I should get out more.
The sun was shining when The Lovely Emma and I reached Cheltenham, the first time I had been to the town. Staying in a Travelodge over the road from GCHQ might not have screamed glamour, but it was cheap and convenient thanks to excellent (indeed, rather plush) buses. Dumping everything bar our ukuleles we made our way to The Exmouth Arms, which was hosting a large part of the Ukulele Festival of Great Britain on Friday evening and Sunday, with the main event taking place at the town hall throughout Saturday. If you’re going to start a new experience in a strange place then you might as well do it with a decent pint in your hand.
There’s a wonderful effect you can experience at festivals and conventions of this sort, something I’ve also noticed at the UK Games Expo, where complete strangers are immediately friendly due to a shared interest and lack of any reason to be competitive or unpleasant. It was even more noticeable at the ukulele festival, since it was so easy to spot people who were attending by their ukulele cases, leading to friendly waves and hellos from people we’d never met before even when strolling around town, away from the actual events. On Friday this quickly translated into groups strumming away and singing together, with a few frighteningly organised individuals even coming prepared with additional song sheets. I’d taken a couple of Levy Uke Up songbooks, as well as several sheets I’d put together myself such as Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, which works considerably better than you might expect. Since I’d originally misheard the song badly, briefly believing in the finest tradition of mondegreens that one of the lines went “Are all bald Mexicans lucky?”, it actually went rather better than I expected, too. By the time the sun had set and we were improvising with iPhone torches under the marquees I’d pretty much lost all feeling in my strumming hand.
Saturday brought a rainy start, but the main event was set to be in the town hall anyway and so was unlikely to be disrupted. We wandered around town, enjoying the Regency buildings and general airiness of it, and happened to stumble across Kit Williams’ Wishing Fish Clock, which I knew of but hadn’t realised was in Cheltenham.
Even more exciting than that, if only for me, was finding a sweet shop selling these:
It’s been years since I had eaten a Zagnut bar, so long in fact that they were made by a different company back then. Almost unknown in England, they were hard enough to find in some parts of America. This was the only one in the shop; I almost cried. Happily, especially given the eye-watering price tag, it was every bit as delicious as I remembered. Anyway, ukuleles…
The festival had a room set aside with various commercial stands, mostly selling instruments although there was a small amount of peripheral material. To be honest this seemed like a missed opportunity. They sold quite a lot of ukuleles over the weekend which, although they may be relatively cheap by musical instrument standards, are expensive items, but there was surprisingly little in the way of impulse purchases. I rather expected to see lots of T-shirts, cards, badges, novelty items and so on, but there was hardly anything of that sort. Somebody could really make a few quid there. The stalls were great, a wonderful opportunity for us both to play a wide selection of ukuleles, particularly handy as Emma is shopping for a new soprano at the moment. Hands on is really the only way to buy an instrument. There were several beautiful, eye-catching ukuleles we tried which sounded quite flat, dead or uninspiring when actually played, along with a few real surprises; you simply cannot judge a musical instrument on looks. The Ohana table was intriguing, although also rather confusing as around half of the ukuleles were not for sale, being prototypes or samples, and it was a little unclear as to what the stand was for. Since I already have an Ohana I just took the opportunity to try out some of their other models and a few sadly not destined for production.
There was a full lineup of acts from about one o’clock until almost eleven, so inevitably we missed a couple. By all accounts Sarah Maisel was fantastic, so it’s a pity that we were off doing other things and didn’t get to hear her. Sam Brown’s International Ukulele Club of Sonning Common started things off in hard-to-follow fashion, more than three dozen musicians, talented and well rehearsed, showing that ukulele clubs can be more than slavishly strumming “I’m a Believer” in unison.
At this stage we’re into low light pictures taken with my mobile ‘phone, so I’m afraid that the quality will be a little grainy.
The excellent crew cleared away the chairs and gear in short order, which did leave an unfortunately empty stage for Nicholas Abersold, making him appear rather lost and lonely and not making for the easiest setting for his performance. He might have done better if there’d been a smaller band on before him. Neither myself nor Emma had a clue what to make of Elof & Wamberg from the programme description, some sort of Nordic folk jazz duo apparently, but they were absolutely stunning. You know you’re watching real talent when someone like James Hill (with whom they have toured, it says here) joins them on stage for a number. Emma was particularly impressed with Ukulele Uff and Lonesome Dave, a duo I’d come across on YouTube last year but paid little attention to since. Their set could probably use a little work on pacing, as even when they slow things down they still rattle along at quite a rate, but you’re unlikely to see a more jaw-dropping demonstration of high speed right hand work on any stringed instrument. And Ukulele Uff is a Cliff Edwards fan, so there’s really nothing to be said against them.
Phil Doleman and Ian Emmerson, no longer performing as ukulele duo The Re-entrants but instead as a ukulele duo not called The Re-entrants, combined virtuosity with humour and relaxed patter that really made the fairly large hall seem more like an intimate front room gig. Many of the acts made us wish that they had more than half an hour available, certainly true of these two.
Something very different for the show arrived in the shape of Mr B. the Gentleman Rhymer, whose act has been thoroughly tempered in the fires of clubs, cabarets and Glastonbury. The result was polished, energetic and not all about his banjolele, which might have caught some of the audience by surprise – I’m not entirely certain that jolly songs about crack cocaine and acid trips were quite the standard festival fare – but by the end of it he’d won the hall over, whether they previously knew hip-hop or not. The only pity was that, in a rare misstep by the sound crew, his vocals were a bit muffled at times.
I’ve skipped over many other acts, some very impressive and others hugely likeable (I wasn’t sure that I’d think much of The Winin’ Boys until frontman Fred took the stage and showed what a difference some personality makes to an act); only one that I saw was not at all to my taste, to the point that I left the hall to escape it, which is pretty good going for a full day of music. The evening ended with the biggest name at the festival, James Hill.
Accompanied by Anne Janelle, who could very easily have been high on the bill in her own right, James Hill presented such a seemingly effortless display of virtuosity and complete musical understanding that I was torn between being powerfully inspired or deciding to just jack it all in right there and throw my uke in the toilet. A genuine superstar of the ukulele world he not only performed his famous version of “Billie Jean” but also played the ukulele with chopsticks and a comb at one point. His voice sounded even better than on his last album, the songs were beautiful and his playing was quite breathtaking. Annoyingly, he is by all accounts a thoroughly nice chap and a real gent. A Faustian pact is the only possible explanation.
To finish off the night most of the acts returned to the stage for a terrific last song, in which James Hill showed that he can play the bloody violin as well.
The end of a fantastic day, with the promise of a great Sunday to follow and the Big Busk of all the festival goers playing together in the middle of town. My first music festival, certainly not my last. As a matter of fact I’m about to book tickets for another right now. Hats off to the organisers, attendees and performers at Cheltenham, a thoroughly enjoyable, utterly inspiring weekend.
Pity I forgot to put my hat down at the busk, though… might have made enough to cover lunch…
Everyone is playing ukuleles these days, it seems. YouTube has allowed people to share their progress and performances with ease and the Internet generally has given us all instant access to more lessons, songs and inspiration than we could ever possibly hope to use. The little instrument is back in favour on a scale not seen since the fifties, shortly before Rock ‘n’ Roll persuaded everyone that they should be playing a guitar instead.
When I was a wee lad I had a few – a very few – music lessons, including several on the acoustic guitar, but I never made the slightest progress and couldn’t find an instrument for which I felt the slightest warmth or aptitude. Well, the flute seemed promising. At school they would occasionally have people come in with different instruments to encourage us to learn, so I gave the flute a go and was told, rather devastatingly, that my lips were too big. They thought I might be better with the trombone… Okay, not quite the same thing, but I was prepared to give it a try:
“We don’t do trombones,” they said.
Years later I’d seen and heard ukuleles and quite liked them, the sound appealed to me and they had a certain cheerfulness and lack of pomposity I found endearing, but the uke was a toy, a joke… it was Tiny Tim rather than George Thorogood. The notion of wandering into a music shop (intimidating places at the best of times for the resolutely unmusical) and buying one was laughable. And then the wheel turned, ukes became popular again and people started making good ones in volume, easily available (via the Internet, for those still clinging to the embarrassment associated with displaying their musical ignorance in the shops); and The Lovely Emma bought me a ukulele for Christmas as I mentioned in an earlier post. Although she’s a trained and skilled violinist Em knew as little about ukuleles as I did at the time (perhaps less on the trivia side; certainly a little more as far as her knowledge of music and instruments extends), so she did a little research and in the end found a chap on eBay selling a package of ukulele with a simple case, electronic tuner and chord chart for a good price, branded as an “Hawaii Kai”. I was thrilled, particular when two things happened: firstly, I discovered that the instructions for the tuner were so poorly translated from Chinese that I’d been tuning the thing incorrectly for a week (although it was precisely, consistently incorrect); and secondly I started teasing recognisable tunes from the ukulele… actual music, haltingly played and with many fumbles and mistakes, but by George I was actually making swift progress! This is probably a major reason for the popularity of the ukulele, since virtually anyone can quickly reach a point where it’s clear that they’re getting better.
That eBay uke is made from a laminated wood, dyed to give a deep brown finish, and is fitted with guitar-style geared tuners rather than the friction pegs (much like the ones you’ll see on a violin) traditionally associated with soprano ukuleles. The seller changed the standard strings for a set of Aquila branded ones, which alone boosts the quality of sound dramatically. The result is a completely playable, excellent first instrument, more than adequate for testing the waters and finding out if I was really going to enjoy and continue playing it. Six months, one set of strings, several sore fingers and many hours of practice later I have no illusions that I’m actually any good when it comes to playing the ukulele, but I’m good enough to be enjoying it immensely and catching my first glimpses of what “real” musical types feel when they get lost in the simple delight of making music. I’m also at the stage where I can begin to tell the difference between a fault caused by my playing and one inherent to the particular instrument. The too-frequent “buzz” of the strings, the rough edges on the frets (cause of many a ripped and battered nail), a slight lack of volume and depth to the sound… it was time to think about stepping up to a slightly better instrument.
Compared to many other musical instruments, ukuleles are remarkably reasonably priced. A very good one indeed can be had for the cost of a pretty mediocre guitar, for instance. Taking into account my budget, level of ability (and the level I’m likely to achieve anytime soon) and the sort of music I most enjoy playing I narrowed the choices a little, with a couple of promising frontrunners: the Mainland Red Cedar Soprano and the Ohana SK-38. Clicking those links takes you to YouTube video overviews of the ukuleles; the Mainland video also conveniently discusses the Ohana SK-35, which was probably my third choice to try. The Lovely Emma and I drove out towards Huddersfield and the Eagle Music Shop, as far from the intimidating and unfriendly music stores I’d been into in the past as can be imagined. Seconds after walking in we were offered a cup of tea, so they won me over quite quickly. Eagle are apparently the only UK stockist for Mainland ukuleles, which made their relative proximity to us a stroke of luck. I’d contacted them a while ago asking whether they could get the Mainlands with some of the options offered on the company’s own website, such as friction tuners, and a few weeks later received an email letting me know that they had a red cedar soprano in stock with friction pegs. Unsurprisingly, it had sold by the time we were able to make a visit to the shop, but I knew they had similar models so I’d be able to play a few and get an idea of the sound. Unfortunately, according to their website Eagle didn’t carry the Ohana SK-38, but the SK-35 is similar, so again I was intending to get a feel for the general tone and differences between the ukuleles and then most likely put in an order for my exact choice.
The ukuleles were in a small room, dominated by a wall of banjos (which made an incredible sounding board, bouncing the noise from the ukuleles back as we strummed… bit of an expensive option for the house, perhaps…). There was a nice display of Mainland models, including the wonderful pineapple version of the cedar soprano, but no sign of an Ohana SK-35. There was an SK-38, though. Eagle, it seems, don’t update their website terribly often. As it happens, Southern Ukulele Store, who do update their site frequently, had put a couple of SK-38s onto eBay for £149.99 (plus postage) two days earlier, following months when that model had been out of stock almost everywhere; Eagle were selling the same model for £184.99.
Picking it up the first impression was of remarkable lightness. Instead of the laminated wood of my other uke, the SK-38 is made from sheets of solid wood, incredibly thin pieces of mahogany. Along with the friction tuner pegs it made for an astonishing difference in weight. A quick tune-up, then a strum and… oh my. What a rich, beautiful sound.
It’s an odd instrument in some ways, particularly in the fact that it has a “reliced” finish (which I am fairly sure is a made up word, certainly one I had to check. Turns out it’s not re-liced, which is presumably what happens if your kids get nits for a second time) intended to make it look like an old instrument, specifically a Martin Style 2. I was prepared to be disappointed and dismiss that as a gimmick, but the simple fact is that the SK-38 is a lovely thing in its own right. The wood is gorgeous, imperfect and natural-looking in a way that the laminate can never be. Still, I wanted to take my time and try a few instruments, not make a snap decision. The Mainland surprised me, with a very sharp, somewhat harsh sound. Loud and clear, it nevertheless didn’t feel as friendly as the Ohana; it may well be the superior choice for playing in a group, though, as the softer, mellow tone of the Ohana certainly doesn’t project quite as well (having said that, it’s like a cannon going off when compared to the Hawaii Kai). The rest of the room was crammed with all manner of ukuleles, including a resonator model (originally developed in pre-amplification days to allow guitars to be heard over the sound of a band: it sounded bloody awful to me, though), different sizes of traditional ukes, and a couple of banjo ukuleles, so Em and I played a few and played a few more, then went back and played the first ones again…
In the end nothing spoke to me quite like that Ohana. Only the price was a problem, since I couldn’t justify spending the extra, but didn’t want to walk away from the shop and order online having had such a positive experience with them, and such a beneficial one since it was the first chance I’d had to compare so many models. I mentioned the price… and a few minutes later was told that they’d match the online figure plus postage. And that sound you can hear is the echo of my resolve crumbling. I bought the Ohana.
Not to be outdone, The Lovely Emma bought a case for her Makala Dolphin. She’s been after a protective hard case for a while but was adamant about not spending very much at all. In the end she bought one that cost more than her ukulele did… but it is rather lovely:
The ukulele music I particularly love tends to be popular tunes from the 1920s and 1930s, especially the sort of thing you can hear Cliff Edwards play (try “Night Owl“, a great favourite, then search his name on YouTube for plenty of others. There are some excellent CD compilations available, too), and a great many of the top players back then chose Martin ukuleles. These days, Martin are finding their feet again as a ukulele manufacturer after many years of little or no involvement in the industry, but the old Martins are greatly sought after. For many people, the classic old mahogany Martins are the ukuleles, so it’s no surprise that Ohana chose to make an affordable modern interpretation of one (prices for the originals are, frankly, terrifying). Funnily enough, looking at the Hawaii Kai next to the Ohana it’s obvious that the basic laminate instrument is very much a rough copy of the old Martins too. Without knowing my preference for that sort of look and sound (and to be honest I’m not sure that I was entirely aware of it until recently) The Lovely Emma somehow managed to buy me a ukulele that looked the part, even if the sound couldn’t hope to compare. The Ohana looks a little fancier, but not much at first glance. It’s fairly plain, understated – especially when you look at the prominent rope-style purfling on the Mainland models – and thankfully not “reliced” in a tacky and obvious way. It’s an instrument that begs you to put on a fedora and play it until the sun comes back up, perfect for those classic tunes. Despite that, I couldn’t resist spending much of last night playing “Fat Bottomed Girls” in a chirpy music hall style, because quite honestly I play these things for fun, not from any delusions of authenticity or talent. Sounded damn good, too.