February 12, 2015
The ukulele is not generally the first instrument that springs to mind when you think of delta, Cajun or zydeco blues, or plain old garden-variety blues, for that matter. In the skilled hands of bluesman Manitoba Hal, the lighthearted instrument normally associated with grass skirts and bright sunny beaches sheds those Hawaiian breezes and plunges into the deep dark depths of the southern blues.
Manitoba Hal (aka Hal Brolund) is an internationally-feted ambassador for the ukulele and a regular artist in ukulele festivals worldwide. He has become known for his signature approach to the ukulele blues, using looping pedals to lend an extra fullness to the finger-picking and strumming style that compliments his expansive vocals. A big man with a large rich voice, he becomes a bit of a study in contrasts with his tiny ukulele and the fact that, despite his keystone province moniker, he makes his home in Shelburne, Nova Scotia.
“Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women” – Manitoba Hal
Originally a blues guitarist, Manitoba Hal has built a reputation throughout North America with original songs and a masterful treatment of traditional blues standards. His love for the genre was nurtured by the robust blues scene he saw all around him while growing up in Winnipeg, a city often referred to as the Chicago of the North. A self-taught musician, he learned to play guitar as a teenager following a sudden burst of prescience that—despite having no previous musical education—music would be his life’s destiny.
Manitoba Hal was already showing promise as a formidable blues guitarist when, in 1995, he encountered his first ukulele. Stumbling across a 1955 Martin Soprano ukulele while helping his grandfather clear out his home, he was intrigued enough by the tiny instrument to accept his grandfather’s challenge to learn to play it. It was a decision that ultimately changed his life and musical direction.
After graduating from a training ground of performing covers at open mics and talent shows, Manitoba Hal began playing in bars across Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario as part of a duo called Cheap Justice. By 1996, he had realized the limitations of the cover band life and quit the bar circuit, to concentrate on writing original songs. The following year, he recorded a song that he wrote to support the relief effort that sprang up in the wake of the 1997 Manitoba flood.
That exposure seemed to jump-start his recording career. While maintaining an arduous touring schedule across the country, Manitoba Hal began to amass an impressive discography: Flatland Café (1997), When Hal Freezes Over (1999), Kick at the Stones (2002), This Condition (2003) and Resonator (2005). Come the Ruination (2006) was a blistering venture into alt-gospel guitar blues, while Ukulele Bluesman (2007) was a compilation of some of Manitoba Hal’s finest ukulele offerings spanning from 2000 to 2007.
“Poulet Shack” – Manitoba Hal (2010 Ukulele Video of the Year winner)
Manitoba Hal moved deeper into the ukulele blues with Little Box of Sadness (2008), the live off the floor album Huckster (2010), and Flirting with Mermaids (2012), which featured primarily original tunes, mixed in with some stellar covers, like Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole”.
“Way Down in the Hole” – Manitoba Hal (Tom Waits cover)
With the release of 2013’s Devil on the Wall, Manitoba Hal made a return to slide and electric guitar blues for the first time since Come the Ruination. He penned all the songs on the album while spirited away in an isolated cabin deep in the Quebec woods. On the 2014 double disc, Down in the Kitchen, the bluesman pulled out every instrument in his arsenal—three-string cigar box guitar, four-string license plate guitar, washboard, jug, guitar and, of course, ukulele—to record a mix of original songs and instrumentals.
“Evangeline Blues” – Manitoba Hal
More than just a gifted musician, Manitoba Hal is also renowned as a natural teacher. While on tour, he offers workshops to curious would-be ukulele-meisters. Students can sign up for classes like the Fifteen Minute Ukulele Workout, aimed at complete novices or Ukulele Blues 101, geared toward intermediate level ukuleleists. The affable instructor also offers workshops in improvisation techniques and proper slide practices.
To cater to those who would rather hone their ukulele skills in the privacy of their own homes, Manitoba Hal compiled Manitoba Hal’s Ukulele Songbook, which is filled with chord symbols and lyrics for songs from Little Box of Sadness and Huckster, as well as Manitoba Hal’s Ukulele Blues Method Book, which is geared toward newbie ukuleleists who want to dive right into developing their swaggering blues mojo.
Never one to do thing by half-measures, Manitoba Hal made his silver screen debut in the 2010 documentary Mighty Uke.
One listen to the powerful blues riffs and weeping guitar sounds that Manitoba Hal coaxes out of the deceptively tiny instrument and you never again look at the ukulele as simply a placid background sound to Pacific waves crashing on a sandy beach.