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Published September 2nd 2011
Update June 30th 2013
Update on the get-togethers mentioned in this article: BUMS now meets first Wednesday of the month at Coorparoo Bowls Club, second Friday at Blackstar Coffee at West End, third Sunday at the Joynt at South Brisbane, and fourth Tuesday at Chermside Bowls Club.
Ukulele music is alive, well and spreading like wildfire in Brisbane, thanks to the Brisbane Ukulele Musicians Society (B.U.M.S.). Best of all, anybody can go along and join in the ukulele fun (as player or audience) at regular B.U.M.S. gatherings.
I've always had a sneaking fondness for ukulele music. As a child, I hummed along happily when the radio played Tiny Tim, who popularised ukulele music with his high-pitched -- and very strange -- hit, 'Tiptoe Through the Tulips' (go on, click, you know you want to...)
I even asked for, and was given, a ukulele as a tenth birthday present, though I never learned how to play it. Today, I love the happy, mellow vibe of ukulele music as it's played by the Polynesian cultures who invented the instrument. Two chords and I'm transported to a place of sunshine and smiles.
But B.U.M.S. is on a mission to spread ukulele music even wider -- to the men, women and children of Brisbane.
Since forming in 2007, this community group has been encouraging Brisbanites to pick up a ukulele and share the joy, playing everything from traditional folk tunes to disco, pop and heavy metal. They hold two get-togethers each month, one at Coorparoo Bowls Club (first Wednesday of the month) and one at Black Star Coffee in West End (second Friday of the month).
Non-players are also welcome at B.U.M.S. shindigs, so I headed off to Black Star for the August jam. I arrived at 7.20pm and thought things might be slow to get going. Boy, was I wrong. Black Star was already packed, with people spilling out onto the street, and around 60 strummers belting out 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love'. Before you could say 'Freddie Mercury', I was singing along, tapping my toes, and watching a bunch of people having a really great time.
Suggestions for songs are sent in by members of B.U.M.S., and then each song is led by a couple of competent musicians up on stage, who sing, coach, and project the chords and notes for the songs on a screen. Those joining in range from experienced musicians to raw beginners, and from the grey-haired to the very young. I also saw a rogue double-bass that had turned up and was allowed to join in, no questions asked.
The song list was wonderfully eclectic. After Queen, we moved on to the Waifs' 'Lighthouse Man', Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' and, my favourite, the Monkees' 'Daydream Believer'. People joined in with varying degrees of finesse, but, as one friendly fellow explained to me, it didn't really matter if you couldn't play things properly. To quote: 'I've never had so much fun being bad at something.'
Indeed, this was a theme of the night -- that music is for everybody, and it's more important to join in than to play a song perfectly. Quite a few people told me that they didn't really know how to play and were learning as they went. Mercifully, the ukulele is a simple and forgiving instrument so, even with the number of novices there, the music sounded fine.
I couldn't stay for the entire evening (I had to go to another great gig, James Cruickshank at the Beetle Bar), but I'm keen to return and embrace the ukulele madness some more. If you have children, I'd urge you to take them too -- it's a safe, friendly, all-ages way to introduce them to communal music.
If you're not ready to try playing, just go and enjoy listening and being part of a friendly group. If you want to take the plunge and play, visit the B.U.M.S. website and find out how to join in. As for me, it might be time to dig out that tenth birthday ukulele...