I’ve realised I can only tell you very little about musicians I’ve known for years. How did they become musicians? Who or what inspired them? What were the major life events that channelled their musical path?

I’ve taken it upon myself therefore to interview some of these wonderful artists (see my Del Rey interview parts 1 & 2).


Hal Brolund and I first met in 2000. He’d heard me on CBC radio as Ralph Shaw – King of the Ukulele when he lived in Winnipeg, Manitoba fronting a band called King Ukulele. On that basis we combined our kingly forces to do a brief winter tour of the Canadian Prairies (which is a tale for another time).


Meanwhile here is part 1 of 3 on the musical life of Hal Brolund (Manitoba Hal) in his own words:


How to Be Manitoba Hal part 1 of 3

Something From Nothing

I was a late bloomer. When I was young, I was a dreamer who was looking for something – but didn’t know what. I grew up in and around Winnipeg, Manitoba (Canada) and went to High School in Abbotsford, B.C. Even approaching graduation of my senior year I still had no idea what I was going to be.


When I was 17 or 18, I was at a friend’s house and, for reasons that escape my memory, he’d picked up his acoustic guitar and was jamming to some record. I believe it was Eric Clapton but I can’t recall exactly. It was like lightning struck me. I knew I was going to play music. Ignoring the fact that I was almost an adult, had never done this (I failed high school band) and was not a musician, I knew this was the path that was waiting for me.


Everyone thought I was crazy for pursuing music: my parents, everybody. I was just not musical. I’d be practicing songs and Mom would say, “You know, you’re not on key Hal.”

But it didn’t matter that I wasn’t capable yet. Without any reason to know it, I just knew I had to do this to become capable. It was a completely insane notion. I worked jobs and focussed my life practicing my guitar in the evenings and six-to-ten-hour days to learn this skill.


And my dream was ridiculous. I had no goal of becoming a big star. I didn’t want to become Eric Clapton or Jon Bon Jovi. I was only working to get good enough to play Friday night at the local bar. And, when I did, I thought I had it made but then found out how hard it was to maintain regular work and how little money you make. I had regular day jobs but whenever I got 3 or 4 gigs lined up, and couldn’t get the nights off to play the gigs, I’d drop the job – because the gig was the thing.


For a long time, I was like any beginner who comes to a uke club. I couldn’t hold a tempo and knew about 5 chords – if I was lucky. My skills developed organically and took a long time to acquire. I never set out to be the guy I am.


In the days before I was ever paid to play, I would literally live my whole week practicing 2 or 3 songs for the weekly open mic. I thought someone was going to discover me. But this was never going to happen and it never did. One day I’m there playing my guitar with a pick and giving it my all when I drop the pick in the middle of a song. And I’m terrible because I have no idea what to do. Looking back now it was the safest place ever to do that because no-one was going to make fun of me. But this is not how I felt. I immediately started learning finger-picking because I felt I needed to do something if ever I dropped the pick again. And that shot me off to be a finger-picker. These days I don’t even use a pick – I have to make myself do that now because it feels so much more natural using my fingers.


All of my skills kind of happened that way: something would lead me to something else. The whole fact of me playing blues happened by accident. I began with playing covers in coffee houses: John Cougar Mellencamp, Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, some Fleetwood Mac… But I would write the occasional song of my own and throw them in. For some reason people thought my original songs were old blues numbers – but I had no idea about blues. I started digging into it and next thing I know I’m a blues act. And that’s how things happened, one after another.


Around about the mid-nineties I’d been married and was now playing for tips in coffee houses. The money was useful for adding to the coffers of my failing business (which eventually went bankrupt) but, although I loved the idea of it, I had no illusions that I was ever going to make a living as a musician. I’d done enough to know it was not a reality. But finally, after a long time of fits and starts where I’d work for a while, gig for a while, work for a while …I put my first real tour together.


I had an agent. For a period of about 3 years, I toured western Canada from Winnipeg to B.C. I’d go out for twenty days and come home for ten: always in different pockets. I’d tour all of Saskatchewan and then go home. Then I’d tour all of Alberta and go home. They were all coffee shop $100-a-night gigs but I did them all the time and was making a living. I thought I had it made. The timeline from deciding to be a musician to doing that first tour was at least 10 to 15 years.


A highlight for me was when the Winnipeg International Folk Festival hired me in 2002. This was a major festival. At the time I didn’t realise it but I now know I was just the local who they could throw on the bill. It wasn’t anything. But it was something to me. I knew a lot of locals who never got that shot. So, I was like, ‘Okay I can do this. But what does that really mean?’

It gave me the idea that maybe there was more out there for me.


That’s really what it comes down to. My whole career has been this case of figuring out what it really means to be the thing that I think I am. And to start chasing opportunities and how do you go after those opportunities? What constitutes good business?


I know so many people out there who tour but they barely make back the money it cost them to tour. And they wonder why they can’t make their living as musicians. Well, you can’t just make what it costs you to tour, you have to make more than that. I learned all those things and slowly figured out what I had to do to get me where I wanted to be.


Next time: Hal Brolund discovers the ukulele and decides to become “Manitoba Hal”


Check out Manitoba Hal at https://manitobahal.com/



Keep Strumming and Smiling