Cairns Ukulele Festival: Craig Chee and Sarah Maisel

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The Cairns Ukulele Festival is known as the ‘happiest festival in the world’, and after interviewing American artists Craig Chee and Sarah Maisel, I understood why. The ukulele makes people happy: happy to play it, happy to listen to it, happy to watch it performed. It was my privilege to talk to these two great musicians – who are now married after meeting at a previous festival – and found out more about the ukulele, what makes it special, and what makes the Cairns Ukulele Festival so important to them.


The Cairns Ukulele Festival will be held in beautiful Cairns, FNQ from 25 to 28 August 2016. For the full programme, visit cairnsukulelefestival.net.



Can you talk a bit about the prominence of the ukulele in Hawaii.
Craig: It really is amazing. Growing up in Hawaii, having the ukulele everywhere you went, I never imagined I’d be doing this for a living, travelling the world and visiting these amazing places because of this tiny little instrument. So it’s amazing to see how much it’s really taken off.
Sarah, what was your entry into playing the ukulele?
Sarah: I moved out to San Diego, CA, and some friends of mine told me about this event that would happen at a pizza parlour – there were forty or more uke players that would get together and play Hawaiian music. I’m originally from Birmingham, Alabama – the opposite side of the country – and I had never seen anything like this. So my friends take me and I am just amazed at the feeling in the room, how happy everyone is, and the music itself transported me to this wonderful place. I had to play the uke then and there, so I started playing.
Craig, before you left Hawaii to go to college, you were playing the cello before that and then you decided to play the ukulele. Is it now your favourite instrument?
Craig: By far. It is definitely the most social instrument I’ve ever played. And that’s actually one of the things that connected Sarah and I when we first met doing the ukulele – she grew up playing the violin and I grew up playing the cello. We had that and a lot of other things in common as well.
You say it’s such a social instrument – it does seems that people are happy hearing it and happy playing it.
Craig: It’s funny – you walk into a uke group and everyone wants to share the feeling they have when they play. If they’re trying to teach people how to play songs – you don’t see a lot of guitarists being as open about it, it’s more showing off [laughs].
Sarah: The other thing, too, that we really love seeing in the social aspect of the uke is that it brings generations together. For example, we were in Bend, Oregon doing a festival there and there were folks who were grandparents bringing their grandkids to the festival, and they were sitting and playing songs together and it gave them a really wonderful connection too.
You met at the Cairns Festival – Craig, I know you’ve been going for a few years but Sarah, was that your first festival?
Sarah: Yes, it was. That was 2013.
Craig, when was your first festival?
Craig: It was the second year, 2011, and I’ve been at every one after that.
And did you think at the time, Why am I going halfway around the world for a festival? Did it seem like a strange proposition?
Craig: It was such an important part of my life in the sense where I was kind of on the fence about pursuing music full time. And Gaby’s invitation to the Cairns Festival that first year was the turning point. After that festival I decided this was going to be amazing, I was going to go all out and have that leap of faith. And after that festival I was able to travel to all these other festivals around the world and this was the start of a lot of things for me career wise, and it will always hold this dear place in my heart because of it. It really is something special. The people who come out to this one are just so incredibly hospitable, and the great thing too that the last time the festival was on, two years ago, I actually bought the ring that I asked Sarah to marry me. We have to go back to that jeweller, this small hole-in-the-wall jewellery store and I’m going to make sure he knows.
And Sarah, when you were first invited in 2013, what did you think of going so far for a festival?
Sarah: I was so excited I couldn’t think straight. The fact that this little ukulele player would be asked to travel all the way to the other side of the world, I just was beside myself with excitement.
One thing I’m interested in from a technical point of view is that Cairns is tropical – the festival will be on in our winter but it will still be warm there. Does it have an effect on the instruments?
Craig: Luckily the instruments we’ll be bringing down will be made in Hawaii and so they’re used to the heat and humidity. It’s usually the really dry areas that have issues for our instruments.
That’s why you have to constantly tune them – they’re living creatures, in a way.
Sarah: They are. They expand, they contract.
You’re on the festival bill separately, so are you playing some separate shows?
Craig: Most of the things we’ve done the past two years are actually together, but we’ll have more of a focus on the jazz standards that Sarah has been known for – we call it ‘BC’, Before Craig. 
[Both laugh]
Craig: We’ll be doing everything together but just a different focus in some of the sets.
Sarah: And the great thing too is that the folks who have seen Craig and I perform there before are really going to enjoy seeing us doing things together, because it’s something they’ve never had a chance to see. They didn’t get a chance to see Craig play standards with me and they’ll get to see them this year, which will be really cool. And they’ll get to hear some of the stuff that we have written together, more of the modern stuff we’ve been working on. It’ll be a lot of fun.
Before I did some research I didn’t realise that the ukulele can be used for a variety of styles of music, like jazz. It’s obviously a very adaptable instrument.
Sarah: Very much so. I think you could play any style of music you ever dreamed of on the uke and if you do enough hanging out on Youtube you’ll find heavy metal and dub step on the ukulele. You can play classical music – John King is the perfect example. You can really do anything on it because it’s a musical instrument.
What is it, do you think, about the ukulele that makes it so adaptable and attracts so many different types of musicians to it?
Craig: It’s one of the things, I think, with the four strings: it’s a lot easier to pick up and play, so you can do a lot of fun stuff right away. When you look at some of the more intricate things it does get harder and harder, but it has that accessibility that makes it instantly fun, instantly useable.
Sarah: Music feels attainable with it even if you’ve never played before.
So you’d recommend it as a good first instrument for someone?
Sarah: Oh yeah!
Craig: There’s a reason why so many schools had been adopting the ukulele as the primary intro to music instrument now. Compared to guitar or recorder …[both laugh]
A lot of parents might prefer to hear an ukulele rather than a recorder at home.
Sarah: Yes. I think that’s another reason why the uke is catching on: the parents prefer hearing it [laughs].
As I saw in Honolulu, there are so many beautiful ones.
Craig: And it’s so much harder to make a beautiful ukulele than guitar because you have so much less room to work with.
Just going back to the accessibility of the instrument: I’ve seen footage of you two playing and it often sounds like classical guitar – so those four strings don’t really limit the amount of sound you can get out of it.
Craig: Part of figuring out how to make those four strings create the unique sound you want, that’s half the fun. Even if you go back to our old videos from three years ago, four years ago, just how much we’ve changed as musicians and artists and all kinds of styles we’ve been trying to inject into our play now has been a lot of fun.
And it sounds like the two of you have a great sense of enquiry, not just creativity, about your work – that you’re constantly thinking of things you can do with the instrument, you want to explore what’s in the instrument. It could be said that you’ve been playing for a long time and surely you’ve done everything but it sounds like it’s not that for you.
Sarah: Oh my gosh, I wish that I could say that I have done everything. There’s no way.
Craig: That’s why we enjoy all of the international travel – growing up in Hawaii, it was very kind of stuck with Hawaiian music. It was always paired with the ukulele. Now we can go to Japan and see these kids rip classical numbers that are incredibly complex on the ukulele and they have no connection to and they’re not held back by associating it only with Hawaiian music. To me, that’s been one of the coolest things, is seeing all these different people from all over the world do so many different things on it.
Sarah: The other thing to add to that is, I love the fact that the uke is particular. There are other instruments but I feel like the uke is particularly special in that it can bring lots of different cultures together. We go all over the world, even places that do not speak English, but we can all play the same songs, we can all share the same stories, and it’s just a wonderful, connecting little instrument. It’s awesome.
When you’ve been to this Cairns Festival in the past, are there any other creative connections you’ve made – players that you’ve played with again or written with.
Craig: I think almost everyone I’ve met at the Cairns Festival I’ve collaborated with in one way or another down the road. It really helps connect. The amount of artists that are brought over for this festival is just incredible and we get a chance to hang out, a chance to get to know each other and share stories and share music. It’s one of the things I have been so incredibly grateful for because it really introduced me to all these other international artists that have been so important in connection and just being able to build these friendships over the years.
Sarah: Absolutely. And it is so much fun when we get to see someone like Ryo Montgomery here in the States if he’s on tour, and we’ve stayed in touch and known him for so long, and it’s great to be able to help support those friends when they come over here. It is just wonderful.
I guess it’s a part of festivals that isn’t really quantified by anyone – those relationships that continue – but what you’ve just described highlights why they’re so important and how incredibly powerful they are for ongoing creativity.
Craig: The biggest example I think was I got a chance to meet Daniel Ho on my first time in Cairns and we’ve kept in touch and now we’ve actually been collaborating with him on getting his ukuleles into schools that lost their music programmes. So we’ve been going in and helping teach the teachers to teach the kids. It was from that connection in Cairns but I probably would have met Daniel down the road but in a much different way. Things like this have been so incredible to build upon.
You just mentioned the music programmes going from schools – I’ve played musical instruments all my life so I know the importance of music, but what do you both think is the importance of music for children to learn?
Craig: Just having that huge outlet – the chance to experience something. A lot of the ukulele players who are attending [lessons] are people who are retired and have feared music all their lives and finally got a chance to play from this approachable instrument, and they realise how much they wish they had started when they were younger.
Sarah: For the kids, I think music is incredibly important for children because it gives them an outlet – if they’re having troubles or they’re having a wonderful day, they can sing about it, they can write about it. It gives them another way of connecting with other kids who enjoy music. I started playing violin when I was six and I think part of that was because it was a classical instrument but I think it helped me with discipline. My parents never made me practise – I always wanted to practise and I wanted to play, but that self-discipline is something that I definitely owe to music. 

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