Ukalaliens Song Circle

Uke&Sing! 3rd Mondays at Tradition in Olympia

Kate here … A year ago, on October 1, 2009 to be precise, Steve and I hit the road in “Modoc”, our Ford Econoline Airstream, to introduce our new book/cd and initiate non-musicians to singing and playing on ukuleles. Our van was stocked over the cab with boxes filled with the Ukalaliens Songbook, 26 extra ukuleles, our guitars, banjos and CD’s, as well as food and clothing for living on the road. It was a great experience.

We met good people in every town and experienced the nation from the perspective of two folksingers traveling through. West coast, east coast, the Rockies, the north, the south, the mid-west, floridian southeast, the southwest; we found ourselves falling in love with every flavor of place we traveled through. The advantage of a traveling life is that it moves you forward into new places, out from the familiar and into new ground. We turned thousands of people on to the joys of making music. The fun result of our mission to convert people to their musical sides has propelled us to destinations we would never have considered before. We have covered over 27,000 miles since that date a year ago. It has been (and continues to be) a true adventure every day. We came back with an expanded community around the country, a million stories, new songs and two new Ukalaliens DVD’s about to be released by Homespun in Woodstock. Our appetites were prime to continue what we had begun.

We also had developed new projects to work on. So many inspirations, so little time! So we needed a place to work off the road for a while.

After working around the country playing concerts, teaching and sharing ukes, we came back to Portland. Living in 72 square feet across that much open land over that much time shifted our points of reference, our relationship with nature and proximity to our work and play in the community. It was subtle but real. Our big Portland craftsman house felt cavernous on its noisy city corner. Living there for sixteen years had numbed our ears to the street sounds as we lived our day-to-day. Coming back to our old home with fresh ears and months on the open road, the city felt tighter with congestion and the house too big for us to use.

So we sold it to a friend and looked for our next home base. Quality Folk remains an Oregonian business. We love Portland and the deep community and family we have there. Our history of the past several decades unfolded there. We also had family living in Olympia and decided we needed a smaller town to live in for a while. So we packed up our things and moved to a little cottage on Puget Sound. The air is salty here, reminding me of childhood mornings on Cape Cod, and has the feel of a fishing village peopled with environmentalists, “Greeners” and progressive folk. It’s a place to catch our breath and dive deeper into the work of a dozen projects, booking shows and scheduling workshops to travel to from here. Pacific Northwest, west coast, east coast and maybe the UK in 2011/2012 – booking takes time, too. If you contact us to book us, that’ll save time! Meanwhile, we travel to Oregon every week or so and operate our business there. We may move it out of Portland but it will remain in Oregon – in time we may be back!

Quality Folk, Ukalaliens and “community harmonizers” are three monikers we use to try to describe our work in the community, our role and mission to refresh the public’s memory for making music. High art, low art, folk art. At the heart of our delivery stands a pair of lifelong musicians with a hankering to share the pure joy of making music with the uninitiated. Making beautiful music does not need to be complicated to be good. Iconic artists are unique and gives us something to aspire to. In our concerts, we strive to share our best material in our best voices with our best instrumental abilities. In our workshops, we share how we began to make music so others can make their own way from there into their music. Music is personal and different for everybody. We like lighting the wick and getting people started. It’s a beginning and that’s often a memorable moment in a musical life – like a first kiss or first ride on a bike – you never forget the first time.

On the one hand, our songs and music are a byproduct of a life we’ve been expressing musically for years. Steve and I were each young players on the stage, starting out professionally in our early teen years. The satisfaction that has come from sharing that music comes from the song itself and the warm response of people who have been moved by it. It’s a natural act and very human. It connects us with people and communities everywhere. The enjoyment of the music itself sustains us even when circumstances don’t.

The irony of musicmaking is that, when all is said and done, if the world was suddenly unplugged and there were no stores or downloads to find it, it can still be had by picking up an instrument to play and opening our voice to sing. It’s natural.

Sometimes the singing comes all by itself and it’s enough without the addition of instruments. Songs and tunes start in the heart and come out in our throats and hands. Irish seanos singing is unaccompanied and revered for its purity. Gregorian singing is unaccompanied devotional singing that spurns egoic ornamentation. The pure drop in music is the music itself. The genesis of making music is a gift waiting inside each of us to be used. Our bodies and imagination tangle together in cahoots over notes that rise to become songs and compositions. It’s organic and is affected by mood, color, space and volume. We are naturally musical around babies and children and sing to them freely, making up lyrics about whatever it is we are doing with them. Learning to sing and play with each other as adults takes more trust. The work we’re doing with the Ukalaliens creates a safe haven for people to grow their musical sides. It seems to be working pretty well so far.

The mindset in our culture of exclusivity from people making music together began with the beginning of media. The minute sound could be captured, it became a substitute instead of an act and the line of demarcation was drawn between doing it ourselves and pressing a button.

In the old days, people gathered around the hearth and entertained themselves with songs, stories, recitations, poems and jokes. Years ago in the west of Ireland, I saw this in action and its inclusive nature rang a bell for me. Instead of being “special” enough to entertain, everyone had something to offer and was encouraged to share it with the circle of neighbors and strangers in the pub. The only thing you needed to be was willing. There was no talent meter. Honoring the song, the story, the poem or the joke lay in the act of sharing it. This revelation moved me to ponder.

There was no competition, thrashing, or dominating the group with volume. People actively LISTENED to not only the song but to each other as they harmonized, played and sang along. Without listening the song loses its beauty, momentum and prominence to the foibles of ego and frustrating mediocrity. Being from a large family, I was raised with egalitarian rules, the dominant one being that we were all of equal value and no one was better or worse than the other. In fact, we were in varied and different in our degrees of ability, talent and interest but when we sang and played together, it was to be harmoniously and the only way to accomplish that was to primarily LISTEN to each other and secondarily find our parts. We were taught to serve the song first and foremost. It wasn’t about us, it was about the song. That was lesson number one. Children of large families are very competitive by nature so this was a valuable lesson and it has helped me inside and outside of the music realm. Making music in a group is cooperative social action. The more beautiful it is, the more harmony is felt, not only in the music itself but inside the people who make it.

Kate here – Last week in September 2010. What an amazing week it was. We left Olympia for our first McMenamins run to sing our songs in Centralia & Edgefield and brought our Uke & Sing to the Kennedy School. My, that was fun! So fun, we’re going to do it again in October.

Then we went to the Oregon coast and taught our Ukalaliens I & II for Sitka at the Neskowin Valley School followed by a singalong that may be the best one we ever led. We’re going to bring what we learned to all of our upcoming sings and show people how to come together to make beautiful music.

The Uke & Sing! has brought about some real transformation for a lot of people and they keep thanking us for turning their musical buttons on. We are humbled by their enthusiasm and grateful for the good work that allows us to share our music and teach them how to make their own. It’s meaningful and a whole lot of fun to do. Sure, it’s a lot of schlepping, hauling and driving. We’re carrying dozens of extra ukes to share along with our banjos and guitars. It’s worth it. We hope we get to do this for a long time.

Over this next while, you’ll see us traveling closer to home in the Pacific Northwest. Come winter, we’ll bring the ukes to California and back. We’re looking for work in music stores, schools, libraries, arts organizations, retirement communities and house parties. We provide ukes, workshops and concerts filled with our music. If that sounds like something you would like to host or come to, be sure to let us know and we’ll see what we can do to get together.

Thanks for all the wonderful support you’ve shown us. We love you for it and will go the extra mile to come sing with you and for you.

This fall, we are happy to say that Homespun will release TWO DVD’s (downloadable) on our Ukalaliens I Method and Ukalaliens II with more technique & repertoire. Ukalaliens on Homespun. Yes! We may even be the first in the “Pick it Up & Play” series. We’ll let you know all about it. Meanwhile,m feel free to hit the “Homespun” button on our website homepage and meander around!

This week we are getting ready for the Olympia Artwalk with Steve’s sculptures in the great recycling gallery at Matter! and the Uke & Sing! series coming up and Arts NW conference in a couple of weeks.

Monday, October 4th at 7PM kicks off the 1st official “Uke & Sing!” at Yenney Music. Step right up! Folks can sign up for it online at our website under “Register for Events.” You can also just show up. The seats are limited to 30+ so don’t wait to get yours, just reserve your seat today! This is truly a great way to learn to play uke, to make music on any instrument, to sing and to harmonize. It gives everybody a chance to learn how to make beautiful music in a folk ensemble. Under the guidance of Steve & Kate and the simple methods of the Ukalaliens Songbook, a good time is absolutely guaranteed. Shy-friendly, beginner-to-pro friendly, all are welcome and invited to participate. Bring your instruments or just come! Absolutely no experience necessary. All experience welcome. Can’t wait to sing with you on Monday in Olympia!

While we were at the coast, we toured the Westwind Camp for the “Tunes in the Dunes” ukulele camp being planned for 9/23-9/25/2011. The beauty of the place! We took the little ferry across the Salmon River, walked on the beach to the trail up to the lodge and cabins. There was a nice amphitheatre and bonfire set up on the way. This uke camp is going to be fantastic so be sure to mark your calendars and stay tuned at

Musically yours,

Kate here – Entering 2010, we are grateful for the gift of you.  Hokey but true.  Your support and encouragement made it possible for us to venture out from home in Portland, Oregon to sing and play (and get other people singing and playing while we’re at it) in new places around the country.  You gave us courage, gas money and dreamed that we could do it and we did.  A lot of you were on the tour with us, in spirit at least.  Some of you even came all the way to some of the gigs, Pete Seeger, Passim.  It was a great time of discovery and connection.  Thank you for that.  It worked.   You spurred us on and went 10,000 miles.  We are back and the year has turned.

Lights at the end of the day

Lighting our way home....

We traveled the country for 72 days, eating and sleeping in “Modoc”, our trusty silver & blue-lined Airstream conversion Ford Econoline van.  We found state parks and folk-friendly driveways on the way to music stages and stores, and community centers filled with the locals.  People were curious about us. “The Ukalaliens are here!” they’d smile and they made us welcome.

We left home to try out the unknown and hit the road on Thursday morning, Ocotber 1st.   For the next ten weeks we aimed for gigs and workshops with 26 ukuleles, three guitars, a banjo, two more ukes,  a new book, in fact 500 copies of the new “Ukalaliens Songbook”, published and released that very same day, all snug in their boxes overhead in the cab.

This may not sound appealing to some, but for us it was epic.  The physical act of it was enormous.  19 feet long, ten feet tall.  City parking, no problem.  Modoc handled like a mid-sized boat on wheels.  9500 pounds plus us, it was like driving an ark.  Power steering, high beam button on the floor, cruise control and the reflexes of a sensitive elephant.   Reflexes jolted if you hurried the brakes or took a corner too fast. Not the Westy by a long shot.  More like the elephant it was named after.  Before long our pace was in synch and the road was ours.

The discovery of new towns and places, people, each with a flavor of its own.  Friendly chit-chat across parking lots over 10,000 miles made for a lot of encounters, mostly friendly.  Brief stops with old bonds across the country, each day so different from the one before.  We met and played for people from the deep past, from life before Portland, before Artichoke, before children, before we met.

Musicians, friends and family going all the way back, forty years or so, came out in force.  Some were following our journey with relish; a couple even toyed with quitting their jobs to create their own rendition of freedom, to do what they are passionate about while they had the gumption and wherewithal to do it.  They toasted us for catalyzing their decision and influencing them to make a move.  Gulp. Clink. To Life!  Smile and cheers, we wished them well and were gone by morning.

Circumnavigating the country in the current economic climate was a long mix of empty buildings, even malls; ghostly downtown hubs left haunted by the crash.  All but a few shopkeepers in some places, sweeping the front of their doors, pondering how long they can last.  Furrowed brows and gravity in their smiles hello, wondering what happened to life as they knew it.

We were in the hands of hosts and strangers most days who confounded us with generosity and hospitality.  Places we had been nervous about passing through turned into favorite stops.  I never knew I could love so many places the way I do now.  Missouri, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, California.  Stereotypes broke daily, some were reinforced.  Almost always, it felt good to meet people, get our bearings and do the gig. They were glad we came and we were happy to be there.  They dug what we were there to do and liked our music.

Digesting and sharing the stories that grew between stops will take a little time – brewing to unfold.

10,000 miles renewed our perspective and encouraged us to carry on.  The chance to explore, interact and connect, teach and sing with all kinds of people through the songs,  stories was a gift. In return, they explored their dreams and aspirations with us.  Making music together makes friends of strangers.

This story all started and ended here with you, dear readers.  Home indeed is where the heart is.  Music connects at the heart, crosses  borders and heals.  Thank you for being with us as we go.  The trip may be over but the journey has just begun.

We’ll start telling the stories one by one.  There are good twists to share.   Here’s to life!  On the road and back again, it’s good to be home.