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A decade on, Melbourne Ukelele Festival has found the perfect way to celebrate the beloved instrument

Since 2009, the Melbourne Ukulele Festival has seen the streets and venues of Northcote given over to celebrations of the humble uke. 

Between the suburb’s pop up bars, cafes and street food stalls, something as quirky as a two day ukulele-specific event makes perfect sense; a DIY, labour of love festival in an area which counts independent businesses as its beating heart. Over a cup of tea and some crackling early ska recordings, festival director Dean Denham muses on how both the location and its closely nestled venues play into the festival’s vibe.

“We’re working several venues simultaneously, you can tell it’s on because there will be people walking around with ukuleles on their backs everywhere,” Denham explains. “They’re sitting outside the cafes playing, meeting new people, having spontaneous jams. We’ve been really lucky that a lot of our headline artists are the kind of dudes that like to hang around during the rest of the fest, they’re not the kind to show up, do their show and then disappear. They’re meeting the other ukers, it’s got that real communal aspect to it. We have an open stage, so people can say, ‘I went to the Melbourne Uke Festival (MUF) and played’.” 

Over the course of a decade, the festival’s size has waxed and waned, eventually settling on a manageable size which befits the instrument’s lo-fi charm.

“There’s something about seeing a solo performer on stage with a uke, in this massive space, that just didn’t feel right; the space seemed to dwarf the instrument, the performer, the performance. The festival felt like it reached a point of being too big quite naturally and after our biggest fest in 2016, it started to scale itself down – rather than getting 90 applications we’d be getting 60.”

A leaner, easier to manage MUF meant a decrease in both red tape and in the costs necessary when hiring larger venues and security. This ensured the continuation of one of the festival’s core values. “We make a point of paying everyone that plays. That isn’t necessarily the way it goes at other festivals, particularly with uke groups … If you’re a small group travelling to Cannes or something, paying all your own way and not getting paid for the gig, I always think that’s a little rough.”

While previous years’ venues have included such lofty spaces as Northcote Town Hall, MUF 2019 sees a return to a venue which Dean calls the festival’s ancestral home – Bar 303, home to the Melbourne Ukulele Collective’s open mic nights for 13 years and also the central point for their very first festival.

“It’s a great bar, you can hear everything from world music to experimental jazz to metal; you name it, it goes on at 303.”

This playfulness with genre is something also very applicable to the festival, despite its focus on one instrument, and Dean’s eyes light up when talk turns to the range of bands he has booked. 

“The kind of acts you wouldn’t necessarily think you were going to see at a ukulele festival, they’re the ones I get excited about putting on.” With regards to the upcoming festival, that itch is scratched by a number of acts including Someone Else’s Wedding Band; “They’ve got a really interesting experimental rock approach to things, noisy and abstract”, and music visionary Luke Seymoup – “His material sounds fantastic, something I’ve never heard before, but at the same time quite accessible and not too abstract.”

Moving onto the booking of international artists, the billing of Iceland’s Mr Silla stands as a huge coup for the festival and as talk turns to 2020 with the prospect of the festival’s next incarnation, Denham replies that the email folder is already set up. “2020 is just a great sounding year to have a ukulele festival, isn’t it?”

By Jono Coote

Melbourne Ukulele Festival takes over Northcote Social Club, Open Studio, Wesley Anne, Bar 303 and the Northcote Uniting Church from Saturday March 16 to Sunday March 17. Check out the festival website for ticket information.