On Saturday afternoons, you’ll find me making music with my friends.

Our group is collectively known as the Strumbles.

The group has been going for more than ten years.

Most of us play ukulele and sing, with the addition of various other instruments: double bass, cajon, guitar, fiddle, piano, accordion, kazoo…

It’s much more than a ukulele group. It’s musical play, friendship, a chance to use our voices collaboratively. Just for a start.

This is my version of the Strumbles story.

It started almost accidentally.

Three ukuleles and a bottle of wine

One Friday evening my friends Jane and Paula said, “Let’s play ukulele!”

I said, “Okay, sure!”

We had three ukuleles and a bottle of wine.

We asked my husband Matthew (who’s a multi-skilled musician) to stay away until we’d learned three chords. We didn’t want to feel too self-conscious about being beginners.

Jane had some songs she’d photocopied from a book.

By the time Matthew showed up, an hour later, the bottle was empty and we could play three songs.

We had fun. So the next week we did it again. We hadn’t touched our ukuleles during the week, so we had to learn everything again from scratch.

Matthew joined us, playing upside down left-handed ukulele.

It was still lots of fun. It was way better than just drinking wine on a Friday evening.

After a few weeks, we could remember the chords.

We all started finding more songs to play. And more people came to join us.

After six months there were eight or nine of us regularly meeting on Saturday afternoon to play ukulele. That was about as many as could fit in a living room.

That’s how the Strumbles got started.

This is where it all began. From left to right: Alice Bulmer, Paula Law, Jane Carmichael. The painting in the background is by Anna Fairley, another Strumble member.

The sweetness of jamming

The name showed up after a couple of years.

We were invited to play at an Environment Centre pot-luck. We called ourselves the Apple Strumbles for this food-related occasion. The name stuck, long after the delicious desserts had been consumed

To me, this feels like musical play.

Our sweet spot is jamming together, in someone’s living room, on the back porch or at a party.

It’s not the same as a singalong.

We can try out different strums, vocal harmonies, picking patterns, instrumental breaks.

Sonya sometimes plays accordion or piano. I play fiddle. Matthew sometimes plays guitar, but more often he plays bass and cajon.

Anna is a creatively soulful kazoo player. I love her instrumental break on our Strumbles version of “Silly Love Songs”!

Gradually over time, a song settles into a unique arrangement, which sometimes bears little resemblance to the original recording. This has become known as “strumbling” a song.  

Strumbles at Waldorf School

One of our earliest performances, at the Waikato Waldorf School fair. From left to right: Tangi, Melissa, Bethwyn, Jane, Suzanne, Anna, Alice, Sonya, Matthew.

Strumbling Downtown

We perform occasionally when we’re invited.

I think our first official gig was at an exhibition of Anna’s paintings.

Since then, we’ve played at birthday parties, weddings, memorials, book launches, record releases, climate change events and more.

In 2020 the Strumbles supported New Zealand band Sneaky Feelings at the release of their last CD. The Waikato Times gave us a great review. (Thanks, Richard Swainson.)

We’re at our best completely acoustic, without having to worry about microphones or amplifiers or sound engineers. Okay, that is my personal opinion. Others may disagree.

A few years ago we got ourself a Myrtle Eartrumpet condenser microphone.

Myrtle looks very cool, but she didn’t solve all our amplification requirements.

We’ve sung on the Waikato riverbank, at the zoo, in Hamilton Gardens, at the public library, school fairs and in downtown Hamilton.

We played “Downtown” for that occasion: “Downtown, Things will be great when you’re downtown, No finer place for sure, downtown…” etc, etc. (If you know Hamilton, this makes sense.)

One of our dreams is to play on Te Huia, the commuter train between Hamilton and Auckland.

If you know who we should talk to, please let me know. We have plenty of train-themed songs.  

Ukulele players

Strumbles at the Nivara Lounge with Myrtle, our charismatic microphone. From left: Anna, Jane, Bethwyn, Melissa, Suzanne, Tangi, Matthew, Alice, Sonya.

Learning song by song

None of the Strumbles were current ukulele players when the group started. We were all learning, song by song.

Some of us (including me) can play many instruments.

Others had some musical background, e.g. Jane learned guitar at teachers’ college. Melissa started from scratch, never having played an instrument  – and discovered in midlife that she has a gift for music.

I came to the Strumbles after spending many decades playing in a wide range of musical groups, from symphony orchestras to rock bands to folk dance combos to a capella singing groups.

This is the musical form that best feeds my musical heart and soul.

Making music with people I love is the most fun thing in the world for me.

We didn’t have a bass player at the beginning. That all changed when I brought home a double bass (also called an upright bass) for Matthew on his birthday.

Having a bass makes a huge difference to our group sound. Everyone can hear the rhythm much better.

Matthew is a skilled guitarist who plays many instruments, including bass guitar. He’d never played an upright bass before. But he had a lot of fun learning. He combines the bass with a cajon box drum for a stronger beat.

In ten years we’ve had a few members come and go, and occasional drop-ins.

We lost one of our beloved ukulele sisters, Suzanne Weiss, to cancer in 2021, during a national Covid lockdown. Other members have lost loved ones. Children have grown up, health challenges have been faced, marriages and partnerships have ended and started and ended… 

Musical play: Christmas party with dress-ups, on Suzanne’s trampoline. From front, clockwise: Jane, Bethwyn, Tangi, Suzanne, Anna, Alice, Matthew (on mandolin).

The songs you love

Playing ukulele is the easiest happy high I’ve ever found.

When we make music together, we get in sync with the other musicians. This is called entrainment, and it’s one of the great pleasures of group music making.

It’s exponentially better when it’s music you love.

We take turns bringing music to the group.

Sometimes a new song turns out to be surprisingly easy – three chords and a simple strum.

Sometimes it might be trickier. Like “Peace Train”, by Cat Stevens. That one took us a couple of years, but we got there.

“Life on Mars”, by David Bowie, has so many chords that we won’t be performing it any time soon. But it’s fun to play.

It’s such joy to be able to play a song that lights you up.

I love playing Beatles. “Drive My Car”, “We Can Work It Out”, “Here Comes The Sun” and much more.

I‘ve come to appreciate Abba through playing “Fernando” and “Waterloo” on ukulele.

I love Gillian Welch’s “Miss Ohio”, a deadpan ballad about a badly behaved woman. “She says ‘I wanna do right, but not right now.’ ”

And David Bowie’s “Heroes”.

But the song that’s been giving me a buzz recently is “Closer to Fine”, by the Indigo Girls. (It’s in the Barbie movie.) 

At Solscape, near Raglan, for Emily Maia Weiss’s 21st birthday. From left: Matthew, Melissa, Tangi, Suzanne, Alice, Anna, Jane, Bethwyn. Photo credit Stuart Yokozeki.

The sound of my voice

Another blessing I’ve received from the Strumbles has been singing regularly, which has helped me get into better relationship with my voice.

I’ve always loved singing. But it’s been a long journey for me to get used to singing in front of people. There has been so much judgement and shame; critics inside and out.

The ukulele has been an important part of this process for me.

While I’m playing, there are so many other things to think about that my inner critic gets distracted.

For me, the ukulele works better than the guitar for learning to sing. A guitar is louder, so it’s more likely to drown my voice out. And, with a guitar there’s more external expectation that you will be at a particular level of skill.

Whereas the ukulele is so small and not-serious that it slips under the ego radar for me. I can lose my self-consciousness.  

Apple Strumbles

This is where the name came from. The Apple Strumbles, playing at the Plastic Free Potluck Tea at Waikato Environment Centre (it's now called Go Eco).

Worlds of songs

There’s no end to the music. Every couple of weeks someone will bring along a great new song or two.

We don’t know what will work until we try it.

Early in the first year, Jane brought along “Teardrops”, by Womack & Womack. On paper it seems like a most unlikely song for a ukulele group, but it’s become one of our favourites.

That’s when I knew we really had something special going on.

We have a tendency towards 1980s music, but that’s not a hard and fast rule.

Organising the music is an art form. Everyone has a different way of doing this. But we’re all currently using paper and folders.

 I spend enough of my life on screen; I appreciate a space where I’m offline.

I have five ring binders full of songs. One is for Beatles, one is New Zealand songs, and two are A-Z general folders.

The fifth folder is the current playlist. It includes “Tuesday Afternoon” by the Moody Blues, “The Be All and End All” by Bic Runga (both contributed by Tangi), “Body Below” by Emily Fairlight and “Halo” by Beyonce (from Matthew), “Across the Borderline”, by Ry Cooder, “Blue”, by Lucinda Williams (both from Jane), the Mingulay Boat Song (from Melissa), “If I Fell”, by The Beatles (Sonya), and a beautiful Tongan song, “Katinia” (from Elly).

And that’s just the first few pages.

Coming back home

Last year we had fun and challenge learning songs by New Zealand 1980s music/ comedy group The Front Lawn, to celebrate the release of Matthew’s book Songs From The Front Lawn (Bloomsbury, 2023. You can buy it from most booksellers).

“When they all want to turn you down
Like the sound on their TV set
There’s one place that you’re welcome to
Where everything you say, well, it’s all up to you…”

“When You Come Back Home,” The Front Lawn

A few weeks ago Melissa brought along “Stumblin’ In”, with Suzi Quatro and Chris Norman.

Bullseye. Our theme song!

“Our love is alive

And so we begin

Foolishly laying our hearts on the table

Strumbling in…”

“The life I love is making music with my friends.” – Willie Nelson 

In gratitude to all Strumbles, past and present:

Jane Carmichael Matthew Bannister Tangi Habib Anna Fairley Melissa Hackell Elly Latu Sonya Mitchell Alice Bulmer Bethwyn Littler, Paula Law

and Suzanne Weiss RIP 

Hamilton Gardens Scarecrow Festival 2020. From left: Jane, Alice, Elly, Melissa (at back), Suzanne, Tangi, Matthew.


More reading…

The worms are turning

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