Pluck helps build community

A Bendigo musician is using the ukulele to bring people together, JOHN HOLTON writes.

WHEN Mark Jackson returns to Bendigo next week, ukulele in hand, he won’t just be visiting the place he called home for a dozen years, but also the place where he learned the real meaning of community.

Mark will join a host of local musicians on Friday night to celebrate 10 years since a bunch of music enthusiasts decided to see how an acoustic music club might work in Bendigo.

“The seed was planted on a rainy night at the Goldmines Hotel in June 2004,” Mark remembers. “A diverse group of musicians and music enthusiasts met with a shared desire to make acoustic music more accessible for central Victorians.

 “There were some traditional folkies, some contemporaries, a poet, a squeeze box player, a former punk and some who were just appreciative of the traditional styles of music and who had some energy to make things happen.

“By the end of the evening the Goldmine's proprietors, Ray and Grace, slipped the cork on a bottle of sparkling wine to allow us to toast the formation of the Bendigo Folk Club.”

The first concert was about as raw as music gets. A crowd of musicians and music lovers crammed into the “dungeon” at the Goldmines. Not even a PA system.

“You can’t get much more traditional than that first show,” Mark says. “Everyone just had to shut up, which was our objective anyway. It created a killer atmosphere.

“Good audiences are just as important as good performers, and that’s what the folk club has always been about. I think it’s helped to foster good audiences in Bendigo, and that’s why so many great performers have visited over the years.”

Within a couple of years the folk club moved to the QEO and has never looked back, attracting a range of national and international acts to Bendigo.

One of the very first decisions the committee made was to establish the tag line, “Bend it your way”. It opened up the monthly gigs to a wide range of musical styles – Celtic and other culturally-based music, blues, country, bluegrass, acoustic and roots – and allowed audiences the chance to embrace the whole gamut that might fall within the scope of folk music.

For Mark,  it sparked a whole new understanding of community-building and the role that music could play in transforming lives and bringing people together.

As a member of legendary Bendigo bands voicepopfoible and The Ugly Uncles, Mark not only secured a significant national reputation as a folk musician and performer, but also drew on the vitality of the central Victorian community for inspiration.

“In hindsight it was an important time for me,” Mark says. “I was working at St Luke’s and learning so much about what it means to be an active and contributing member of the community. But I also learnt how to combine my two passions – music and community – and the folk club obviously played a big part in that.

“A lot of locals wouldn’t realise, but the central Victorian music community is a real inspiration to musicians around the world for its innovative practices and community leadership.”

Mark attributes his time in Bendigo, and exposure to such community-minded musicians, as the catalyst for his current work in Newcastle where he runs a community music business called The Sum of the Parts.

Along with his partner Jane Jelbart, Mark teaches ukulele in groups to both adults and children.

With “ukestras” and “strum clubs” popping up all over Newcastle, and their unique approach to community-building even featuring on a TEDx video, their reputation is growing beyond Australia to places such as Vietnam, Singapore, Vancouver and the west coast of USA.

“The uke is no longer just for novelty fanatics,” Mark says. “Kids find it a natural way to embrace music, and retirees in particular are finding the ukulele a wonderful tool for reviving old aspirations to play music and to come together with others socially.

Nothing beats the ukulele as a musical instrument to bring people together and to build community - Mark Jackson

“We’ve seen that magic happen in so many situations and contexts – nothing beats the ukulele as a musical instrument to bring people together and to build community.”

Three years ago Mark returned to Bendigo to catch up with friends and run a beginners ukulele workshop. Local muso Peter Gavin attended that day, and Mark was quick to enlist his talents to lead and encourage a group of enthusiastic beginner players.

As the Bendigo Addy story of June 14 attests, the group has gone from strength to strength.

Peter and Mark will again team up next Saturday at Golden Square Hotel from 10.30am to convert a new group of strummers to the wonders of the ukulele.

Mark and Peter and a swathe of top Bendigo performers, including former voicepopfoible bandmate Aaron Wales, will perform under the QEO grandstand this Friday, July 4, from 8pm.

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