UKES ARE AOK - so why?

Can we all learn something from the recent popularity of ukuleles?
I’ve been chatting with our friend Mike, who runs a local ukulele group. He’s just returned from the Cardiff Ukelele Festival, held at one of the city’s most prestigious venues, St David’s Hall. This was the third annual festival, and the crowds have doubled in size each year – to the extent that the vast St David’s Hall had to close the doors at 1:30pm as there were simply too many people to fit in! Unusually, the surging crowd covered the generations as well.

So what was pulling in all these people? The publicity promised wide ranging ukulele talents from around the UK, soloists and bands, and chances for everyone to join in playing or singing. And let’s not forget the stalls selling ukes and uke paraphernalia.

In June, the 3-day Ukelele Festival of Wales will be held on the Gower, again with bands, supporting acts, stalls, workshops, jams and open mic sessions. The event kicks off with a ‘taster evening’ for those who are not yet convinced that they fancy 3 solid days of this latest craze.

And South East Wales can enjoy a weekly ukulele fix in two Cardiff pubs, where even novices can join in with playing and singing, gently coached by the more experienced musicians in attendance.

What’s going on? Why is this small instrument making such a huge mark when other parts of the music world are reporting shrinkage? Maybe the very smallness of the ukes is part of the answer. They can be easily carried and stowed between uses. They don’t need to be plugged in or amplified. They won’t annoy the neighbours. They can be enjoyed as part of a get-together. They’re not too tricky to play from scratch. And they can be purchased for pocket money. No wonder there are ukulele courses springing up all over the place, and they are reportedly now the instrument of choice amongst school children.

As my main interests lie in the organ and keyboard world, I feel we have a lot to learn from this meteoric rise of a quite ancient instrument. Not long ago it would have been regarded as ‘old hat’, but it has been completely rejuvenated. The organ scene was similarly vibrant, with crowded concert halls and festivals, back in the 1970s. In those days, starter instruments were not too expensive, very easy to understand and similar to the Hammond organs being played by our favourite bands. There were people (often twenty-somethings) offering lessons round every corner. We teenagers learned to play songs which were charting. It was a great time to be alive! Now, you’re more likely to see a banjo or uke in a pop band than an organ. And organ teachers are as hard to find as hens teeth. So maybe the starting point for the resurgence of organs is to get young teachers trained up, to teach young players the keyboard in their chosen style – be that Adele, Mumford and Sons, Cold Play, Rihanna, Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift.

What do you think?