When packing for my long-term trip to New Zealand, I only bought two new things: a foldable yoga mat and a ukulele case. I didn’t realize then that both of those purchases would pretty much transform how I spend my time, and, quite honestly, overhaul a lot of aspects of my lifestyle. More on the yoga part later–for now, I’ll focus on the uke, since I recently had the opportunity to do something I didn’t anticipate while in New Zealand–playing in a band at a ukulele festival!
I’ve had my ukulele for about as long as I’ve had my guitar: roughly 7 years. Back in the U.S., I mainly played uke when I wanted to write a song with chords that I hadn’t mastered yet on guitar. I played it from time to time, but it mostly gathered dust hanging on the wall.
Knowing I’d be abroad for quite a while, and not wanting to take a break from writing songs for that whole time, I immediately ruled out traveling with a large instrument and decided to bring my ukulele. The plans I had for it were as simple as playing in my room and possibly recording on my own: the same as at home.
In February, a couple days after I moved to Wellington, I was perusing the website Meet Up to find interest groups to join, to make some new friends. When I saw one called The Mighty Ukuleles for Peace, the name alone had me intrigued–plus the fact that I’d never heard of a ukulele group before. When I showed up to my first practice, the thirty happy strummers singing a variety of songs–from oldies like “Sweet Caroline” to “The Cup Song” from Pitch Perfect–had me grinning from ear to ear.
Soonafter, I played with the Mighty Ukes at the Newtown Festival in Wellington, which is where I met two uke-ladies who invited me to practice with them weekly, which led to recording ourselves for fun…which led to an invite to play a couple sets of covers and original songs on the South Island at the Geraldine Ukefest!
The first weekend of July, Anne, Helen, and I packed our bags and ukes and flew from Wellington to Christchurch, where two other ukulele players drove us a couple more hours to Geraldine, the small town bursting with ukulele excitement for the 5th annual festival. After immediately bundling up to stay warm [in the closest weather to Midwest winter I’ve felt in NZ], we rocked up at the open mic and played a couple songs, then listened to more groups from all over the country, as well as Australia.
At a potluck dinner with other bands, it sunk in that for the first time, I was surrounded by all musicians. It’s hard to explain, but it was like finally being part of the kind of group I’ve envisioned wanting to be in, but my instrument-playing had never been on par for me to feel confident enough to join in jam sessions or really feel that kind of camraderie. The musical vibes grew throughout the weekend, at our two lunchtime sets the next day, performing for cafe customers, and while attending the main stage concerts both nights. Arguably, a highlight of the weekend was the last day, when a bunch of bands took up residence outside a restaurant on the sunny, 50-degree Fahrenheit day to flip through songbooks of covers and learn others’ original songs, as we jammed in the chilly sunshine for hours until it was time for everyone to head their respective ways. When the group of twenty played along with one of my own songs, it was just so surreal.
The past few months of taking ukulele seriously, and taking advantage of open mics and performance opportunities, street busking, and jams with friends, has been a path I never envisioned for my time in New Zealand. It’s led me to refocus on goals I have for my time traveling as well as how I want to reprioritize my life when I eventually return to the States. Everything that’s transpired has reminded me how important it is to not have a fixed mindset for yourself: for your day-to-day life and beyond. As an introvert who finds it much easier to wander a new city alone than to do anything group-related, I’m thankful I pushed myself to show up to a ukulele practice with strangers, taking chances that I didn’t always take in the past, out of fear.
It’ll be fun to see what other musical endeavors come up along my travels. Next up, though, HoopLAH will be playing a show in our home base of Wellington in September!