I mentioned in my last post about the 10th anniversary of the Hungarian Ukulele Blog that I rarely use Instagram and Twitter, but thanks for Instagram, I met a lot of people involved in ukulele. That's how I found Charlotte Pelgen, I mean her videos, in which she plays great songs from the 1920s - 1940s in a sensational style. Ukulele was very famous at this era, and the sound and mood of the ukulele fit to the music from that period.
Charlotte is a fantastic performer whose outfit in her videos "fits" flawlessly to the 1920s. She strums and sings perfectly even when difficult and quick chord changes come, and her singing is just beautiful. Feel free to follow her on Instagram, you won't regret it.
Charlotte plays humbly, and in a very sympathetic way without any maniera, with perfect technique and sings with her great and clear voice. If I had to recommend a performer to ukulele players (or any musicians), I would definitely say that take example on Charlotte and how she performs. Her strumming and singing is perfectly in sync, you can feel the sensibility and the love to the music in every second. There are a lot of people who strum and sing well, but many of them are absent of that special plus that would make them a great performer, so they do maniera and other stuff that's rather comical than qualitative. Charlotte does not do these kind of stuff, and the music and energy she spreads makes her a world class musician. As you watch her and listen to her music, you think "that sounds great and not to difficult to play and sing", but when you start to learn to play any of her songs, you realize how fantastic she is, and you need a lot of practice and routine to start to sound something like her.
I've watched - and I still do - her videos, and try to learn her strumming and other tricks, and I am on developing my technique based on her performance. While doing this I was thinking that I'd like to reach out to her and make an interview with her for the Hungarian Ukulele Community, so I could share her musical art and thoughts with the community. We talked on Messenger, and in December 2020 I sent her my questions in a document file, which I received a few days later with the answers.
Please introduce yourself in a few sentences!
I’m a musician living in the south of Germany who picked up a Ukulele about 10 years ago and hasn’t put it down ever since! I am very passionate about the music of the early 20th century and never grow tired of learning more about that fascinating era and the ukulele methods of that time.
How and when did you meet ukulele for the first time? What was the inspiration for you to learn ukulele?
I think it was in 2008 that my father brought home a Ukulele from a concert he gave in China and he started to play me funny German songs from the 1920s on it while I was eating lunch after school. At that time I had no interest in learning these kinds of tunes, but he got me by showing me how to play "I Wanna Be Your Man" by the Beatles a few months later in 2009 and that’s when I absolutely fell for the instrument! From that moment on I couldn’t get enough!
Do you remember what was the first chord you learned? And the first you learned and thought "gee, that’s difficult"?
Back when I started there was still sort of a battle going on about which tuning, D or C, would become the standard one. I started learning in D-tuning, and that’s why the first chords I learned were D, G and A7. The equivalency of C, F and G7 in the now standard C-tuning. The first chord I really adored was Cmaj7 though. It felt really special! I think a lot of chords were challenging in the beginning, but I especially remember playing a song that was changing every half bar between the shape of F7 and Gm and I still know how hard that was for me. I kept mixing them up and I kept dropping the neck and I got really stubborn about wanting to be able to do it immediately. I was, and still am, a pretty impatient person !
As far as I know your favorite music is from the 1920s – 1940s. How did you find that era, and what do you find interesting about that genre of music?
My father really got into that music when I was a teenager and I believe that every person who is exposed to it for long enough simply has to fall under it’s spell! The rhythm of American swing and jazz from the roaring 20s is so infectious and exuberant…the melodies are catchy yet often complex and interesting and the lyrics sometimes charmingly silly, sometimes devastatingly sad. In other words: IT’S JUST SO GOOD! I love it’s humour and the little clues you find in the lyrics about how living in that era must have been.
It started with my passion for the music, I then got interested in the fashion, and now I love researching the era as a whole and it’s characters as well. It was an era of many contrasts. Change and innovation met outdated norms; tolerance and sparkling freedom met conservative ideals and extremists ideologies. An era with so many facets, both wonderful and horrible, with the most amazing soundtrack! Also, the Ukulele was very much at home in the music of the 1920s - 1940s and really lends itself to these old tunes. It’s obvious that the swing and the ukulele make a pretty damn good match!
What is your favorite number to play and sing and why? If you have more, don’t hesitate to talk about them all!
I have a different one every week. Now when it’s cold and dark outside I love cheesy, slow jazz tunes that are soaking in melancholy or love confessions. I really can’t list any songs…I tried, but then I want to mention so many more…it’s impossible! One I’m gonna play now after I finish with these questions is "Everything I have is yours" from 1933.
Is there any song you play and you say that it is technically difficult?
The Roy Smeck arrangements of "Tiger Rag" and "Sweet Georgia Brown" are definitely challenging for me. I can always tell when I haven’t played them for a few week... then I have to spend some time getting my fingers back to speed.
How do you practice? What do you practice? Do you practice every day? How long do you practice? Please tell us everything about your practice methods.
I spend very little to no time practicing in the more traditional sense of practicing separate passages, doing warm-ups and finger exercises etc. I prefer to just play through songs until my voice is hoarse and my hands tired. Whenever I come up with a chord melody arrangement or want to learn an existing one I want to be able to do it immediately (no surprise here) and so I usually spend a few hours until I can play it and then that’s kind of it with practising.
However, I have a duo together with Ukulele player Elisabeth Pfeiffer in which we perform complex, heavily text-based German songs. This project, and mainly Elisabeth, really taught me the value of practice. We try to work with every bar of the songs to transport all the emotions and are very detail-oriented. It’s a new way of working for me and I enjoy it a lot! That approach is something that makes this kind of music a lot better, and something that I personally think would make swing and jazz worse. The music of the 20s to 40s needs a bit of imperfection, a bit of chaos and a bit of unpredictability…even for the player herself!
How many numbers are there in your repertoar? How fast does it grow? How do you keep yourself up to date with every song you play?
If I’m allowed to use sheet music: many hundreds. If I’m not allowed to use sheet music: probably around 50. Some I know better than others, some are more arranged than others...
I collect old sheet music and until recently I also worked in a gramophone record archive so I always stumble over new songs that are added to my repertoire. As to keeping up with all the songs I play... I really don’t! I forget and forget-about songs that I don’t regularly play in concerts, but that’s fine by me. Then I can stumble over them again a year later and be happy about having rediscovered them.
My personal favorite from your repertoar is "I’ve Got the Feeling". I bet I listened to your perfomance of this number at least a hundred times and I started to practice it. I find the chord changes really quick and great sounding with a lovely melody. Could you tell me details about this great song? Do you have any advice for those who want to learn this specific song?
It’s such a good one! It was written by Fats Waller (one of my favourite musicians of the era), Harry Link and Billy Rose and was published in 1929, which became a bit of a special year for me. So many times I hear a song, fall in love with it, check some background information and find out that it’s from 1929. It’s uncanny how many of my favourite songs are from that year! It’s also the year my grandfather was born... so not a bad year! As you mentioned the chord changes in the songs are fast, so my advice for people who want to play it is to not rush it. Play it real slow in the beginning, pay great attention to your chord changes and the fingers you use and don’t stress yourself.
You play in a band too named Bad Mouse Orchestra. Please tell us about it: when and how you found it, who else plays in it, what songs do you play. Who found this lovely name of the band, and is there any special meaning of it?
I’m so happy to have the mice in my life! There is Stefan Pößiger on Ukulele (our Roy Smeck expert who learned his techniques and arrangements from an old student of Roy’s), Peter Jung on guitar and vocals, Jake Smithies on double bass and me. Jake joined us a bit later in 2017/2018 but the rest of us met on a music festival in 2015. We got together by chance one day and realised that we know and love the same songs. 20s to 40s swing and jazz! On the very same day we met we decided to start a band and came up with the name “Bad Mouse Orchestra”. The inspiration for it was the T-Shirt Stefan was wearing that day. It depicted a rugged mouse with tattoos and piercings. The name was a joke at first and we planned on changing it for a “proper” one later, but 5 years later we couldn’t imagine a better and more fitting name…even though we’re not bad, we’re no mice and not even really an orchestra. But it feels perfect!
We’ve been really lucky and got to tour Europe in the last couple of years with these old forgotten songs and we hope to do so again once everything has calmed down a little bit. I sure miss the mice a lot!
Some weeks ago you had az online Facebook-concert for about more then 1 hour. You had a lot of listeners (me of course ), and I thing you did a wonderful job, you played great music. I saw at the comment section that people loved your music. Please tell us about this, did you enjoy yourself during the concert? As far as I know this was your first online concert. Are you planning more?
I was SO nervous! Who would have thought that it’s was more nerve-wracking to play for a screen than it is to play for hundreds of people in a concert hall!? Not hearing or seeing the people but knowing that they are watching is pretty weird! But I got a bit more used to it half way through and actually really enjoyed it. It was fun! I will definitely do more of those. The next one will be all about “moon songs”.
Posted by Charlotte Pelgen on Sunday, December 6, 2020
After COVID19 times where can we see your (and BMO) concerts live?
I honestly have no idea. Everything in my calendar has a question-mark right now. If you want to see updates about concerts and workshops you can send me a friend request on Facebook and then I guess we’ll figure it all out next year!
We talked about music of 1920s – 1940s. I am really curious about other music or bands you like. Could you name some bands, performers from 1950s-60s-70s or even from later decades please. Just a few of them maybe naming your favorite songs too. Do you please these songs on ukulele too?
People often think that I always listen to 20s to 40s stuff, but that’s not the case at all. I love most styles of music including folk, latin, hip-hop, klezmer, rock n roll…and so on. According to Spotify I listen to 386 genres this year which had me baffled, because I don’t think I could name more than 30 genres!
Anyways, here are some people I really enjoy listening to recently: Elvis Presley (mostly the early stuff from the SUN records time), Little Richard, Pokey LaFarge, Rob Heron, Naragonia Quartet, Eloise, Ben Mazué, Gregory Porter, Nat King Cole, Omer Adam, Imogen Heap, Sebastian Krämer, and so so so many more….
The Hungarian ukulele community is not too big, but I hope, it’s growing. We are working on making ukulele well known in Hungary, and we are trying to spread the "joy of ukulele". What is your message for those who are thinking about starting to learn to play ukulele?
All I can say is DO IT! You will never regret it. The instrument itself, the wonderful and warm people in the community, the great feeling after learning the first few songs…I reckon the Ukulele is a most amazing thing that is unchallenged in it’s ability to bring people together and make music accessible to everybody. Best of luck and lots of love to the Hungarian ukulele community !
Thank you so much for the interview.
Thank you too .