Only halfway through the third song of the night my index finger is starting to bleed, as this experience proves to be more painful and difficult than imagined. “Just stick with the first key and you’ll be fine”, a reassuring voice tells me. Around me, an overly excited crowd is strumming and singing along to Johnny Cash’s rendition of ‘You Are My Sunshine.’
The dark corner of the Queen of Hoxton pub, on Curtain Road in Shoreditch, becomes crowded as more and more people arrive. Wearing jeans or suits, there are over 30 people here for one reason: to play the ukulele.
“This is how you play the G chord”, I’m told again. I nod my head, as a strange grin appears on my face, feeling like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat. I carry on pretending I possess a complete understanding of what is happening. My hands move further under the table, as I try to hide the little instrument I’m holding, so as not to show the world that I have no idea how to play a G chord.
After four hours of constant strumming to The Beach Boys, Johnny Cash, Radiohead or George Michael’s ‘Faith’, I realise that this is not what I had expected. We are not strumming to the songs of George Formby, like: ‘Chinese Laundry Blues’, or ‘Happy Go Lucky Me’, so associated with the ukulele among British minds. Strangely enough, no one is demanding to play Formby’s songs. Radiohead proves to be a unanimous choice.
So what is it that makes this tiny, four stringed miniature guitar-looking instrument so popular and loved among musicians and amateur players?
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is one of the reasons for its popularity. Formed in 1985 they have known great success with their ‘Formbyesque’, almost comedic style of reinterpreting popular songs.
“Many people’s perception is too linked to George Formby,” says 50-year-old Keiron Phelan, musician and manager of The Duke of Uke, on Cheshire Street, off Brick Lane. It is one of only shops in the world that specialises in selling the instrument. “He represents a kind of slightly comedic period. The ukulele is always going to be more in the jaunty world than the melancholic, but it can be more serious than some performers are letting it be”, says Phelan.
Chris Boone, a student at Goldsmiths, University of London, in New Cross, is trying to re-launch the university’s ukulele society. He shares Phelan’s opinion: “If you talk to a lot of people in London, in general older people will say George Formby. I like his stuff, but there is so much more that can be done with a ukulele in the hand of a great player, like Jake Shimabukuro”. Shimabukuro, a 35-year-old Hawaiian player, is known for combining elements of jazz and rock in his ukulele performances.
“You’re just skipping your jaw off the floor”, Boone says when describing Shimabakuro’s rendition of George Harisson’s ‘When My Guitar Gently Weeps.’
Boone thinks Paul McCartney is one of the reasons for the instrument’s recent rise in popularity: “McCartney has been playing the ukulele in his concerts recently. It’s a Gibson ukulele, a present he received from George Harisson.”
The ukulele originated in the 16th century as a small, four stringed, Portuguese guitar, called a machete. When the Portuguese were building their maritime trade empire, they had the instruments on board ships for entertainment. “Eventually they pitched them up in Hawaii, where the locals redesigned the instrument in their own way. So they changed the tuning for example. That’s why it is thought of as Hawaiian”, Phelan explains.
The rise in the instrument’s popularity came in 1915, during an export trade fair in America. The Hawaiian stall was centered around the ukulele, partly because it had just gained patronage from the Hawaiian Royal Family. “The Americans saw the instrument’s potential and started manufacturing it in the US, in tie for the musical change of the 1920’s, when upbeat rhythms, suitable for being played on the ukulele, became more popular”, says Phelan.
The Queen of Hoxton is one of many pubs that host regular evenings where people can come and play the uke. Mary Agnes Krell, lecturer in film making at Sussex University, attends the jamming sessions every week and assists the beginners. “I started playing as a child”, she says. “One of the reasons ukuleles are so popular now is because of the recession. They are portable and cheap. It’s a bit silly and you can’t really take it seriously.”
Kris Bull, 24, has also joined tonight’s jamming session. “I play punk and ukes are so different from the loud punk music”, he says, showing off the ukulele tattoo on his forearm. “I just love ukuleles! I have a friend called Rob Collins who used to be a chemical engineer and now builds ukuleles. He even made me one out of a Dr. Who lunch box.”
Walking into the Duke of Uke, the large variety of ukuleles in all colours, shapes and sizes strikes the eyes. The rusty looking, old piano is placed almost strategically next to a row of tropical fruit painted ukes, while the “Black Sabbath and Elvis Presley for ukulele” magazines ironically blend in perfectly with the décor and theme.
The shop was founded six years ago by Matthew Reynolds, who had become interested in ukuleles a few years previously. “He kind of saw the ukulele boom coming”, says Phelan.
According to Phelan, East London was a natural choice for location of the shop. “East London was where the innovative things were happening. One of the other things about being in East London is that as an instrument, it’s been taken into the musical arsenal by a lot of indie bands, so that was another factor. It’s grown up again in a lot of different places.”
Phelan adds: “It’s one of those peculiarities that it was out of fashion for a lot of time and it’s seems quite illogical that it was. It’s a very English thing to do, take something kind of eccentric, and institutionalise it almost. There’s not much snobbery with the uke, which is one of the nice things about it.”
Back at the Queen of Hoxton, after four hours of playing the green ukulele I was given, I decide my experience should end. As I quietly leave the room, the crowd is still playing. My pulsating, numb fingers assure me it will take some time to forget this night.
Ukulele classes will run weekly from Monday 16 April at the Queen of Hoxton pub, to find out more go here.