KNOWN internationally as the ‘King of the Ukulele’, Ralph Shaw was one of the first performers to catch the Third Wave of Uke in the 1990s and he continues to tour and teach. KAMUKE stands on a chair to have a chat with the tall and talented Englishman/Canadian.
You started playing in 1990. How did people react to the uke back then?
With great amusement. No-one around me was playing ukulele and the novelty value was powerful. Kids loved it, as did older people whose only previous exposure to the instrument was either Tiny Tim or George Formby. Simply taking the uke out of its case was enough to spark expectant laughter.
Before you became the ‘King of the Ukulele’, you were a clown and children’s entertainer. What did you learn from that experience?
What didn’t I learn! In my mid-20s, I was wondering what to do with my life when I discovered the book The Independent Entertainer: How To Be A Successful Clown, Juggler, Mime, Magician, Or Puppeteer by Happy Jack Feder. It was a lightbulb moment for me as I realised the possibility of living an independent life, free from the shackles of grinding employment. (I later learnt that cash-free free time can be as bad as working full-time, so now I try to avoid both situations.) I’ve often thought that becoming a clown for a couple of years should be a compulsory part of everyone’s life – a form of national service. I learnt a lot about myself and how to entertain mixed audiences in every situation. Children are tough and honest critics. If they don’t like you, they tell you to your face.
You released The Complete Ukulele Course in 2003 and it’s still very popular. What sets it apart from other instructional videos?
Well, the title for one thing, which pays homage to the 1653 book The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton – the first how-to book ever written. With regards to my DVD, I’m actually still very proud of that bit of work; it’s something of a low-tech masterpiece. In the video, I take the viewer from the basics of getting started, tuning and simple strums through to trickier techniques such as Formby’s split stroke and melody chording.
What’s remarkable is that it’s all done in one long camera shot without any editing. I don’t know if I could do it again. In those days, the VHS tapes were 60 minutes long and that limited the program length. My performance was 59 minutes and I think Mike, my producer, almost collapsed with anxiety while shooting those last few minutes. Since then, we’ve added bonus features to the DVD, including tips on performing. Obviously, it’s not “complete” in the sense that it shows everything you can possibly do on a ukulele, but when released it was the only video that took people beyond basic strumming and opened their eyes to many other techniques.
Your latest project is a book called The Ukulele Entertainer: Powerful Pointers For Players And Performers. What’s the one thing you hope people will take from it?
That’s a very hard question to answer. It’s a multifaceted book (now also an eBook) designed to get people thinking differently about their performance and playing skills, as well as hopefully being an enjoyable read. I trust people will glean whatever they need. My main hope is that it will inspire players of all stripes to find ways to lift their interest into new and exciting areas. If it does for others what Happy Jack Feder’s book did for me, I’ll be very pleased.
You’ve toured all over the world, including Australia. What are some of your favourite memories from life on the road?
My favourite memories come from the people I meet along the way. I’m not a big-budget act, so I rarely stay in fancy hotels. It’s always a delight to get to know the folks who volunteer to bring me into their homes. We get to know each other pretty well and I’m amazed by the interests, talents and depths of personality I discover. Australians, like John Chandler and numerous others, went out of their way to help me experience their country and I feel honoured to have been in that position.
You live in Vancouver [now England – ED] . What’s the ukulele scene like there?
I’ve been running the Vancouver Ukulele Circle since September 2000 and I’ve watched ukulele fever grow slowly for 10 years and suddenly flourish in the past two. For a long time, I was the only ukulele act in a metropolitan area of about three million. But now other classes have started and people are doing their own thing, and that’s how it should be.
Which musicians inspire you?
I have a hard time getting interested in many newer artists, partly because they tend to sound like the older artists, whose music has also worn thin. As a result, I’m no longer the music fan I was. However, I still get terrifically inspired when I take in an act that is both skilled and original, like some I saw at The Melbourne Ukulele Festival this year. Three favourites for me were The Nukes – a New Zealand trio who put out great songs, a comedic character called Tyrone whose lyrical act is a heartwarming series of musical vignettes, and Liz Wood from the USA, who has a disarming way of performing her songs, seemingly without ego or showmanship.
You have a degree in applied physics. Has it helped you in your uke playing at all?
Finally, where would you be without the ukulele?
Ah, that’s easy – I have no idea.
Animal: Birds, such as the barn swallow, penguin and cassowary
Food: A really good curry
City: No, thanks, I prefer the country