By Aaron Keim
This July our duo, The Quiet American, was invited to perform and teach at the Geraldine Ukulele Festival in Geraldine, New Zealand. Our hosts, Fi and Hugh McCafferty, also offered to help us find some other events to pad out the trip. We knew we were due for a few days of vacation as well, so we blocked off two weeks in July, packed our ukes and our four-year-old son Henry, and hopped on the plane from Portland to Auckland.
Upon landing, we were met by Pam, a local ukulele player and member of the folk club. She helped us get our bearings and invited us to the bluegrass night at the folk club in Auckland that evening. We headed over to meet our Auckland hosts, Avon and John Beadle-Hansen, who agreed to join us for bluegrass night. It turns out the event was held in a decommissioned army bunker on top of a mountain! A surreal but enjoyable night where we sang a couple of songs and saw some great local performers. Pam even lent me a beautiful old banjo for the week to go along with the ukes we brought.
The next couple of days were spent near Auckland, sightseeing, teaching and playing for Avon’s ukulele club and other interested locals. They were keen to learn about American folk music and our singing and playing styles. At the end, they sang us an old time Maori goodbye song, “Pokarekare Ana.”
This part of New Zealand is at the northern end of the country and the Polynesian and tropical influences were obvious, even in the winter. Remember that the Maori settled New Zealand a few hundred years after folks settled the Hawaiian islands, the “pan-pacific” flavor is noticeable every where we went.
We also went to an amazing museum in Auckland where we were inspired by the traditional music, dance, art, and craft of the Maori people. It was easy to make connections to the rich Hawaiian culture that often permeate ukulele events as well as the remnants of shared British Colonial culture from American history.
Next up was a concert and workshop hosted by Lynn Walters at a little art center a short drive from Auckland. We taught about traditional bluegrass music and ukulele techniques before we played a concert. We were particularly inspired by the quote on the wall at the art center.
Next up were two short flights to the South Island and an airport pickup from Fi and Hugh. We headed to Geraldine where we had our own house for the week, within walking distance to all festival events, parks, food, and shopping. The South Island seems more like Scotland, with colder weather, more sheep, and less of a tropical feel. The small town setting was welcome after busy Auckland and we loved walking everywhere.
The festival was a nice mix of workshops, concerts, pub events, singalongs, open mics, etc…. One of the best parts was the “music in cafes” program, with lunchtime concerts at in small venues all over town. It really helped to connect the festival to the culture of the town and put live music into places it wouldn’t normally be.
Our workshops were large and filled with enthusiastic learners, keen to learn about our musical style and techniques. They seemed to be a little less familiar with American folk music than the students we encountered in Australia and England but showed great interest and progress in our 90-minute classes.
We also headlined a concert with two amazing New Zealand acts. The first was Shane McAlister, who has a bluesy one man band act complete with foot percussion, skeleton puppets, singalongs, and humorous lyrics. The second was a trio called The Flukes, who sang traditional New Zealand songs in beautiful three-part harmony. They even covered a Lorde song!
Besides our concert and workshop, we also dropped in at an open mic, sang at the Sunday morning pub gospel sing and had some great dinners hosted by Hugh and Fi. The icing on the cake was selling two Beansprout ukuleles that I recently built to happy customers. They were thrilled to skip the shipping cost from America and I was thrilled to find a new home for these ukes. We left the ukes behind and took home two weeks of happy memories, keen to schedule a trip in the near future!
Aaron Keim is a luthier at Beansprout Musical Instruments (thebeansprout.com) and also a busy educator, historian, writer, and performer. He performs with his wife Nicole in the Quiet American, an old-time folk music duo based in Hood River, Oregon. quietamericanmusic.com