It was a close run contest, but in the end Manitoba Hal won Ukulele Video of the Year 2010 with his funky blues of Poulet Shack from his latest album Huckster ( you can buy it on BandCamp, you can also get a ukulele songbook for it on his website).
Rather than a huge gong and a substantial cash prize, this award only carries with it the chance to be pestered with some of my question.
(And before you ask, yes, I will be putting up tab).
How did you first get into playing the uke? And why did it become your main instrument?
My grandfather had a 1955 Martin Soprano Ukulele in his house. He was a piano player and I’d never seen him play the uke. I asked him about it when we were moving him from his house into a seniors care home. He gave it to me on the sole condition that I learn to play it. I loved my grandfather very much and I would do anything for him. So I agreed and it changed my life. When I started to learn there were no resources anywhere nearby to use. There wasn’t any YouTube or online lesson sites. The were no radio stations playing ukulele music (there still aren’t here in Canada). I literally had to buy old sheet music and learn to read music to hear the way this instrument should sound.
Right away I noticed that sonically it occupied this space that was in pitch above my voice. This gave my vocals a lot more room in the song without colliding with the notes of the accompaniment as they did when I played guitar also I noticed that people seemed amazed at the sounds I was producing with the ukulele. The last thing that clinched my decision to switch to uke full time was that for all the years and concerts I’ve given as a guitarist, people usually didn’t tell me stories of their life when I played guitar. There is hardly a show where I play the uke where I don’t hear about the first time people heard a uke or how their uncle Alex used to play. People seemed compelled to communicate about their life when the uke is played. I like that.
You went with a very stripped down sound for Huckster. What was behind that decision?
I wanted to show the uke off as a qualified blues instrument. I think there is a great deal of popular ukulele that is just strumming and even many “blues” players that simply play the basic chords with the occasional riff thrown in for good measure. I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to show that with nothing more than a ukulele, my voice and a foot to stomp that I could deliver a solid honest blues performance such as one would expect from a slide delta blues player. Not sure if I got there but I think I did alright.
Do you approach playing blues ukulele differently to playing blues guitar?
Yes. I think you have to. Even though the guitar and the uke are related it’s a very different thing to have those two other strings and all the bass available. I generally think in terms of bass riffs on guitar and they don’t exist on the uke. My guitar background comes again from that “solo blues guy” delta background where I would sit on a stage and play a groove that would get people moving, sing a lyric that would move their spirit and add some slide soloing to impress the ladies (as they say). The uke makes me think more in terms of pure rhythm when I play solo or of melodic chord based soloing. There is more space for the vocal to be evocative and that space demands an extra bit of confidence and ego to fill the stage.
What are your top blues-ukulele playing tips?
Know your chord vocabulary and your scales! That’s it. Well getting a mojo hand or a John-the-Conquerer root doesn’t hurt none either.
What’s your uke and effects set-up on the Poulet Shack video?
For Poulet Shack I ran the uke through a Boss Blues Driver for the “edge”, an Electro-Harmonics POG octave generator for the bass sound and a Boss RC-20XL Loopstation, to create the background, then the signal was amplified through my little acoustic amp. The vocal mic also went through the same amp. The sound on the video is the audio my video camera recorded from that live set up. The track developed like this. First I set the POG for a sound 1 octave below the root of the uke, then I turned on the loopstation and captured a simple quarter note bass pattern. After that the rest of the song is just me playing on top of the loopstation groove.
What else is in your uke collection?
I own two RISA tenor ukulele’s which are basically identical except for the tops and strung GCEA with the low G. Other than that I’m running lean right now. I have a signature model aNueNue uke coming out this spring, and a double neck custom uke this summer. That’s my compliment right now. I am looking into a good cigar box uke though….
Who are your favourite uke and non-uke musicians?
I gravitate to good songwriters over pure virtuoso picking. As for uke players, Melvern Taylor, Tim Sweeney, James Hill, Craig Robertson and Gerald Ross pretty much top the list. I’m always open to more and new voices though and I love discovering someone who just floors me with a lyric.
I listen to alot of blues performers (both old and many newer unknown acts) and as I said gravitate to the solo singer-songwriter types. Taj Mahal, Robert Johnson, Bukka White, Willie Dixon, Mississippi John Hurt, Seasick Steve and Otis Taylor for the more famous names. Colin Linden, Kelly Joe Phelps, Harry Manx, Ray Bonneville, Paul Thorn, Rick Fines for the lesser known roots guys.
What can we expect to hear from you this year?
Well I’ve been working on this one-man-band concept alot this year and I think it really showcases well in my latest live video Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women. This song was recorded much like Poulet Shack with the video camera recording the audio live as it happened in my little studio room. The sound is more of a traditional electric blues band with some funky beats and a solos over the groove. I think the next recording will definitely be moving more in this direction. Right now though all I’m thinking about is getting out on the road this year and playing Huckster live to folks all over the US and Canada. I’d love to get over to the UK and Stockholm too though. Know anyone who can arrange a gig?