Location, location, location.
The small town of Geraldine, New Zealand, seems an unlikely venue for anything of importance. It is a pretty town of some 2,500 people, with a similar number living in the surrounding areas, and can be found nestled into the foothills of the Southern Alps, roughly in the middle where the highways to the South Island’s major cities intersect.
Known for its white-water rafting, picturesque views, and Barker’s internationally recognised fresh fruit products, Geraldine is also home to a increasing number of artists and craftspeople, all of whom add an eccentric and colourful flavour to the personality of the town.
Since 2013 it has also become the focus of a small ukulele festival, now attracting upwards of 350 visitors each year, a festival which is spoken of warmly in New Zealand ukulele circles, and is increasingly attracting international interest. In 2016 Ukulele Magazine named Geraldine Ukefest one of the ‘six go-to festivals’ for that year.
Organisers Hugh and Fi McCafferty first picked up the ukulele in 2009 because of their involvement in a kid’s church band. A small child turned up to practice one day clutching a slightly battered red instrument that was almost impossible to tune.
‘Can I play this in the band?’ she asked. The McCaffertys, who between them already played guitar, banjo, bass, fiddle, bongos and saxophone, rushed out and bought a Makala Dolphin each, and set about learning to play them.
All this because of one small child and her red ukulele
Two years later, encouraged by attending a sold out Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra concert, they decided to run a series of adult classes. These classes proved so popular that they ran some more, with that class eventually morphing into a weekly group of around 25-30 players. Although Fi and Hugh have now moved on to other ukulele projects, that Geraldine group is still going strong.
Another of their church activities, was to organise variety shows fundraisers which showcased local talent. In 2012, billed as the Mid-Winter Ukulele Extravaganza, the ukulele group made their debut in one of these shows. In July the following year they ran the very first Geraldine Ukefest.
In 2013, from an idea scribbled on a napkin after a bottle of wine (or two) at a local café, the McCaffertys thought if might be fun to run a mid-winter event for ukulele players, grandiosely entitled ‘The Big Strum’, in the Geraldine Community Hall. They would later be encouraged to add a crash course for beginners, a free community concert, ‘Ukes in Church’, whereby folk could strumalong to their favourite gospel songs, and and an open mic where you were invited to get up and ‘Get Leid’.
Using a series of bright -coloured posters they spread news of the event via shop windows, South Island music stores, and Facebook. Creative Communities New Zealand and a local supermarket chain agreed to offer some sponsorship. “It was a little nerve-wracking,” says Fi. “We’d presold some tickets but really had no idea how many people would show up.” They need not have worried – in the end around 120 folk made their way to Geraldine and a fun time was had by all.
Spurred on by this early success, the decision was taken to run a second festival – and having made a small profit, this time there would be a headline act. An invitation went out to the somewhat eccentric Kiwi ukulele group Big Muffin Serious Band (who had just celebrated their 30th anniversary).
The Muffins accepted and the bright-coloured publicity again made the rounds.
But things were about to step up a notch. A chance encounter on Facebook soon led to the forging of a ‘virtual’ friendship and resulted in the addition of Brit Rodriguez, an original ukulele artist from California, to the lineup.
The Art of Asking
“We are the kind of people who don’t usually ask for help, especially from friends. We prefer to not push the envelope – we do what we can afford, and do it on our own,” says Hugh.
“At the time I was reading The Art of Asking by ukulele punk diva, Amanda Palmer,” Fi adds. “I’d just reached the chapter where Amanda describes her reticence in asking soon-to-be husband Neil Gaiman for a loan to fund the recording of her next album. She prefers to do things on her own, too.”
“Our Creative New Zealand funding was already spoken for – how could we help this young girl get here?” Fi continues, “Then it occurred to me that local company Meadow Mushrooms, owned by friends Ros and Philip Burdon, was a sponsor of the New Zealand String Quartet. ‘That’s it!’ I remember yelling out loud, ‘Ukuleles also have four strings! This is going to be such an easy pitch!'”
And so began the three year relationship with Meadows, who not only generously offered more than enough to bring Brit and her mom/manager Colleen from Hollywood to a small town in New Zealand, but also increased the level of sponsorship over the next two years, thereby establishing a solid financial foundation which has allowed Geraldine Ukefest to flourish. The organisers are pleased to now have the luxury of professional sound and lighting, photographers, videographers and street banners.
Fi has also learned that asking really isn’t that hard – just last year she had Bryan Tolentino, Halehaku Seabury, and (in November) the inimitable James Hill, perform on Geraldine stages. “I still haven’t finished reading Amanda’s book,” she laughs.
No ordinary festival
A ukulele festival in the middle of winter? “Yes, some folk might have thought we were crazy, but what better way to brighten everyone’s spirits than to sing and dance and wear bright clothes?” says Hugh. “We took a look at Barry Maz’s ‘Got a Ukulele’ festival calendar. It was the same worldwide – nothing much was happening during the colder months.”
Because of the cooler temperatures, the entire festival is held at indoor venues. Hugh tells us a lot of effort is put into attendees comfort. “Although, there was that one time when it snowed, really heavy snow, four days before the event. It had us just a little worried!” he adds.
Occurring as it does in the off-season, the festival is also appreciated and well-supported by local businesses, community organisations, and a hard-working team of volunteers.
‘Oh, how we laughed,’ said Hugh when faced with a white ukulele event
GUF18 Summer Strum
9-11 March, Geraldine, New Zealand
As well the big winter festival, the McCaffertys are this year trialling a smaller ‘Summer Strum’. Aimed at ukulele players in the surrounding regions, the intention was to hold a low-key event – low budget, no headliners, with loads of performance opportunites.
“But now we hear that people from all over New Zealand are heading our way again, and from Australia, too” says Hugh. “After another lunch with wine, we also decided to invite Laurie Kallevig come meet us all. Geraldine Ukefest supports Laurie’s incredible work with her Survivor Girl Ukulele Band project, working with the victims of sexual trafficking in Kolkata. She lives with these rescued girls for six months every year, sharing love and the healing powers of music by teaching them ukulele. Long story short, the Summer Strum is looking like it might be a bit bigger than we planned!”
‘Why have just one ukulele festival, when you can have two?!‘ says Fi
Geraldine Ukefest 2018 (GUF18)
19-22 July, Geraldine, New Zealand
At GUF18’s main event ‘The Big Concert’, Hugh and Fi are thrilled to be presenting Aaron and Nicole Keim AKA The Quiet American. A home-grown modern folk revival, their music incorporates traditional ballads, banjo breakdowns, raggy choruses, gospel duets and other dusty Americana gems. Aaron and Nicole present a concert experience that pays tribute to old time folk music traditions yet strives to connect to a modern audience.
Opening the show for them will be Wellington’s renowned one-man-ukeband, Shane McAlister, with his unique style and quirky original songs, and all-girl Dunedin trio, The Flukes. First ‘discovered’ at GUF16, this will be The Flukes first headline appearance.
The GUF18 four-day programme includes an ‘Earlybird Strumalong’, a ‘Gospel Jam’ at a local pub, the opportunity to perform during the lunch break as part of ‘Ukes in Cafes’, ‘The Big Strum’, still a key event at every ukefest, and, of course, the inevitable lineup of Open Mic sessions. Friday’s ‘Opening Night Invitational’ will see eight awesome ukulele acts, hand-picked from all around New Zealand, some of whom will be making their debut on the big stage.
There is a total of 16 workshops to choose from over five sessions: Fingerstyle, Clawhammer and Strumming Styles, all with the super-talented Aaron Keim; Singing and Old-Style Folk songs with Nicole; The Art of Busking, Songwriting, Arranging Ukulele for Groups, Slide Ukulele and more. You can even learn how to play the spoons!
Where to from here?
Now in it’s sixth year, Geraldine Ukefest has grown from a one-and-a-half day event which mostly attracted local interest, to a four-day, full-on festival, bursting with national and international acts, workshops, family matinees, strumalongs, and most importantly, lots of opportunity for amateur performance. The biggest festival of its kind in New Zealand, it is now attracting national, and even international patronage. There is a loyal following growing, too, with many attendees booking their accommodation for the following year as they check out. Hugh and Fi also report an increase in the number of original artists attending, and keen interest being shown in songwriting and performance workshops.
“We are seeing groups come through who, every year, grow and mature, taking their performances to the next level, even writing their own material,” says Fi. “This is really exciting to see. The Secret Lives of Ukulele, for instance, who first performed at Geraldine Ukefest in 2014. Then a newly formed four-piece ukulele group with a cigarbox guitarist, now they number nine players including a fiddle-player and full-kit drummer! Last year they were one of our headline acts, and are now writing songs and performing semi-professionally around the region.”
Christchurch band Secret Lives of Ukulele going from strength to strength
The McCafferty approach
Unlike other big festivals, Geraldine Ukefest maintains a linear programme. Having already grown to fill the town’s biggest venue, Hugh and Fi say they will have to start ‘thinking sideways’ as to how the festival can expand.
“We know most other festivals have different options, concerts and events running parallel. That’s one way to go,” says Hugh. “But we don’t want to get big just for the sake of it. Our philosophy is that people are here to have a great time, and so far that appears to be working. And we’re happy with that. Too much choice, too many people and we run the risk of losing our festival’s unique personality.”
“As for invited performers, we make it our goal not to repeat an act too often, and each year try to feature a headliner quite different in style from the year before'” says Fi. We tend to have an underlying ‘theme’, too. We’ve had the ‘Greenie’ festival featuring Formidable Vegetable Sound System, the ‘Showdown’, a mock-battle between the Big Muffins and kiwi ukulele trio The Nukes. Last year was ‘Aloha’, this year it’s folk. GUf19 will have an Italian flavour featuring Lorenzo Vignando AKA Ukulollo. Negotiations are about to get underway for 2020 – it’s going to be great!”
When asked the secret of their success, Hugh points at his wife. “Fi spends hours meticulously organising things. I’d say she thinks about it 427 days a year, a trick she learned from Hermione,” he jokes. “Sometimes being on the Asperger’s spectrum makes for difficulties, but when it comes to organising, planning, coordinating – it is a decided advantage. She also has a background in direct marketing and design, so our collateral looks good, and her skilled use of social media gets the message out there.”
Over the last two years Fi has also developed a Facebook group, The New Zealand Ukulele Network (NZUN). NZUN has become an online ukulele community serving players and groups in New Zealand and overseas.
Fi explains,“After the 2015 festival we had no idea how to grow it without somehow finding the ukulele players around New Zealand. We had begun collecting an email database from festival attendees, but because New Zealand is a long, thin country with long travelling distances, and a bit of water splitting us in two, there really was no cohesive ukulele community. So we formed one. We added every ukulele player we knew, they started adding their friends, too, and before we knew it, folk worldwide were joining up. So we made a group directory and found that we’d accidentally invented a whole new tourism genre for our country. It’s a very different kind of ‘ukulele group’ to most of the others out there. Rather than just being about ukuleles, its a network that’s all about real life connections – helping new members find a jam or a teacher, helping groups find a bass player or a workshop leader, helping make a ukulele group where one doesn’t exist. Of course we talk about our ukuleles, too, but that’s not the focus.”
At the time of writing NZUN has nearly 1,500 members. The directory lists more than 50 groups which means that travelers in the New Zealand can always find a group to jam with. There is also an events calendar and a membership badge, and a sticker.
“There’s still a few gaps on our map, but we’re getting there,” Fi laughs.
The key to a successful ukulele festival
“In the end it’s the experience that counts, “says Hugh. “Because Geraldine Ukefest has gained a reputation for being well-organised, people feel safe, and they feel looked after. Fi and myself do genuinely want both performers and attendees to have a good time. With a small band of helpers we work hard and smart to make sure a warm welcome is given to all. Because of the season, café owners and hoteliers are glad to see visitors coming in to town. The Geraldine community are some of the friendliest people around, are quick to offer help when needed, and give great applause. And, of course, ukulele people are so darn great that once you get them in a confined space, and Geraldine only has one main street, they are bound to have a good time.”
Hugh and Fi McCafferty, Directors of Geraldine Ukefest
Links that may be of interest:
GUF17 Festival Highlights
GUF17 Bryan Tolentino & Halehuku Seabury
GUF17 Mapua Motherpluckers make their debut
GUF17 Grand Opening by uke-playing leaders of the Maori Party
GUF15 Formidable Vegetable Sound System
GUF14 Goulash Archipelago AKA Big Muffin Serious Band
GUF13 The Big Strum
Five Years of Geraldine Ukefest