MUF 2012: Let there be Uke!

By Alex Masso, March 2012

In the lead up to this year’s Melbourne Ukulele Festival (MUF) I thought I would find out how such a tiny instrument can have a festival all of its own, how a festival can seamlessly combine international visitors and community groups, and what motivates the community of organisers behind it.

Dean W. Denham, MUF Director, tells us how can came across the “little instrument with a big heart” and what lies behind one of the few Ukulele Festivals in Australia.

Melbourne Ukulele FestivalWebsite:

AM: “The little instrument that could” has taken Australia and the world by storm, with many Uke groups springing up around the country. How did you get involved in the instrument?

DD: My father played ukulele when I was a child but I never played uke till about 10 years ago when my uncle gave me his. I was working in the digital world of music construction at the time when, after a particularly dark night of the soul which I'd rather not go into, I picked up the uke and remembered my dad singing "My Dog Has Fleas" (which are the notes you use to tune a uke). I started playing and within minutes had forgotten my worries and was enjoying the simple pleasure of music making.

AM: It fascinates me that while many festivals are based around a genre or genres of music, a setion of the community, or a local area, this one is all about a little instrument.  How does the humble Ukulele manage to command its own festival?

DD: Ah, but a little instrument with a big heart! There is such a wide diversity of styles and genres amongst the ukulele community of performing artists that we felt we needed a large event to accommodate them all. Of course we are but one of many such festivals around the world. In a way it is a kind of international community festival!

AM: The program looks diverse and includes international and interstate as well as Melbourne-based artists. What are some of the things people can expect to hear, or might not be expecting to hear, at a Ukulele festival?

Expect just about anything! We haven't got any metal/punk stuff this year but that's all that's missing. And in some ways there are plenty of punks playing uke at the fest, they're just a lot quieter. This year I'm particularly excited to have Benny Chong from Hawaii performing, who is considered one of the best jazz players in the world. Parisian duo U.K.E. bring world rhythms played on a variety of eastern percussion instruments in combination with ukulele, creating instrumentals both familiar and experimental. Then there's vaudevillian Ralph Shaw from Canada; young indie songwriter Liz Wood from Boston; master strummer Maitake from Japan; and I haven't even mentioned the local legends like Azo Bell and the delightful Bosko and Honey. There's just so much! As I like to say: "Old School, New School, No School!"

AM: You have both professional and community groups performing at the festival, can you tell me about the community groups you have lined up?

Chooks on a Hot Tin RoofThe community groups are an essential part of the festival, as they represent that part of the ukulele phenomenon that is all about the average person being able to enjoy the pleasure of making music. The open community nature of these groups helps people to feel comfortable with trying something new. A large number of their members are mature individuals who have never played and instrument previously and, as the founding member of the Melbourne Ukulele Kollective, I often come across people like this who tell me how much enjoyment they derive from being involved in these groups.

It is members of the Melbourne Ukulele Kollective that have donated their time and energies to making the festival a reality, and the group has also been a major financial supporter of MUF. As well as the MUK, this year's fest has The Ukastle Ukestra (winners of last year's Golden Uke Award for best community group!), URoC - The Ukulele Republic of Canberra, SEGUE - The Slightly Eclectic Guildford Ukulele Ensemble, and two newcomers to the fest - Chooks on a Hot Tin Roof, a group of ladies from the NSW south coast; and Ukes D'Jour from Geelong that has a mix of young and older players.

Mostly all play uke but a few are introducing bass and percussion into their arrangements. Sets are generally a mix of old and new material; 20's and 30's tunes, 40's swing, 50's rock, pop music from the 60's till the present. Most of these groups have been around for a few years and all perform fairly regularly. MUK was the first uke group in Australia, beginning in 2004.

AM: What excites you about the festival in 2012?

Getting to the other side and finding out if we covered costs! Apart from that, I'm looking forward to having the whole fest at Trades Hall (with the exception of Thursday at the Arts Centre). This is the first time we've had a single venue for the fest and I hope the central location and variety of spaces available will help make the festival a more enjoyable experience for audiences and performers alike.

The practical stuff:

AM: How is the festival run?

DD: A group of about 6 people from the Melbourne Ukulele Festival run the festival. We do not get paid.

AM: How long does it take to pull the festival together?

DD: At least 6 months.

AM: How do you select performers – is there an audition or selection process?

DD: As festival director since the first MUF in 2012, it has primarily been my decision as to who is on the bill, although all MUF committee members make suggestions. There are no auditions but usually there is plenty of recorded material made available to help in the decision making. Unfortunately, due to the fact that we receive no government funding, finances are often a limiting factor for the inclusion of international artists. As I mentioned, I like to keep it as broad a possible: "Old School, New School, No School!"

AM: How can people get involved?

All the volunteers have already been organised but feel free to rock up to the MUF merchandise table at the festival and introduce yourself. They may need raffle ticket sellers. Otherwise, best way is to get yourself a uke and join in the free beginners workshops, early on Saturday and Sunday. There's lots of free performances on these days in the Bella Union Bar from 12-4pm.

AM: Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to start a Ukulele festival elsewhere in the country?

Well we already have two other uke fests in this country - The Blue Mountains Ukulele Festival (February) and the Cairns Ukulele Festival (July), both of which are getting bigger every year; funnily enough we all started in the same year!

I guess my advice would be to keep it as open as possible for spontaneous happenings. And like the uke itself - Think big, keep it simple….Hmm, I should take my own advice.

Let There Be Uke!

Find out more:

Melbourne Ukulele Festival:

Melbourne Ukulele Kollective:

Become a part of MUK:


Click here for the Music in Communities Network's "Uke Page"

Members can login to read our article "The Little Instrument that Could"

Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

Photos: Chooks on a Hot Tin Roof; Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.