If you are from the US, the UK, New-Zealand, Australia or Germany or any French big city then chances are ukulele playing is not so uncommon to you.
But what is it like for ukulele players from parts of the world where the uke is not so readily available ?
Today I’m interviewing Marcelo Mendes from Brazil to find out a bit more about ukulele playing in Brazil. Marcelo is among the first to have picked up the uke in Brazil and has just released an EP called No Embalo Do Helicoptero.
Here is a track from the EP called Eu perdi a minha paz
U&L: How long have you been playing the ukulele?
Marcelo: I’ve being playing ukulele for more than two years now. I started as soon as I saw there were some manufacturers producing them and selling them in Brazil. As a matter of fact, I was listening and seeing tutorials videos of how to play it for a long time, studying the possibility of playing.
I got to the point of trying to tune my guitar as a uke just to taste how it feels, before buying one – of course, that didn’t work! But I started playing the minute I got my hands on one – I just knew the chords and how to play some of my songs already. Even so, it was love at first sight (listen?).
At that time I was listening to lots of uke songs and artists. But, before that, I have to say that what brought me to the instrument was a video of Jens Lekman playing A postcard to Nina with a ukulele. That sound, and the image, the disproportion of his sobriety and the apparently comical but soft instrument, got into me. When I first heard Sophie Madeleine, after seeing Lekman, but before my addiction to uke songs and how-to-plays, the fever definitely started!
U&L: Why did you choose to play the ukulele?
Marcelo: I think that first it was about the effects of it. I mean: the accidentally comical effects it may have. But after that, what really got me were the sound and the simplicity of it. When I got my first uke, its size also charmed me. This is a really ubiquitous instrument, and as I’m almost always on the move, that helps a lot! Anyway, I thought it really suited the kind of music I do, and I instantly fell in love with the whole idea.
U&L: What ukulele do you have (brand, size)?
Marcelo: I had two sopranos – the (shitty) one made in Brazil, Triumph, and a Makala, that I gave to my nephew. As I arrived in Auckland, where I’m living right now, I just bought a beautiful concert size Lanikai with which I just fell in love (I sure will be recording more stuff now!). And I think now I’ll have the opportunity to buy different brands and sizes. The prices in Brazil were impossible due to the taxes Brazilian government charge regarding importations. For instance: I bought the Makala from a Hawaiian shop, and the final price was two times the instrument and the shipping! A cheap instrument became expensive, you know?
U&L: What is it like to play ukulele in Brazil: how is it perceived, are there any ukulele societies, is it easy to buy a ukulele ?
Marcelo: It is not perceived at all! We have a very similar instrument used to play samba music, which is the cavaquinho – it is also a descendant of the Portuguese braguinha, and it looks almost the same, but the tuning and even the sound are different. Anyway, people tend to think we’re playing cavaquinho – that’s why at some point I decided to buy a pineapple uke: because there are no pineapples cavaquinhos. As for societies, I think that things are beginning to emerge, but, unfortunately, I’m not part of it, at least not directly.
U&L: Who is/are your favorite ukulele artist(s) ?
Marcelo: That’s hard to say. There are so many incredible bands and artists right now, that it would be hard to pick one or two. But I have to mention Sophie Madeleine, whom I’m always following, Rocky and Balls, Madame Pamita (Pamita’s Wax Works is an amazing record – I highly recommend it), Kate Micucci (I love to play “Screw You” myself), Wellington Ukulele Orchestra (I just saw a concert, and they are much better live than it seems in their videos), The Bobby McGee’s, U-900, and so on. It’s a sort of obvious list, but I really like to see all these people having fun with a ukulele. It is also good to see artists such as Jens Lekman, Portishead, Bruce Springsteen, etc., playing it. I also like to see what Ken Middleton is up to, in his You Tube channel, as I do with Woodshed and you, Armelle.
U&L: Who are your musical influences (ukulele or not)?
Marcelo: I started playing guitar, as a teenager, highly influenced by The Cramps, and Poison Ivy. That’s why I suck as a guitar player, I think. If only I had been inspired by Joe Satrianni, or any musicians in his league… Anyway, the first band that really blew my mind, as a growing up kid was The Ramones. Then, there are all the sub-Beatles things that I love, like Brazilian 60’s music, under the generic name of Jovem Guarda, and Italian 60’s. I like all 60’s Beatles inspired music. The new record of my band (Marcelo Mendes e Os Bacanas) is highly influenced by what I’ve mentioned so far, but it has a Beck attitude to it – another recording artist that I love. Nevertheless, I think there are no limits to what can influence the music you’re doing. It’s more difficult to block out any influence than to let things in. That’s how I got into the uke.
Find out more about the ukulele in Brazil with Marcelo Silva‘s blog Ukulele Brasil.
Check out Brazilian band Les Pops with ukulele player Thiago Anthunes.