Sunday, 21 June 2009

London Ukulele Festival 2009

A very odd and strangely uplifting day.

There is a whole world of ukuleles out there, varying in size, shape and colour. I saw all sorts, from a triple strung soprano to a tenor to electric ukes, banjo-ukes and some home-made ones in odd shapes. The mass of people turning up with black cases made it look like a convention for old time gangsters with very small machine guns.

The people playing them were equally varied, from very small children to pensioners. There were a few people who were a bit 'look at me, I'm so quirky' and some overly serious 'I'm a proper musician' types (mostly with beards) who played flashy transitional chords while the rest of us stuck to the three, but mostly it was just regular people.

The uke is one of the more democratic instruments as they start at about £20 and it's not hard to learn the basics - I got the hang of the three chords necessary to play the song (Sloop John B) in a very short time, and a few others too. There was a man there who makes bespoke ones from (ethically sourced) Brazilian mahogany that cost around £600 and they were lovely but pretty much anyone can buy a basic uke to get started.

We had a discussion on the right way round to carry the case - the body or the neck pointing forward. Neck forward looks a bit too much like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.

After a bit of a haphazard start, we registered, had a label with a number stuck on us and our photos taken holding our ukes to make it official. Then we watched a few performers in the outside area, most of whom were more than slightly strange. One very fragile-looking woman with a big voice belted out Talking Head's Psycho Killer; Megan and I spent her whole act hoping the wind would blow her frock up as we decided she was probably wearing huge grey pants. A rather unsavoury looking man sang a morally dubious song about premature ejaculation. Inside on the main stage, a duo belted out Ace of Spades and then the Ukulele Orchestra showed how cover versions should be done.

When it was time for the record-breaking attempt, we were herded around a bit pointlessly for a while and then marshalled in the main area for a rehearsal. The sound system was terrible but we managed to get through the song.

The attempt itself went without a hitch although a lot of us (me included) hadn't managed to learn the words to all of the verses; the volume increased considerably on the choruses. We sang it twice through as the attempt had to last at least five minutes.
The original record stood at 400 plus, set in Sweden, and there were well over 800 of us there (the announcement at the end was too muffled to catch the exact number).

I met some new people and caught up with someone I thought was MIA as well as spending time with some old friends. The evening ended with a Brick Lane curry and even at 10pm when we left, there were still people in the area carrying the black cases.

The atmosphere was superb, a mass of people with pretty much nothing else in common singing and playing together, mostly not taking it too seriously, in a high-vaulted covered square full of light and greenery. It was pleasing that the event happened in the heart of the financial district, a corporate area with money oozing out of every stone. It would be easy to over-analyse the day and get into all sorts of metaphors; most of all, it was a laugh.

There is going to be another attempt in Chicago in August that will probably beat us - but that's just a challenge for next time. As Roy Castle used to sing, we are the record breakers. And my right shoulder is on Youtube.

Thanks again to Babs and Kate (in the photo) for inviting me along and to Jon for lending me a uke.

UPDATE: August 2009. The Chicago attempt failed to break the London record. We rock.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you enjoyed it

    Check out as it unfolds this year...