existed, and the tone was much warmer than my metal resonator. I researched Mya Moe and discovered a grass roots husband&wife team committed to high quality, lovingly detailed custom ukuleles that are works of art. I took the plunge and ordered an instrument for myself, based on the model Gerald Ross had played, and while it gestated, I studied more Gerald Ross videos and down the swing ukulele rabbit-hole I went.

With my newfound collaborator Ross Sermons in mind, I began composing pieces with more melodic sophistication and variation. Perpendicular Boogie was the first piece that popped out of this new dimension in my playing, using a lot more passing chords to create extra melody in the piece. Bowler Hat burst forth soon after – composed in the hours waiting for a delayed flight home at Sydney Airport. I’d just played at the inaugural Newcastle Uke Festival, and was particularly inspired by Byron Bay uke star Azo Bell‘s explorative jazz playing.

In Dec 2012 my new Mya Moe arrived! One of the first pieces it offered up was Zombie Hula Apocalypse Sunset,and it remains a personal pinnacle for that time – I had wanted to capture that slow dreamy Hawaiian swing sound since forever, and I’m especially proud of this one. It sounds particularly sweet with Ross Sermon’s doublebass accompaniment. Another compositional pinnacle for me from that period, though more jazz blues than Hawaiian, was The Tangled Truth. While the version on Vol 3 is played on the clunkier metal-bodied resonator, it developed a much warmer character (and slower tempo) when I later played it on my Mya Moe, with Ross’ sensitive complement alongside.

The Mya Moe really brought out new confidence & complexity in my playing. Ross’ alltime favourite (being a Southern gent with a love of Cuban music) was The Cuban, in which I tried to capture the feel of some of the Cuban music popular in the post-war years. In Skedaddle, I was referencing some gypsy / hotjazz swing again in ways I hadn’t accessed before, and Particles Of Faith took this further again. By this stage I was pushing myself hard in my daily practice, fuelled by inspirational fire, and I gave myself RSI after the hours spent contorting my little finger into playing extra melody lines. It was around this time that I started to disengage from posting on YT. I think in part I was recoiling from the fetishistic mania of the ‘uke revival’ culture (which was never how I came to ukulele in the first place), but I think life just became more demanding & complicated. Ross and I put in some well-received live shows, but increasingly my anxiety interfered with my ability to play in public, so I gave it up. The last uke piece I posted on YT was in Nov 2013: Brain On Fire, a straight-ahead bluegrass mash-up on a mate’s Goldtone banjo ukulele.

There are many other uke instrumentals from those years that aren’t included here because I never recorded them for YT. Some of them have been recorded but lost, left in limbo, or appear on other albums (such as Pigbox Vol 1 & 2).

‘Proper’ versions of Blacksnake Hop, Swingaling Thing, Froza Nova & I Left My Brain In My Other Pants all appear on Limited Emission CD, with doublebassist Ross Sermons. New versions of World War You, The Tangled Truth, and Leg In A Bear Trap appear on Pigbox & Co Vol 1, while a new version of Yankee Strut appears on Pigbox & Co Vol 2. Another batch of recordings from 2017, again with Ross Sermons on doublebass, includes new versions of The Cuban, Black Martini, Perpendicular Boogie, Skedaddle and Zombie Hula Apocalypse Sunset, which you can hear along with some solo tracks from the same year on the album Skedaddle!.