Got A Ukulele Interview - Manitoba Hal Brolund | GOT A UKULELE - Learn Ukulele, beginners tips and reviews

22 Jan 2014

Got A Ukulele Interview - Manitoba Hal Brolund

I am delighted to be able to introduce my first ukulele interview of 2014 with a real star of the international uke circuit. I was lucky to see this guy headline the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival in 2013 and having had a chat with him whilst he was there, came away knowing that as well as being a sensational player he is also a really interesting and charming fella too. Say hello to Manitoba Hal Brolund!

Manitoba Hal Brolund
Manitoba Hal - Credit Jessie Buchanan
Hal hails from Canada and is a guitarist, ukulele player and songwriter. He plays fresh and inventive originals mixed with arrangements of traditional blues, in a mixture of fingerpicking and strumming styles. Trust me, if you have a chance to see him live you should jump at the opportunity!

Hello Hal and thanks for speaking to Got A Ukulele! First up, tell me about your earliest musical experiences – how did you get into playing?

I began playing music when I was 18 years old. The bug bit me when I was sitting at a friends house as he was jamming on his acoustic guitar to some record. I have no memory of who the artist was but I clearly remember the music. It was the blues. I knew right then I would play music the rest of my life. Only one problem though...I didn't play anything right then! That moment was my 'Road To Damascus' moment. I began learning to play guitar and writing songs knowing what my future would hold if I put the work in.

And what musical instruments did you start out on?

I began on steel string folk styled guitar. I played Gordon Lightfoot, Cat Stevens, The Box Tops, John Cougar Mellencamp, The Beatles and some Fleetwood Mac.

That is quite a range of styles! When did the uke first fall into your hands?

I got my first uke in 1995 when we were moving my grandfather into an assisted care home. He had an old 1955 Martin Uke in his basement that he'd inherited. He offered it to me with the condition that I learn to play it. I said I would and set about learning songs he would know. Of course in 1995 there was no YouTube and internet resources for ukulele were much scarcer than today. I bought a bunch of old sheet music and had to learn to read it to play the songs of his day. In the end he gave me the gift of music and helped my find my true path.

Tell us about the origins of the moniker ‘Manitoba’, I must say, it’s a cool handle you have there.

In 1998 I was hired to play at a blues festival in Regina, Saskatchewan. The fancy themselves as a national Canadian blues festival and would introduce their artists by telling where they were from right before their name. In my case I lived in Winnipeg Manitoba at the time and they would introduce me by saying "ladies and gentlemen from Manitoba, Hal Brolund".  Now up until this point I'd had trouble with people misspelling my last name. I would get all manner of strange spellings so I knew I wanted to fix that and Manitoba Hal sounded like a good stage name. So in 2000 I adopted it officially.

Well I think the name certainly fits the style of music you play! What is your take on ‘the blues’?

This is a tough question to answer. I actually took three days to think about this before giving you my answer! Son House described the blues as that which consists between a man and a woman. That's it, that's all. It may have started there but it has grown to include all ranges of human emotion. There are happy blues, low down blues, sad blues, playful blues, sexy name it. Some believe you have to be black to play the blues. Or that it has to be played on an old guitar with a bottle neck and learned at the crossroads at midnight. I believe "the blues" are simply the human spirit communicating through song. Every person has experienced troubled times, happy times, love, heart break, betrayal, friendship. These are the subjects of the blues. It is the raw emotion that is communicated that give the blues it's legitimacy though. It's not enough to use a blues musical form or rhyming scheme. It's not enough to use coded language, tales of the devil or to play it on this instrument or that, there MUST be real emotion involved or it's just a song and NOT the blues.

Manitoba Hal
Credit - Missie D'Eon

You had me totally caught out when I reviewed one of your blues CD’s as I was convinced you had used more than just the ukulele – tell me more about that!

One of the goals of my CD Flirting With Mermaids was to make a CD that wasn't an obvious ukulele CD but was filled with ukulele. I wanted to take the ukulele into places it doesn't often go so in the studio we put it through a Leslie speaker (which is most commonly used with a Hammond organ), through distortion and other effects to show that as a small instrument it is only limited by your imagination. The plan was to make a CD that if you weren't a fan of ukulele you could listen to and enjoy and if you were a fan of ukulele you would enjoy the variations of tone that the ukulele created. The end result came out so beautifully that people often mistake the organ sounds for an actual Hammond organ or the distorted lead solo lines as being performed by an electric guitar. Of course the uke is featured in a pure acoustic form in several places on the record as well.

I am increasingly seeing people scoff at the idea that the uke can or should work with such a wide range of styles. It’s one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed your approach so much. Clearly you don’t agree that the uke should be pigeon holed?

I think the ukulele is a musical instrument. If you can imagine it's sound in a context then it belongs there whether or not it's been there before. The instrument obviously works well (maybe better) in certain styles but why not try it out everywhere?

How much time do you spend recording to get a CD just as you want it?

This depends a lot on the material and production style. Usually I stick with a "live off the floor" aesthetic which to me means playing the song all the way through without mistakes and recording that as a single take. So a big part of my "pre-production" of a record is simply practicing and deciding the arrangement of a song. Then I'll spend a day getting the sound right. i.e. where the mics should be placed, how I'll capture the sound etc... Then I just go for it. My CDs Huckster, Little Box of Sadness and Devil On The Wall were all recorded this way over 2 or 3 days. Flirting With Mermaids was a little more involved because of the large cast of musicians and singers that appear on the record and all the extra production tricks. This CD took almost 2 weeks in the studio recording and another week of mixing and finalizing the record.

And do you always perform solo? Any plans for touring with some of the other players you have worked with?

I do mostly tour solo because it's costly to carry more than one person on the road. Also I don't have a regular band so I am often picking up people as I go for specific jobs. I'm not ruling out touring with some other players but I haven't found that right fit yet musically or personality wise.

Talking of touring, you are certainly a busy man in that regard! What have been some of the highlights, and what is the down side?

This is so hard to answer. Every tour has it's high points and truthfully it's hard to compare them because they are all special and unique. From 2013 I'd have to say the highlights for me were playing a festival on Vancouver Island with John Hiatt, James Burton, Amos Garrett and Albert Lee ... touring in Australia and the UK and of course sailing up the coast of St Marrten in February on a Brigantine sailing vessel. I love to be in motion. My life makes more sense to me when I'm on the go. Of course with this carrot comes the stick. It means being away from loved ones and friends for most of the year. Living out of a suitcase. Not having your own space. I'm a solitary individual in many ways and I really enjoy my peace and quiet. That's hard to get on the road. I cherish my winters for this reason because I stay home between November and February. This is when I do most of my writing, recording and planning of the coming year.

Tell me a little more about your ukulele collection - my readers will be interested to know!

I'm not really a collector of ukes. I tend to acquire a uke and then play it for a while, then retire it and move on to another. After a while I get tired of looking at an instrument gathering dust when it should be played so I sell it off. Currently I have two tenor ukuleles (one Mango aNueNue signature model uke and one Ohana TK-50G), one soprano (no name) and my custom double necked uke made by Fred Casey (a tenor and a concert scale neck on the one body). I am also in the designing phase of building a tenor cigar box resonator uke and a concert scale tin box uke. That's it for the uke collection right now.

I ask this of all my interviewees – what is your best advice for new players?

This is a hard one to answer because I don't think people want to hear the answer. There is a lot of emphasis on the current ukulele resurgence to just play songs. I think that is great but the one thing that is lacking at nearly every ukulele club I've visited is true skills development. There is lots of emphasis on repertoire (learning songs) but not very much on learning chords and scales. So my best advice to new players is to practice skills every day. Spend 15 minutes a day working on chord shapes up the neck, learning scales, which chords belong in which key etc... then when you get together with your group to play songs you are equipped with the skills to really play them accurately and this will increase your fun. Practice makes better!

And finally Hal – I was thrilled to hear you are heading over to the UK later this year to do some workshop sessions – tell me more.

With the help of Mary Agnes Krell and the gang at GNUF I'll be doing a “workshop” tour of ukulele clubs in the UK in May 2014. The tour starts May 24th in Bournemouth. Full dates will be posted shortly but I expect to be around for almost 3 weeks and travel all over the countryside.

Manitoba Hal at GNUF
Hal at GNUF 2013 with his twin neck Fred Casey uke (credit Ed Sprake Photography)

Hal - I will be sure to get the dates on this site when I know them - I am sure it promises to be extremely popular. Hope to catch up with you when you are over too! For now though, thanks for taking the time to talk!


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