Uketopia in the Aussie Tropics

Paul Hemmings, the world’s foremost jazz ukulele player
For one weekend next month, the far north Queensland tropics in Australia will supersede the Hawaiian islands as the center of the ukulele universe.

From July 5-8, the third annual Cairns Ukulele Festival will celebrate every manifestation of the humble four-stringed instrument du jour and an array of roots music.

The aim is to present the ukulele in many forms,” declares festival founder and director Gaby Thomasz. “From a programming point of view, it means that the bill includes a very broad range of musical styles, performed by solo acts, duos and bands.

From its inception, the festival’s aim was to bring people from all ages and walks of life together to make and enjoy music. We wanted the festival to cover various art forms, and appeal to not only ukulele lovers per se, but music lovers in general.”

Emphasizing the point, Thomasz says the ukulele is a means to an end: “It’s a great vehicle to present a range of musical styles, often in its purest form, as well as a way to get children and pensioners interested in picking up an instrument and start playing. The festival also showcases our beautiful tropical region.”

Nicky Bomba
This year, as part of the festival, punters can participate in a ukulele cruise to the Low Isles off Port Douglas or do a Ukulele Mystery Tour in a double decker London bus to locations that normally only the locals visit.

Ukefest 2012 boasts a strong international cast that includes roots musician Aaron Keim (aka The Quiet American), jazzman Paul Hemmings and festival regular Matt Dahlberg from the USA, ukulele blues man Manitoba Hal from Canada, Japanese duo Fulare_pad and the acclaimed Hawaiian instrumentalists Herb Ohta Jr., Craig Chee and Derick Sebastian.

A plethora of Australian acts will include Melbourne 4-piece AJ Leonard’s Tropical Lounge. Representing NSW will be Ukenasia from Ulladulla and the Sydney North Ukulele Gang (SNUGs). Darwin’s The Dukes will fly the NT flag and Lily & the Frog are hopping up from South Australia for the 2012 Ukefest.

The home state contingent will include the Torres Strait Ukulele Troupe and award-winning islander legend Seaman Dan, who’ll come out of retirement for to join New York uke maestro Paul Hemmings and croon a couple of Nat King Cole songs during the showcase concerts at the Tanks Arts Centre on Sunday July 8.

Cute Ukes, Peace Lutheran College, TAS Ukes, Uke-phoria from St Andrews College, the Cairns Ukulele Club and Fingerprint will be among the host city performers.

Many of the acts will also host workshops, offering a unique opportunity for uke players from all around Australia to hone their ukulele skills. Newcomers will be coached, so that they can be part of a world record attempt that has become a bit of a signature event. Last year the festival fell only 40 short of topping the then record of 851. “The bar has since been raised by a town in Sweden, so we really have a challenge on our hands,” says Thomasz. “We’re going to give it a go. The experience of so many people making music together and getting together for a common goal is just so good; it’s almost addictive! Many people told me it’s one of the most memorable things they have ever been part of.”

This year the throng will be playing a two-chord calypso style song in the key of C written by Nicky Bomba, called ‘Travelin’’

The Melbourne musician, whose other roles include drum seat in the John Butler Trio, will be there in person to conduct. After the record bid, to be held in Cairns’ Fogarty Park on Saturday July 7, Bustamento, Bomba’s new 6-piece mento/ska/reggae/calpyso band will perform at The Jack pub in the Cairns CBD, with ukulele featuring heavily, of course!

Profiles and video links of the international performers follow:

Herb Ohta Jr.

Herb Ohta
Considered to be one of today’s most prolific ukulele masters. Influenced by Jazz, R&B, Latin and Brazilian music, he puts his stamp on Hawaiian music by pushing the limits of tone and technique on this beautiful instrument.

The son of ukulele legend “Ohta-san,” he started playing at the age of three, and teaching at the age of 9. He now shares the music of Hawaii, and the beauty of the ukulele with people around the world, performing and conducting instructional workshops.

This Na Hoku Hanohano Award winner (Hawaiian equivalent to the Grammy) and four-time Hawaii Music Award winner effortlessly translates the beauty and culture of Hawaii’s through his creative expression of music. With nine solo albums, eight duet albums in circulation, and contributions on more than 40 recordings, he is well on his way to matching his father’s legacy.

In 2010 Herb celebrated his 20th Anniversary in the music industry releasing two new recordings, Ukulele Nahenahe and Take 1. In 2011, Ukulele Nahenahe won the Hawaii’s Music Award for Best Ukulele Recording and also won the Na Hoku Hanohano Award for Best Instrumental.

The Quiet American – Aaron Keim

The Quiet American recorded his first solo record, on an 1890’s wax cylinder machine! Like a voice from the past that seems to know the future, this self-titled release is a favorite of old time music and audiophiles alike. His latest CD, The Quiet American Vol. II, showcases his talents as a solo act. The original songs sound like classics and the standards sound fresh. During the last few years, he become a firm favorite on the US ukulele festival circuit, and is considered one of the best ukulele instructors around.

Manitoba Hal

A consummate blues man, in earlier days with guitar, but since 2008 with ukulele. He developed the blues sound when he lived in Winnipeg, Manitoba a city that is often referred to as the Chicago of the north. He switched from guitar to the ukulele when he noticed that sonically it occupied a space that was in pitch above his voice. This gave his vocals a lot more room in the song without colliding with the notes of the accompaniment as they did when he played guitar.

Paul Hemmings & the Uketet

The humble ukulele has sat on the back burner throughout most of jazz music’s rich history. The New York City-based player is determined to change that. With his Uketet, the unassuming four-stringed Hawaiian instrument takes its place front and center, alongside bass and drums, in a well-seasoned jazz combo that pushes the boundaries of what has often been considered a mere novelty instrument. He serves up a tasty blend of jazz standards, contemporary classics, and original music, all the while showcasing the instrumental virtues of its key ingredient.


An exciting instrumental acoustic guitar /ukulele duo from Kyoto. Blending popular genres, they write their own compositions, which range from pop/rock to mesmerising ballads. 2011 saw them, headlining the Thailand Ukulele Festival.

Craig Chee

Craig Chee was one of the favorite performers at last year’s Cairns Ukulele Festival, where engaged other musicians and audience like the pro he is. His style blends pop, funk, and rock, all on ukulele. He will also be host on the Ukulele Mystery Tour, along with local tour operator Luke Walker. Anyone who has seen these two in action will know they are in for one hell of a ride!

Matt Dahlberg

A favorite at the first two Cairns Ukulele Festivals. His instrumentals have been described as “luxurious”, “awe-inspiring” and “unbelievable”. Matt will host a free workshop on the Sunday at the Tanks Arts Centre.

Derick Sebastian

His critically acclaimed instrumental album, From His Heart, earned him a Na Hoku Hanohano 2010 nomination. He has shared the stage with the legendary Jake Shimabukuro and recently broke into the Hollywood scene, composing the theme song to the movie Life’s An Itch.

Author: Tony Hillier

Tony Hillier is based in Cairns in far north Queensland, from where he has been actively involved in all areas of the music industry in Australia for the past 25 years, primarily as a journalist, writing for national publications such as the Weekend Australian and Rhythms magazine (for which he is World Music & Folk correspondent), and performing locally, nationally and internationally with the bands Kamerunga and Snake Gully. He has also presented and produced World Music and Folk music programs for ABC Far North, Port Douglas Radio and 4CCR-FM, netting a CBAA Best Specialist Music Program Award with the last-named for a documentary on flamenco. Before coming to Australia, he was a racing journalist of some repute in the UK, where he wrote a column for the London Evening Standard under the nom-de-plume of Ajax.


One thought on “Uketopia in the Aussie Tropics”

  1. This article makes me want to not miss anything. So pleased to have booked both the Low Isles and the bus tour. It appears to me that there is a wealth of talent to be listened to. I am really looking forward to the trip and hope that I can make the most of the time we are there

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