Live in the Mahurangi area for any length of time, and it’s hard to miss Dianne Morgan and her Jade River Ukes. The band is a regular at local festivals, pubs and even busking on the street. James Addis spoke to Dianne about her life and music …
I grew up on a 100-acre farm just south of Warkworth, which was formerly owned by my grandparents. They cleared the land, planted orchards and raised pigs. These activities were eventually abandoned in favour of dairying, which is how I remember the farm. I fed calves, shovelled cow manure and cleaned out the yard. I liked being in the outdoors and the fresh air.
I enjoyed music from an early age. I first picked up a ukulele when I was about seven, but for some reason my instrument could not be tuned properly, and I took up the violin instead. At the same time, I was learning piano. At Warkworth Primary School in the 1970s we were lucky to have Warren Agnew – a teacher who had a vision for a school orchestra. He would write out the music and copy it for us on one of those old cyclostyle copying machines that used methylated spirits. It was an orchestra of about 30 kids playing violins, cellos, oboes … something unheard of for a primary school. Warren took us touring around schools in the North Island. I remember playing in Maungaturoto and Rotorua. When we played at the Auckland Town Hall with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, we ended up on the front page of the New Zealand Herald. Some people could hardly believe that our little country school had an orchestra and we were moving around playing music for different people. I went on to Mahurangi College and the interest in music continued. I sang in the choir and school musicals. The school had a lovely brand new grand piano that only a few students were allowed to play. We experimented playing pop music and TV and movie theme tunes – all the things that were popular at the time.
I was accredited with University Entrance and started out as an office clerk at the BNZ in Warkworth. Conventional career paths for women were more restricted back then – you could be a nurse, a secretary, a teacher or a bank officer. A few women started to think, ‘maybe I could be an engineer or a scientist’, but you had to be quite strong to do that. At the BNZ you started at the bottom, which meant encoding cheques and making the tea. I was known as Tilly the Tea Lady.
I married Dave Morgan in 1989. We first met at school and although it was not love at first sight, it was not far off that. It was late in 1982 that he first asked me out, and we soon realised that it was serious and could last for a long time. Dave had done some work with the oyster farm Biomarine as a student and thought he would quite like this on-the-water kind of work. Soon after we married, we bought our own oyster business on the mudflats of the Mahurangi River. I love eating oysters now and I love them raw, but back then I was not so sure. I overcame my reluctance by finding more recipes and ways to eat them. One of my favourites is oysters with crumbled blue cheese and Worcester sauce heated under the grill. Yum!
I remained at the bank for our first couple of years of marriage, but during weekends I would help putting the sticks out at low tide for the oyster spat to settle on. There was a lot of sploshing about in mud, which is not everyone’s cup of tea, but you get used to it and it’s more fun than ironing shirts. My daughters were born in the 1990s and, as well as looking after them, I also taught piano A piano teacher’s life is quite solitary, and I began to think it would be good to work in a school environment. I started at Mahurangi College as a teacher aide and later completed a Bachelor of Education degree and went on to teach at Matakana School.
I knew I could bring music to the classroom and incorporate it into children’s learning and make learning fun. I was in charge of the kapa haka choir and later ukulele groups. I loved working with the kids, but educational ideas change – sometimes it’s all about numeracy and literacy, and the creative things are seen as less important. And then teachers are constantly being expected to fill different roles – as psychologists, nurses and social workers. I found incorporating music became harder and harder. But even in this demanding environment there are some amazing teachers out there doing wonderful work. This year I left Matakana School. I thought it’s probably my time to step back and let them do that job and for me to focus more on music.
It wasn’t until I turned 40 that I began taking the ukulele seriously and started going to classes in Orewa. Why ukulele? Well, the guitar is great and it’s beautiful, but it’s a lot harder work and it’s hard on your hands. Whereas with a uke within five minutes you can have a couple of chords down and be able to play some songs. I reckoned people would enjoy classes up here, so I started some up at Totara Park. Most people who came were brand new to the instrument, so we started from nothing. But a core group of students got enthused and after a while we started to think we could play at garden parties and functions and festivals, and that’s how Jade River Ukes was born.
Today, there are seven of us in the band. For each piece we will likely all be doing something different, but it all blends together. I don’t see the ukulele as a toy or comic instrument. It’s a serious instrument. One of our members has got a classical ukulele and she plays riffs and melodies that are intricate and complicated. Another has a fender ukulele – a high quality instrument with a beautiful tone. We do all sorts of music depending on the gig – Hawaiian, country, pop and plenty of rock ’n’ roll. The Warkworth Theatre Group put on a variety show in 2018 and we were able to perform a medley of George Formby and Tiny Tim classics – When I’m Cleaning Windows, Leaning on the Lampost, Tip Toe Through the Tulips …
I first got involved with the theatre group in the late 80s. I enjoyed it, but the rehearsals were so long. It would get to 11.30pm and we would still be there. I thought this couldn’t be good for my life balance long term, so I stepped away. As it happened, the group went into recess anyway. Later, the group revived, and they were struggling to find male actors to stage April Phillips’ play Bonking James Bond in the newly-renovated Warkworth Town Hall. I suggested to Dave that he might enjoy playing a part and he did. When I went to see the show, I realised that there was the same core group of about 10 people who seemed to be doing everything – handling the tickets, operating the bar, doing the sound and lights, and acting on the stage. I could see it was a great group of people and I thought why don’t I offer to help in some way, so I got various roles helping behind the scenes. Eventually, I had my first speaking part as Mimi – one of René’s girlfriends in ’Allo ’Allo. The enthusiasm and togetherness of the cast was just fantastic, and the show itself blew all previous attendance records out of the water. My next challenge will be helping direct the Roger Hall play Four Flat Whites with Rosie Hutchinson. I’ve watched Rosie direct before and she has inspired me. It’s exciting to see what an actor brings to a role and then what a director can do to bring out even more.
I’ve lived in the Mahurangi area all my life and it’s been through huge changes – Warkworth has gone from a little country town to a thriving part of Auckland City. I haven’t liked all the changes, but you can’t make progress without leaving some things behind. When my grandparents bought the land in this area they had to clear the forest and probably cut down some nice native trees. But they recognised that they had to move forward and make the land profitable so they could live on it and enjoy it. Sometimes Dave and I have thought about moving elsewhere, but I think there is a lot to be said for being content rather than always looking for “something else”. Often that “something else” is just not there.