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Uke-gotta be kidding

News of a split in mother’s ukulele group. The schism arose because two of the group, band leaders and founders both, have in recent months started to steer members towards new heights of semi-professionalism and, one assumes, profit. With a core of the members in their mid-to-late seventies and some a way beyond that, it came as a shock when they were informed that henceforth only a select few would be chosen to perform. This prompted the first, and as it turned out only AGM to be called, during which members reasonably asked how these elite ukulelists would be selected and on what criteria?

As it turned out the selection criteria was considered by some to be distinctly ageist. Members were told that only those who could stand for the duration of a gig, recite lyrics and follow chord progressions from memory would be selected. Sheet music, comfortable chairs and music stands were henceforth to be banned, and only the group’s self-nominated band leaders would select the music to be played, which was perceived as another blow to the bands George Formby aficionados. Other old musical standards would be likewise relegated in favour of a more modern repertoire, and only the most accomplished musicians would be permitted to perform. In short it was a coup, albeit a rather tepid one, that regrettably split the group.

“Most, if not all of us joined originally just to have fun,” mum explained during our weekly phone call. “I emailed one of the band leaders, to explain how this new direction was discriminatory against the older and disabled members, but all I got back was a smiley emoji.”

Sensing that their time with the group was coming to an unsavoury end, a small number agreed to meet separately and play “just for fun” in the spirit that had first brought them together. I imagine hushed plans were laid and passwords exchanged, and this time there would be no paying gigs, no commitments, just a group of friends playing ukuleles. According to mum, the separatists have met just twice and are already fifteen strong, representing the majority of the original line-up. As word of this newly formed separatist faction reached the original band leaders, however, the Facebook page was abruptly taken down, followed by the website. A flurry of excoriating emails were loosed into the ether accusing the righteous lesser-lele separatists of nothing short of treason and rank disloyalty. It’s all turned rather nasty, which isn’t something I thought possible in a retiree ukulele ensemble.

Adding to this drama is a financial concern, since for several years now the original group members would pay a weekly sub to cover the incidentals. Over time the pot has grown cosniderably deeper, enabling them to invest in such things as amplifiers, microphones and other essentials used to brutalise unsuspecting pub patrons with a wall of ukulele sound. All of this is now more expensive due to the cost of living increases and now the separatists want their share of this increasingly valuable equipment, whereas the originals want to keep the kit and pay-off the rebels . Arguments have ensued. The world holds its breath.

“Is the town big enough for two rival ukulele groups?” I asked Mum, struggling not to laugh at the absurdit. Despite my needling the truth is that my mother lovess playing in the group, always has, and more than once Debbie and I have shared a knowing smile when Mum has cut short a visit because she needs to rest ahead of her evening performance. Quite frankly her public demands it. In the event she doesn’t actually go quite that far, although she clearly enjoys the modest celebrity that comes with being part of a popular group. I mean, who wouldn’t? So it’s rather sad that what is ostensibly a nice bunch of retired people playing ukuleles have had their fun ruined by an unwelcome dose of localised egomania.

For my part I have to come clean and admit I’m not much for ukulele music. I think it’s one of those instruments, like the accordion or vuvuzela, that is more enjoyable to play than to listen to. That being said, I would never deny anyone the opportunity to be creative and share a little of that joy with the world. The group would routinely appear at a local pub and perform, sometimes spontaneously, and with some acclaim it must be said, all while the unsuspecting public were out for an innocent evening with friends or perhaps just trying to fill the void with alcohol. The pubs, many of them small country affairs, would enthusiastically invite the group back for repeat performances, agreeing to pay the modest booking fee. When in a churlish mood I would tease my mother by arguing that the only reason for these follow-up bookings is that it would guarantee that t least fifteen ukulelists plus their friends and supporters would tunr up, buy food and drink on an otherwise quiet Tuesday evening, a smart move on the publican’s part. Even with the fee they stood to profit from the arrangement, even, and I would always stress this, it involved multiple amplified ukuleles. Mum disagreed, claiming that people enjoy live music and would much rather listen to their group than “any of that modern rubbish” as she likes to call all pop music produced since The Beatles called it time on the rooftop of Apple Studios.

A few years back Debbie and I were holidaying in Weymouth where one sunny morning we decided to visit the historic fort perched on the high clifftop overlooking the harbour. It was from this lofty vantage point that solidiers would lob cannonballs at inquisitive French vessels so we thought we'd take a look. On this particular day we paid our entry fee and strode into the large courtyard only to find that the entire complex had been taken over by a national ukulele jamboree. Have more horrifying words ever been uttered? Dozens of competing groups, including a number of self-proclaimed ukulele orchestras, soloists, and a couple of supposedly big name performers were set up trying to out ukulele each other. The noise was deafening, and for some nightmarish reason they all seemed to be playing Brown Eyed Girl on a more or less constant loop. It made me think of those Advanced Interrogation Techniques I’d read about at Guantanamo Bay where prisoners had nursery rhymes and death metal blasted at them at all hours and would wager that somewhere in that manual there is a footnote drawing readers' attention a small and otherwise unassuming four-stringed minature guitar. Why Brown Eyed Girl was the order of the day I don't know, but it's increasingly difficult to like Van Morrison as it is. It’s one of those songs that I’ve heard so many times, in so many poorly lit karaoke bars, that I’m close to hitting my Guantanamo breaking point. I have the same problem with American Pie.

All the groups seemed to have quaint pun-tastic names like “The Unlikely Ukulelists,” “Uke Got Mail” and “Uke Skywalker.” This reminded me of a homeless man I would occasionally run into when drinking in The Globe in Leicester. He was a former journalist and by all accounts (mostly his) a good one, who fell afoul of the Fleet Street poison and at some point succumbed to alcoholism. He made a little money working the outside tables telling sotires and singing humorous versions of popular songs accompanied by his ukulele. One Saturday afternoon he slumped down beside me and tearfully explained that a few he had been mugged and amongst the few meagre items that constituted his possessions his attackers had stolen his ukulele.

“From now on I’ll have to go by the name ‘The Uke-less Bastard!’” he told me, half-serious, half-joking, a defeated, far away look in his eyes. He seemed reluctant to save for a new one, perhaps overwhelmed by the loss and what it represented. So much so that to try again would, in his mind, invite further suffering. I tried to offer some words of comfort but felt like a fraud. In that moment I made a promise to myself that if he changed his mind I’d buy him a new one when next I saw him, only our paths have not crossed again since then, and when I last asked after him at the bar they said that nobody knew what had happened to him, and the only name I had to go by was Fleet Street John, aka the Uke-less Bastard.

Mum's ukulele group split is unfortunate, but I’m also glad that majority of the members chose good fun over profiteering. There’s far too much of that sort thing and life’s too short to miss out on a good time. “I knew things had taken a turn for the worse when we stopped booking the old people’s home because they couldn’t afford our fee,” mum explained. “Everyone enjoyed those gigs, so why on earth should we be charging anyone just to brighten the day of a few old people?” I love that about her. We may disagree on a few things but you can’t argue with her sense of social duty and desire to be kind to others. One of the new members is recovering from a serious illness I’m told, his once strong baritone weathered to a husky whisper. “His voice is slowly coming back so we told him that he could mime the words and strum extra loud until his voice recovers, so he doesn’t feel left out,” mum said. That’s the spirit, I thought, music should be whatever it needs to be. Playing with your mates, some out of key, some painfully loud and others as quiet as church mice, is part of the fun.

Viva la revolución Uukulele Separatists!



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