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Corktown Ukulele Jam Unites A Community

Last Updated Jun 22, 2015 at 11:26 pm EDT

January 14th, 2009.  Toronto.

A wicked winter wind is blowing.

The concrete jungle glows virgin white.

You can almost hear the streets creak like old arthritic bones as the temperature plummets and the snow continues to sink from the sky in heavy sheets.

Common sense says, ‘stay inside’.

Things aren’t looking promising for the inaugural Corktown Ukulele Jam.

After a few weeks joyfully plucking and strumming on ukuleles at their neighbourhood watering hole, the Dominion at 500 Queen East, good-time co-conspirators Stephen McNie (pictured above, left) and David Newland (above, right) envisioned a weekly jam session in the bar’s backroom.  They were given the green light by the establishment’s proprietors and soon put up a website, inviting others to join them.

“We looked at each other and it was an instant thing,” recalls McNie.  “We basically said, ‘hey we’ve been doing this for the last few weeks, it’s a lot of fun, it’s too much fun, do you think there are some other people that would like to do it?”

“So we built a website and we agreed that if we had 40 people say that they’d be interested then it meant that maybe on the first night we’d have half a dozen people that would show up and do it.”

They set the date and nervously watched as a winter storm blanketed Toronto.  All but certain the night would be a bust due to the inclement conditions, they were pleasantly surprised when the first few stragglers stepped foot inside the Dominion, shaking off their snow-sopped coats to seek out the advertised session.

Then a few more showed up.

And a few more.

Gusts of wind kept creeping into the bar as the door opened and closed.   McNie and Newland had a hard time believing what they were seeing.

“We set the first day for January 14 and about 35 people showed up on what was the worst winter night of last winter,” McNie recalls excitedly.

“It was the snowiest, coldest night, it was a night when everyone should have stayed home and when we got into this room, we were blown away that there were 35 people we had never met before.”

On a blustery night, from the womb of a winter storm, the Corktown Ukulele Jam was born.

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Newland fondly remembers the curious, eclectic faces that had gathered and the collective sense of adventure shared that night. “It was basically a room full of strangers holding ukes and they had these big weird grins on their faces because they had never seen so many ukes in one place before and certainly not so many people playing.  We just got a whole lot of love out of it and it took off from there, we made it a weekly thing.”

A year later they are still going strong.  Last Wednesday, the Corktown Ukulele Jam celebrated its first anniversary.  The numbers may have swelled since that first night, but the original freshness and spirit remains intact.  They sing, strum and smile together, leaving their pretensions at the door to embrace the charms and nuances of the simple but surprisingly complex instrument that brought them together, helping them grow as individuals, and a community.

Nick Tustin was there on that first night, and a year later his enthusiasm remains unbridled.  He’s a familiar face on Wednesdays and helps set up the sound system for the open mic performances.

“I was here for day one, “ he proudly reveals behind a bushy beard.   “I was somehow Google-ing something to do with Toronto and ukuleles and I found the website that Stephen and David had set up and I thought ‘that sounds kind of interesting’.  So I came down on the first night and there was (a group of people) in the backroom all gathered around.  I didn’t know what to think at first but it stuck and I try to make it every week.”

“It’s gone from that backroom thing that was an informal setting and Stephen and Dave have organized it, there’s a workshop now, an open mic, sign-up lists online and we probably get on average four or five times the amount of people that came out a year ago. People are uke crazy right now.”

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Michael Griffin can attest to the fact that a ukulele craze is fully underway.  He owns Broadway Music in Orangeville, and has seen demand for the instrument skyrocket recently.

“We’ve had the store for two years, in our first year we sold 4 ukuleles.  They were all $35 toys.  Between September and now we’ve sold upwards of 120 ukuleles and they can cost anywhere up to around $600. We are seeing a more serious approach to ukuleles and a lot of serious musicians coming in looking for them,” he explains.

Griffin now hosts his own ukulele night on the first Sunday of every month in Orangeville. He cites several popular culture references with contributing to the recent resurgence in the instrument’s popularity.

“In 50 First Dates, they played that song at the end of it (by Israel Kamakawiwo) and people started paying attention to the ukulele again. Jason Mraz has a couple of songs out on ukulele. Neil Young admitted in his biography that the first thing he learned to play was ukulele so everybody is starting to pay attention to uke again and it’s just a little groundswell.

“In the 60s Tiny Tim killed it,” he adds, grinning. “He was just so campy and so off the beaten track that people didn’t recognize it as a musical instrument as much as novelty instrument.”

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The backroom at the Dominion is rapidly swelling.

People from all walks of life, ranging in age from 10-80, are settling in for the evening.  There’s an obvious camaraderie among the group, and a family atmosphere highlighted by the pluck of strings being set to the standard C tuning (G-C-E-A).

Some will only be participating in the group lesson/jam, while others, usually the ones nervously sipping stage-fright-dissolving spirits, will be taking part in the open mic to follow.

The night starts off with a few sentimental words from Newland before an animated and energized McNie takes over to lead the class.  Sheet music is projected onto the wall, and 60-80 people attentively follow McNie as he explains the chord changes and urges them on while making appropriate corrections and even at times pleading for silence like an exasperated school teacher when uke-happy hands are intent on noodling around while he’s trying to keep things focused.

With that many people in one room, things could quickly deteriorate into chaos, but McNie proves to be the glue that binds the collective experience.

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Often thought of as a solitary instrument, the ukulele actually shines in a group setting.

“It’s very similar to a drumming circle,” notes Newland.  “It’s very similar to a glee club or a choir, it’s similar to a kind of church basement gospel revival thing, it’s similar to the kind of singalong workshops that happen at folk festivals.”

“It’s almost the only instrument that a room full of people can all play, they can all sing, they can hear the accompaniment but it doesn’t drown the voices,” he stresses.   “In some ways what we are really doing is enabling people to sing together and I believe there’s something that happens when people make music together period, but when they sing together, there’s like a connection in the heart that is critical. It goes back to the dawn of time, it’s what humans have always done, it’s the original entertainment, it’s the original spirituality and as simple as it is, we engage that.”

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The skill level of the attendees varies greatly, but one of the charms of the ukulele is that almost anyone can learn the basics in a few minutes, enabling them to play dozens upon dozens of songs.  Combine that with the openness of the event, and individuals who may have never contemplated playing an instrument in a group setting are suddenly embracing the uke.

“It’s a really nurturing environment,” explains Michael Runcimen, who has been playing for a few years.  “It’s a real sense of camaraderie.  The first hour you learn a song together and everyone is strumming and learning the chord changes and the open mic is sort of a nurturing environment.  I had never performed in public before and I got up the nerve here to actually strum in front of people so it’s great it’s been good for me.”

“We have people who come up and play who are professional players and we have people who have only been playing for a very short period of time, know a few chords and they don’t feel intimidated to get up and try it,” adds Rick Bales, a longtime musician.

Visual artist Rob Elliott isn’t quite ready for the open mic, but he nonetheless enjoys the group setting.  He’s also relatively new to Toronto and finds the event a great social outing.

“It takes the fear out of music to some extent.  The ukulele is not completely daunting, a lot of the chords are made up of a single finger, you don’t feel terrified going into it,” he says, taking a moment away from his notebook of ukulele songs.

“I think a lot of people I know who play music talk about how the idea of playing together has been lost, how it’s become either a spectator event or something where you take lessons and you never actually do anything with the lessons.

“I might go up in a month of two, I’ve got a couple of three chord songs I’m thinking about.”

Tony Burns has been coming out since the early sessions.  He’s a recent retiree and blogger who strives to find interesting and cheap activities to keep him stimulated and fulfilled.

“The ukulele is a very accessible instrument,” he remarks.  “Somebody can buy a ukulele and you can sit down in 10 minutes and teach them a couple of basic chords and you can feel like you’re taking part.”

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Stephen McNie and David Newland admit they are a little overwhelmed with how popular the Corktown Ukulele Jam has become.

People from around the world have shown up to sit and play with the group and every week there’s several new faces in the crowd.

“We are still surprised.  It’s a phenomena,” Newland tells me before kicking off the open mic with a few songs.

Upon reflection he can now see why so many people made it out that first night, and why increasing numbers continue to show up.  It’s not so much about the music, but the group experience and friendships that have blossomed.

“In an age where people are often divided off into their cubicles at work and into their condominiums at home, local vibrant music culture is something that people are seeking and if you can provide that….it’s an amazing thing.

“If you bring people together and they do something together, especially something as moving as music, there is something higher happening there.”

michael.talbot@citynews.rogers.com