A picture of the Duke of Marlborough Hotel

It All Started When…


I went to my first ukulele performance in Russell about five years ago at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, a lovely restored Victorian edifice situated along the waterfront. Uke at the Duke! All on his own, my business partner, Ed Ackman, inspired about twenty adults in our small community to learn how to play a ukulele and to perform in public. It was amazing to see my friends and neighbors, tennis mates, kayaking buddies, schoolteachers and fisherman strumming their ukes and singing songs in front of the whole community for over an hour.

Since then, Uke at the Duke has become a tradition in Russell with free periodic performances to a standing room only audience. It is a very sweet community affair and everyone who is interested can come to rehearsals and get a chance to perform. The rest of us relax with a glass of wine while we watch and listen to our friends and neighbors do their thing.

A few years later, Ed and Curt invited me to join them in Kerikeri to hear the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra perform at the Turner Center. We got our tickets as soon as the event was announced and that was a good thing, because it was sold out long before opening night.

Russell is a small town on a remote peninsula in the Bay of Islands. We have a few thousand residents all year round and a much larger holiday population between Christmas and Easter. Most people come and go from Russell over the water, on a car ferry to Opua or a foot ferry to Paihia. That works fine most of the time, but not after 10:00 PM. You just can’t get to Russell late at night unless you want to drive the long way around over a not very good metal road. I do NOT recommend it!

The New Zealand Ukulele Orchestra’s performance did not end until after 10:00 PM so there was no way we could back to Russell that night. Instead we had to book accommodations and spend the night in Kerikeri. It made for an expensive evening, but it was worth it. That concert was so uplifting and fun, I would not have missed it at twice the price.

It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting. I thought the performance repertoire would be classical – because Orchestras play classical music, don’t they? This one did not, unless you consider “Rains Down in Africa” or “It’s a Heartache” to be classics. The musicians were dressed in outlandish costumes that looked like they were scavenged at the local Op Shop (Goodwill or The Salvation Army for US readers). It was a visual cornucopia. But the most impressive aspect of the performance was the virtuosity of the twelve-member orchestra. They were outstanding!

It was at this performance that I saw and heard my first Banjo Ukulele – and I was hooked! There is no going back.