From modest beginnings at informal sessions at Wellington institution Deluxe Cafe (beside Embassy Theatre on Kent Terrace), the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra has ridden the crest of the diminutive instrument's revival. Live favourites around the country, they have recorded a string of EPs featuring massed ukulele renditions of 80s favourites along with the occasional dash of Kiwiana and more contemporary numbers. Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie was a founder member of the accomplished strummers.
The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra's version of Bonnie Tyler's wrenching 70s hit was the title track of their debut EP. In director Tim Capper's video, they manage to take the song to new levels of pathos with vocalist Andy Morley-Hall's quest for a slice of vegan apple and rhubarb tart. The location is a crowded Deluxe Cafe (where the ensemble emerged from informal Thursday morning sessions). Age Pryor contributes the solo and, amongst the group's massed ranks, there's a masked nod to absent member and Flight of the Conchord Bret McKenzie.
This Artsville TV documentary plucks its way through a Kiwi-focused history of the ukulele, from Waikiki to Wellington, using the dream of “godfather of Polynesian music” Bill Sevesi as its starting point: namely “that the children would be playing the ukulele all over the country.” Presenter Gemma Gracewood (of the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra) reveals the instrument’s Pacific adoption and burgeoning popularity, and meets acolytes of ‘the uke’: from Herman Pi’ikea Clark to Jennifer Ward-Lealand, to Sevesi strumming with onetime pupil Sione Aleki.
Host Paul Holmes puts the life of opera star Dame Malvina Major in the spotlight and discovers her origins in a large Waikato family whose first love was country music. Guests include John Rowles and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (a fellow pupil of their often terrifying teacher, “the tiny force behind the biggest voices”, Dame Sister Mary Leo). Major’s triumphs are revisited, as is her decision to give up her international career to farm with her husband in Taranaki. A good sport throughout, she even manages a yodel for a ukulele-led family sing-along.
This episode of arts show Mercury Lane features legendary musician Bill Sevesi, and poet Sonja Yelich (mother of musician Lorde). Sevesi takes centre stage: various musician friends join him to reminisce about packing Auckland dance halls in the 50s and 60s (at least until the arrival of 10 o'clock closing). After celebrating his 79th birthday, Sevesi is still as upbeat and music-obsessed as ever, especially when it comes to his beloved steel guitar and ukulele. In the final clip, Sonja Yelich performs her poem Teeth, with wry accompanying visuals from director Fiona Samuel.
This 1960 National Film Unit documentary visits the Cook Islands, a group of volcanic isles and coral atolls administered by New Zealand. Ron Bowie's film surveys the challenges of island life (sourcing fresh water, lack of timber for housing) as well as agriculture (coconuts), recreation and schooling. Though patronising — describing Rarotongan people as “the cheerful islander” — the narration confronts some impacts of modernity (eg the shift to European diet for dental health), and anticipates young people will be the islands' biggest export.
The Video Kid was one of many outlets for the musical talents of Bret McKenzie, who has done time in pop-reggae outfit The Black Seeds, the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra and, as half of slightly successful folk-parody duo Flight of the Conchords. The Video Kid released his Prototype, his only album to date, in 2004. Described as folk-electronica-meets-synth-over-satire, it received a nomination at that year's b.Net Awards for Best Downbeat Release.
The Knobz were originally Rockylox — founded by singer-guitarist Kevin Fogarty in 1978. After a name change in 1980 they had a Top 10 hit with ‘Culture?’: a jab at Prime Minister Rob Muldoon’s refusal to lift a sales tax on recorded music. Another topical single — a John Lennon tribute called ‘Liverpool to America’ — failed to match the success of ‘Culture?’ Album Sudden Exposure followed; but they disbanded in 1983 after failing to get a foothold in Australia. Now a teacher in Auckland, Fogarty co-founded the ‘Ukuleles in Schools’ programme.
The unlikely combination of 1930s Hollywood and a Kiwi town hall knees up work delightfully in this clip from Australian production luminaries Straighty180. Wigmore's croaky charms are augmented by crowd-sourced choreography, and the most delicate of ukulele performances from a burly strummer gets the dance-floor moving. Lovely!
Gemma Gracewood produced arts series Frontseat over five seasons, then followed it with the ambitious New Artland. Her career has also included stints as radio producer, arts publicist, Metro film reviewer, parliamentary press secretary, and musician.