Lancashire is at the forefront of a ukulele revival
PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 May 2015
The ukulele has seen a huge surge in popularity with many youngsters following in George Formby's footsteps.
At first glance American pop star Taylor Swift doesn’t seem to have an awful lot in common with Wigan’s king of the saucy song George Formby. But they are united – and so are Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix – by an instrument that was overlooked for years but is now enjoying a huge surge in popularity.
All four star names, and plenty of others besides, started out playing the ukulele and sales of the instruments have doubled in the last five years, while Amazon reported an increase of 1200 per cent from 2013 to 2014.
Some of the sales boom may be down to the fact that ukuleles are rapidly becoming the instrument of choice in schools, partly because the sound of a class learning the ukulele is far less eye-wateringly hard on the ears than the screeching of 30-odd recorders, but they are also easier to learn.
Ukulele clubs have sprung up all over the country and even not-particularly musical beginners can pick up the basics in a few days and the skills learned on a uke can be transferred to guitars, making them a kind of gateway instrument.
Some people though, stick with the uke – the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain will clock up 30 years of performances next month – and Julie Martin hopes some of the Year Three pupils at Westwood School in Clayton-le-Woods will keep it up too.
She’s the headteacher there and introduced ukuleles to the school four years ago. ‘I used to work at Stubbins in Ramsbottom and that was a very musical school, with a lot of pupils playing brass instruments,’ she said. ‘The headteacher wasn’t musical but could see the value in music and how it could enrich the curriculum. It gives the children another string to their bow.’ Boom, boom.
Year Three pupils at Westwood can rent a ukulele for the year for just £5 – refundable at the end of the year if the instrument is still in working order – and have a 45 minute lesson each week.
Mrs Martin added: ‘I’d see the children struggling into my previous school with their great big instruments and when I came here I wanted something easier for the children to carry and easy for them to learn. The ukulele is a good size for them to hold and to play and I like the fact it’s quite northern.
Mason and Bradley with head teacher, Julie Martin
Cora and Kara
Maddison, Daniel, Ryan and Leo
Harmony, Callum, Magdiel, Chelsea, Cassen and Sorrel
Ukulele pupils at Westwood Primary School
A selection of Ukuleles at Reidy's Home Of Music
Paul Nuttall, MD of Reidy's Home Of Music playing a ukulele
‘In the first year the children played in assemblies and the teacher thought the group the next year were ready to enter a competition. They went in for the Penwortham Music Festival and played the George Formby song Leaning on a Lamppost and they won a trophy. Last year we were runners-up.
‘I think playing an instrument helps with their learning in other areas of school. It gives the children an opportunity to perform and can help improve self-esteem as well.
‘At the moment it’s only the year three children who play ukulele but it would be nice to have a group so that children with a talent for playing can stick with it through school. That would also enable us to take it into the community.’
The instrument is commonly associated with Hawaii, but arrived there in the 19th century with Portuguese immigrants. By the 1920s it was common in homes across America and spread around the world. The most famous player, certainly in this country, was George Formby, who also often played a cross-bred instrument called a banjolele.
Since the 1960s the instrument fell out of favour until its recent revival, which has been inspired in part by the success of folk-pop acts such as Mumford and Sons and Johnny Flynn.
And Paul Nuttall of Reidys Music in Blackburn, where they have been selling musical instruments for almost 100 years, says it’s easy to see why there has been a surge in the ukulele’s popularity. ‘It’s a great community thing to do, they’re portable and not expensive to maintain,’ he said.
‘There are lots of societies and groups around now. Even if you’re not particularly musical you can play a ukulele. They’re a lot easier to play than a guitar. You can play a chord with one finger.
‘The cheapest one we sell is at £19 but we have one for £1,099 – they look pretty similar but there’s a difference when you play them. One is hand made of genuine mahogany and has more bearings and better strings.’ w
There are ukulele groups across Lancashire, to find one near you go to ukulelehunt.com