Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ukulele Underground

It happened like this – on Valentine’s Day this year my gf gave me a ukulele for a present. I took it to work that day and in a few idle moments taught myself some simple chords. That night we met up in our favourite restaurant, Champor Champor by London Bridge (incidentally once mentioned by Marc Almond in a radio interview as his favourite place to eat in London). I pulled out my ukulele and over the Malaysian starters sang her a song – The Book of Love by The Magnetic Fields (we were in a secluded part of the restaurant so nobody else could hear). In one day, I had joined the Ukulele Underground.

I think this story illustrates some of the things I like about the uke – it is portable, easy to play and actually quite romantic. In one of those moments of synchronicity, I recently came across a 2006 Ukulele special of The Idler in a charity shop. The introduction extolled the ukulele as ‘being good natured, uncomplicated, unpretentious, marginalized, misunderstood, subversive, iconoclastic, independent and individualistic’ and ‘a guerrilla instrument, a concealed weapon’.

I have played the mandolin for years, so the notion of the portable, guerrilla instrument is something that has occurred to me before – there certainly is a hidden history of itinerant strollers, refugees, prisoners, wobblies and other malcontents making music on small stringed instruments like ukuleles, fiddles, mandolins and the Greek baglamas.

Still, I think the Idler article overemphasises the individualistic aspect. The ukulele is also closely linked to a collective tradition of amateur, participative music-making, a current that takes in mandolin orchestras and Irish folk sessions in pubs. The Idler issue also includes an article by Bill Drummond where he describes his wonder in stumbling across a room full of ukulele players in a pub in Newcastle: ‘The place was comfortably full of drinkers. From a dapper man in his late 70s to a lass in her early twenties with every age, sexual persuasion and physical type in between. What they all had in common was what they held lovingly to their chests. Each was holding a small but perfectly formed ukulele’. The group – the Ukulele Allstars – were like many such outfits, strumming away in a back room for their own amusement with no audience.

A few months ago, just after I’d picked up the uke for the first time, I saw a notice in my local coffee refuelling stop inviting people to come along to just such a gathering – and so I joined the Brockley Ukulele Group. We meet together once a week in the café after it closes and bang away on cover versions of everything from Belle and Sebastian to Bonnie Tyler. Yesterday we gave our first public performance at Hillaballoo, a South London community event, eight of us playing ‘The Only Living Boy in New Cross’, ‘Up the Junction’ and ‘At the Bottom of Everything’ (the Bright Eyes song).

I’ve also been along a couple of times to the East Dulwich Jug Band, a monthly gathering started up by Dulwich Ukulele Club where up to thirty people with various acoustic instruments meet up in a pub and write, perform and record a new song in one night. I’ve heard of other uke groups meeting in pubs, and of mass gatherings at festivals and on Brighton beach, sometimes with complete beginners being lent an instrument so they can join in. Inevitably there are uke blogs and websites, like Ukelelia and Ukelele Boogaloo.

They are everywhere. The Ukulele Underground is the man or woman sitting next to you. They have ukes in their bags and strumming on their minds.

Image: David Niven teaches Doris Day a C chord on the set of Please Don't Eat the Daisies.

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