MENTION the word ‘ukulele’ to many people and they’ll automatically think of George Formby and When I’m Cleaning Windows.
But that perception is not only inaccurate, given that Formby actually played the banjolele - it’s also more than a little out of date.
For the humble ‘uke’ is both an accessible way to learn a stringed instrument -with four strings, rather than the six of an acoustic guitar, there’s much less scope for tangled fingers - and fashionable in its own right, thanks partly to the Beatles Anthology, which highlighted the uke-playing roots of both Paul and George, and partly to the likes of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, who include uke versions of songs by AC/DC, Hawkwind, Wheatus and Kate Bush, to name but a few, in their repertoire.
At a more local level, there’s the Argyll and Bute Ukulele Ensemble - actually entirely Bute-based - who join Rise and Groovecoaster at a local music showcase at Craigmore Bowling Club this Sunday, July 1.
The group grew out of a beginner’s course offered by local musician Paul Templeman at Argyll College’s Rothesay learning centre four years ago.
“The group comprises all the people who were involved in that original course,” Paul says.
“None of them are seasoned professionals – we’re all keen amateurs, but we all put in an awful lot of effort.”
The ukulele’s native ground is Hawaii – it’s actually an interpretation of the machete, a small stringed instrument taken to the Pacific islands by Portuguese immigrants – but its wider popularity dates back to the First World War, when it was first introduced to the USA courtesy of the Hawaiian acts which were common to many touring vaudeville shows.
The birth of radio further spread the word about the ‘uke’, and it remained popular until the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, when the rise of the guitar made the humble ukulele very definitely uncool.
Its present-day resurgence dates back to the mid-1990s, when it featured in the Beatles Anthology project – both George Harrison and Paul McCartney had learned to play the instrument in their youth, and at the ‘Concert for George’ in 2002, on the first anniversary of Harrison’s death, McCartney played lead ukulele on a version of Something which also featured Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton.
Around the same time, word was beginning to spread about the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, a group of musicians determined to spread the word about a much-maligned instrument, and whose concert repertoire includes ukulele versions of AC/DC’s Back In Black, Anarchy In The UK by The Sex Pistols and Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, among much else – and who now play in front of capacity audiences in major concert venues across the globe.
But the ukulele isn’t just a popular instrument for listening to – as the Argyll and Bute Ukulele Ensemble are demonstrating, it’s also increasingly popular to play.
“As a starter instrument it has a very gentle learning curve,” Paul continues.
“It’s replaced the recorder as a starter instrument in lots of schools, and kids are loving it.
“You can pick up a basic ukulele for twenty quid, and while that’s obviously not getting you a top-quality instrument, as a starting point it makes a lot of sense. You can learn four chords very, very easily – and once you know four chords you can play pretty much anything.
“The resurgence certainly shows no sign of letting up. I go to trade shows around the world and I see new ukulele manufacturers cropping up all the time.
“The novelty aspect is something the Ukulele Orchestra play on very, very well, although a lot of their material is also serious, straight cover versions, because the ukulele isn’t just a comedy item.
“Having said that, I wouldn’t want that novelty aspect to disappear entirely, because taking what looks at first glance like a silly little instrument and making serious music with it is all part of its charm.”
The approach taken by the local ensemble – comprising Joan Campbell, Richard and Caroline Gorman, Alison Clark, David Macqueen and Paul himself on bass ukulele – is very much about experimentation, with virtually no musical genre regarded as out-of-bounds.
“We’ll mine anything,” says Paul. “We do some Motown, blues and punk and we’re working on a Bee Gees disco cover at the moment as well.
“There’s nothing we won’t attempt, and we’re always looking for new material - there are some songs that just don’t work on the ukulele, and we probably reject as much as we use, but part of the fun is hearing a song you just wouldn’t expect to hear on the ukulele.”
* The Argyll and Bute Ukulele Ensemble performs at Craigmore Bowling Club on Sunday, July 1, on a bill which also features Groovecoaster and Rise. Doors open at 7pm and the concert begins at 8pm sharp.