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

Over the years we’ve been booked at several of the same events and festivals but I never got a chance to chat with him in-depth about what makes him the musician he is. So I decided to find out.

Here is part 2 of 3 on the musical life of Hal Brolund in his own words:

If you missed Part 1 you can read it here.

I always wanted to play music and sing as well as I possibly could. And, if I couldn’t sing, I wanted to make it full of personality: something that people could hang their hat on instead of being generic. But you need to have something special. I practiced like crazy so I could play well.

When I finally got to a point where the music was identifiable, I ran into the problem of people not remembering my name: Hal Brolund. It’s a Swedish last name. It would be misspelled on marquees, and so on. This is where Manitoba Hal came from. My nod to Ralph Shaw – King of the Ukulele was a “thing”. Here it is: a “thing” you can identify. And that eventually led to the world of ukulele and the double-necked ukulele and standing out as a player.

I couldn’t just be a musician – I also felt forced to be an entertainer. Which wasn’t negative. I believe when you’re onstage it is your job to entertain.

Some people get away with their job being just the music and everyone goes, “My god they’re so incredible.” But, for an awful lot of us we have to do more than that. Or be some side of that line. Maybe you tell funny stories and sing tragic songs. Maybe you have deep insightful stuff, or you’re a fantastic improviser. I have friends who have no set-list ever in their life and they go and make it up and everyone goes apeshit over it. And I’m like, ‘Really? I do that every day in my room and no-one cares’, ya know!

It’s funny the things that people are attracted to. I spent years writing sensitive, deep songs that had meanings …but it seemed like no-one ever gave a crap. And then I would sing a song about hot dogs or everything tasting like chicken and people were like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so great!’ and I’m like, ‘That’s a piece of trash I just threw at you and you loved it. And the thing I thought was really good, and that I slaved over, you don’t even care!’

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My grandfather’s full-time job was as a carpenter but he also made a good part-time living as a piano player. He played piano bars and dance halls around Winnipeg and would back up artists coming through. Even famous ones like Hank Snow: for whom he played upright bass and piano – we have photos. My grandfather was not famous but he was a good working musician. By the time I came along he was occasionally still in piano bars playing music I didn’t know. If he influenced me it was mainly about the idea you could be a musician. To me he was this old guy playing Five foot Two Eyes of Blue (which in the uke world is still a hit song) but to a young 17-year-old boy in the early 1980s it wasn’t interesting at all. It was “old stuff”.

Now the stuff I went to high school with is 50 years old – so I get it – it’s not old. But you don’t know that till you’re looking back.

By the mid-1990’s my grandfather was moving out of the family home that he’d built and into an assisted care home. In the basement was his bar, music room and office and on a shelf was his 1955 Martin ukulele – it was marked May 1955. He’d been a “snowbird” and had a second home down in Orange, California where his neighbour had this ukulele. When the neighbour passed away his widow gave the uke to my grandfather but my grandfather never played fretted instruments. I knew what Martin was because I’d heard of Martin guitars but I’d never seen or heard a ukulele that I knew of.

My grandfather, being a very wise man, said, “You can have it if you learn to play it.”

And I said I would because I loved and respected him and wanted to honour him. But, when I found out how valuable it was, I tried to give it back. This wasn’t a toy. Even in the mid-’90s it was worth like $2000. as an instrument. I’d never had a guitar that was worth more than 500 bucks. But he said, “Nope. Learn to play it.”

So, I started getting serious about learning ukulele – an instrument I’d never heard. I started translating songs from guitar to uke and the first thing I did was to find sheet music at garage sales that had ukulele accompaniment. There were no learning resources like we have now.

I couldn’t talk, as I can now, about the G chord shape on guitar being the same as a C chord on the uke, but I realised early on that the relationship was the same and so I just started playing things I knew on guitar a fifth up.

When I started ukulele, the only information I had was that it was tuned A-D-F#-B the historic tuning of the ukulele (I knew nothing at that time about the G-C-E- A tuning). The next realisation came from playing a lot of open-tuned guitar. Open-D on slide guitar is: D-A-D-F#-A-D. I discovered that the middle four strings in open-D guitar tuning were the same as ukulele tuning but with the B dropped to an A.

And then I found it was similar again with the middle four strings of a regular guitar: E-A-D-G-B-E. but this time with the F# raised to G. Suddenly, everything that worked on the middle four strings of a guitar, with a slight modification from one key or another, would work on the ukulele in its entirety.

This was my realisation about the arbitrary nature of tuning. It’s the music and these relationships that matter.

I still tease guitar players who deride the ukulele and then throw a capo on their guitar at the fifth fret and start playing stuff. I tell them, “You’re playing ukulele”

“No I’m not.”

“Yeah you are. You got a six-string thing going on but it’s the same notes.”

That’s why I never saw the difference. To me guitar and ukulele were all the same instrument:

The baritone ukulele is tuned the same as guitar and it sits right down at the end of the neck. Then you get your concert and soprano ukes and you’re suddenly here in the middle and then your piccolos are up here. It’s all the same thing. A C-chord frets differently on a ukulele than a guitar …but it’s still a C chord. That’s the part that got really exciting for me when I started to understand chord voicings (voicings are the same chord but played in different places on an instrument). How should I choose them and where could I play them? How could I find another way to get the feeling I wanted to accomplish when one particular voicing didn’t work?

It was a big moment for me in terms of development. 

Next time: In part 3 Hal tells us where he’s at right now and offers thoughts and insights about his own career and the music business in general.

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

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