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Interview: Tony Coleman

Filmmakers Tony Coleman and Margaret Meagher spent two years on the road documenting the global comeback of the ukulele. Now their labour of love is screening in theatres and festivals all over the world. From internet connections in airports and hotel rooms, Ukulele Yes! editor James Hill and Mighty Uke director Tony Coleman carry on a global conversation about the past, present and future of their favourite little instrument.

Tony Coleman (in San Francisco, CA): Do you remember when we first met at the Ceilidh in Nova Scotia in 2007?

James Hill (in Sheshatshiu, NL): Sure do. You were just another crazed ukulele fan back then... I had no idea what I was in for! Did you have any idea at that point what you were getting into?

Tony (in Grass Valley, California): No! Margaret and I thought we would take a few months off from our jobs to make a no-budget 30 minute doc about the revival of the ukulele. We decided that I would take a camera to Liverpool, NS to see if there was potential for a film.

It didn't take long to become enthralled with the spirit of the ukulele community. And then I filmed a rehearsal of the Langley Ukulele Ensemble. They simply blew my socks off and I knew we had a film. We decided to do a couple of other small shoots in California and Hawaii to put together a trailer to generate some interest in our project.

Then one day we were sipping espresso in our favourite coffee shop before work and in walks Canada's venerable documentary filmmaker Ron Mann. I have been a fan of his for some time, and jacked up on caffeine I introduced myself and told him about our project. Instead of waving us off as some ukulele-crazed yahoos, he suggested we send him some of our material. He was impressed and told us he could get us some financing from some Canadian broadcasters.

Within a few weeks we had two broadcasters signed up. That was probably the scariest day of the whole project because now we knew this was no longer just a lark but a real production with contracts and delivery dates etc., etc. Did you ever imagine you would become involved in a project like this?

James (in Goose Bay, NL): Not really. I guess it's hard to get a sense of how special something is when you've grown up in it. Having you and Marg take such an interest in the ukulele (the Langley program in particular) reminded me how special this musical community is. So, how did you become acquainted with the ukulele? How did it get on your radar?

I remember Tiny Tim performing "Tiptoe." It was a traumatic experience!

Tony (in Grass Valley, CA): Well, like many I remember Tiny Tim performing Tiptoe. It was a traumatic experience as an 8 year old! When I was a teenager I remember my big sister playing it at her nursery school. But beyond that I didn't really notice it. I played music professionally through most of my twenties, but I was a rocker, and the uke was decidedly uncool.

But when my sister passed away with cancer 15 years ago, I asked if I could have her ukulele. As soon as I started strumming it I realized that there was something about it that was very different from the guitars, basses and keyboards I had been bashing away at.

A few years later Margaret gave me a Martin soprano and I found that the instrument was unlocking hidden doorways in my musical soul. The simple, joyful, harmonious strums became addictive; I was suddenly writing songs again after years of ambivalence about making music. When I would take the uke to jams with friends they were enthralled and began buying their own.

I imagine you have been encountering a lot of stories like this in your travels?

James (in Goose Bay, NL): Yeah, everyone has a ukulele story and, unlike many other instruments, they're proud of it and want to share it! Often it's a link to the past, to friends or family who played ukulele.

When we lose our music, we lose inter-personal and inter-generational connections. When the power goes out and your batteries die, Guitar Hero and iPods go silent.

For the past few days I've been in Labrador teaching ukulele on a First-Nations reserve school so the concept of passing on tradition has been very much on my mind. Music is a link to the past, a joy in the present, and a message to the future. When we lose our music, we lose inter-personal and inter-generational connections. When the power goes out and your batteries die, Guitar Hero and iPods go silent. But the ukulele gives us a chance to rekindle those connections and get away from our dependence on "fast food music"... no wonder people are so excited about it!

Speaking of which, do you think the ukulele is a vehicle for social and/or political change?

Tony (back in San Francisco, CA): Depends on your definition of those things. Within this growing community one finds players from across the social and political spectrum finding common ground in the joy of playing music together. But it's not a huge social phenomenon. Not yet anyway.

That was one of the challenges in making Mighty Uke. Marg and I were immersed in this wonderful world where people were discovering their inner music for over two years. We were seeing it all over the planet. But the mainstream audience knows little of this. We had to keep stepping back to remind ourselves what the audience was going to know about all of this.

So you, Margaret and I have just had this great experience bringing Mighty Uke to audiences on the west coast with the Mighty Uke Roadshow. What was it like to be part of that?

Right now the uke is kind of cool, but as it becomes more and more "mainstream" it may lose some of the cache.

James (in Brookfield, NS): Wonderful. I really had the feeling that we were witnessing the collision of the grassroots ukulele community and the "curious" mainstream. People - lots of them - outside the ukulele world are starting to peer into our little corner of the universe and they're seeing a lot of joy and "realness" (for lack of a better word). Just the number of people who are coming onboard seems to be growing exponentially. It's exciting but it's also a little overwhelming.

Do you think it's possible for the ukulele community to get "too big"?

Tony (in Honolulu, HI): Right now the uke is kind of cool, but as it becomes more and more "mainstream" it may lose some of the cache. We'll see...

James (in Brookfield, NS): Yes, we will. So, when and where can people see Mighty Uke?

Tony (en route to Hilo, HI): Right now we are doing a bunch of screenings in Hawaii. Ukulele Mecca! The film is essentially about how the spirit of Kanikapila - somehow embedded in the ukulele - is spreading all over the world. What is Kanikapila? Well, it's a form of musical jamming that allows everyone to participate, even those without an instrument. It's a non judgemental jamming tradition that encourages everyone to participate, and the ukulele is perfect for it. Marg and I have spent the last couple of years documenting this exciting phenomenon. From Arab and Jewish kids in Isreal to stressed-out Japanese professionals, the ukulele is providing them with the tools to break down cultural barriers, relieve stress, and have a heap of fun doing it. Concurrently, there is a generation that are turning to the uke as a new tool in the modern music arsenal. The most amazing part of this experience has been the amazing music that the ukulele, in the right hands, can produce.

This spring and summer, Marg and I will continue the Mighty Uke Roadshow, creating "ukulele happenings" anywhere we can gather enough ukulele enthusiasts. Our western trip with you was such a success that we know we will be back for more. And hopefully we'll be able to encourage you to join us.

I hope your readers will let us know where they are, so we can plot a stop for the Roadshow in their neck of the woods.

James (still in Brookfield, NS): Thanks for the "virtual chat" and best of luck with the rest of the Roadshow! Here's the Mighty Uke trailer for those who haven't seen it:

Links: Mighty Uke Homepage | Reserve your copy of the DVD | Contact Tony and Margaret | The Mighty Uke Roadshow Blog

Tony Coleman is the director of Mighty Uke, a new film that documents the global comeback of the ukulele. He lives in Toronto, ON with his wife Margaret. Visit www.mightyukemovie.com for more.
James Hill is editor of Ukulele Yes! and co-author of Ukulele in the Classroom, He also maintains a busy touring schedule as a performer; his latest CD release is True Love Don't Weep. Visit www.ukulelejames.com for more.

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