Sunday, November 25, 2012

I love being a Ukulele Lady

Oh dear, I hear you all say, another ukulele post. The woman has gone ukeing mad! And yes, I probably have.

Yesterday, myself and my fellow Strummers from the village headed down to Taunton for the South West Ukulele Union Jam in the Castle Green Inn.  The weather was foul and I have done my poor back in so earlier in the day I had even entertained the thought of  not going, but I'm so glad I did.

The South West Ukulele Union is a meeting place for any uke group in the South West and the idea behind the Jam was to give us an opportunity to meet up and play some choons and just have a really good, rip-roaring time. It was hosted by Taunton Ukulele Strumming Club, a fine bunch of people, if ever there was one.
Budleigh  Ukulele Strumming Club made me want to move to Devon
We arrived at the venue a little nervous, having downloaded the song book and had a bit of a practice. We were not quite sure what to expect. We were a good forty five minutes early so expected there to be a few people there, but not a huge area crammed full of uke players, with others already spilling over into another room next to it. It was strictly standing room only. Fortunately, a chair was found for me and someone kindly lent me a music stand as I couldn't see the projector screen with the songs and chords on it.  We chatted to the people around us, exchanging uke stories, showing off our instruments and getting the drinks in. Strictly non-alcoholic if we were going to last until 6.15pm.

The Stockton Strummers
The first thing that struck me was what a universal instrument the ukulele is.  The room was full of probably one of the most diverse mixes of people I've come across. There were youngsters (many Somerset schools have apparently given up the dreaded recorder for the ukulele - hallelujah!) to senior citizens, hippy types, serious ukers, people in hawaiian shirts, a very glamorous woman playing a white Flying V, a man The uke clearly crosses all social and age boundaries in a way that I think few other instruments do. There were ukuleles of all kinds, standard ones, pineapples, fleas, pink ones, yellow ones, blue ones, even furry ones. There were glitter ones, mirrored ones and stripy maple ones, sopranos, tenors and even a bass uke, which sounds a bit like a bass guitar. The one common thing was that everyone was united in their love of playing ukulele and everyone was smiling. Who cared that it was flooding outside? Not us!

Bet he doesn't play the ukulele!

From then on we covered everything from The Beatles, The Kinks, Elvis, Credence Clearwater Revival, Slade, David Essex, Johny Cash, Marc Bolan, The Zombies, The Box Tops and a few more traditional uke tunes.  Some of the Strumming Groups did a quick showcase, then The Machine That Goes Ting, a predominantly uke band showed how versatile it really is with a bit of Clash and Sex Pistols among other things and two fabulously furry ukuleles.
At 2.30, proceedings kicked off with a lively rendition of 'Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue.' For people like us, who have only ever played in a small group, the sound of 80 ukuleles playing in harmony was the nearest thing I've had to a religious experience and the huge cheer that went up from the rest of the pub showed how much everyone else appreciated it. It was uplifting and joyful and shows why the ukulele really is the answer to world peace. Everyone was smiling, people came from the bar to listen, some joined in with the singing, some stayed all afternoon, a few even danced but I think they may possibly have come from the local alcohol-dependent population.

After than, we jammed again for another hour or so, finishing with Hey Jude, where we all na, na, na nahed for ages because I don't think anyone wanted it to finish. By now, my strumming finger was very sore and my cheeks were aching from smiling so much.

We were so touched by the warm welcome we received from everyone we met and look forward to taking up the open invitation to go down and play with our new buddies in Taunton and look forward to some of them coming up to play in our fledgling strumming group.

Oh no! It's all over
A good few people have joked about us and our ukes, but all I can say is, your loss! We had a fantastic time sharing the ukulele love. If more people played it the world really would be a happier place.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

If you like a Ukulele Lady...

Come closer....I want to tell you something.  Ready?  I've discovered the secret to world peace. <<sharp intake of breath>> I know, you're shocked aren't you? Shocked and stunned that it is me who should have discovered it. What do you think it is?  I could make you guess but we'd be here for years so I'm going to come straight out with it. The ukulele. Yes, the little ukulele (ookoolaylay, to give it its correct Hawaiian prononciation) is the secret to world peace. We should be sending ukuleles to Afghanistan, not soldiers.

A couple of months ago I met up with an old school friend who I had lost touch with about 20 years ago. A friend posted a video on YouTube from her recent birthday party showing her playing her ukulele. It looked a lot of fun.  Hmm, I thought to myself.  It's small and portable so you could take it anywhere. It's only got four strings, so chords looked easy. And I'm sure my friend won't mind me saying that she had no particular musical talent, yet she clearly handled her uke very well.

And here's my lovely friend proving you really can take a uke anywhere
 Then our village pub had an End of Summer Bash and on a lovely, sunny Sunday (yes, there was one. I think) we sat in the garden and sang and danced to a local band, Paper Moon, which heavily featured a uke. One of my friends turned to me and said she really fancied learning to play it. 'Fantastic! Me too.' I replied and before we knew it we had a third recruit as well. and The Ukuladies were born.

Within a few weeks we all had our ukes and were totally and utterly smitten. It's such a joyful little instrument that you can't help but smile when you play it. The Boy and The Girl were scathing, yet within minutes of it arriving, The Boy, who plays the guitar, was wandering around the house strumming it and yesterday, when I announced that I was going to upgrade to a concert sized uke, which is  bit bigger than my little soprano one, The Girl asked if she could have the old one.

Once word got out, another friend told us he had a mandolin and he'd like to join our strumming group. Fantastic, we thought. Three Ukuladies and a Mandolin had a nice ring to it, especially as he was a man. He turned up for our first strumming session, having never played the mandolin. We struggled to tune it - I mean, come on, 12 strings? - and managed to break two strings while we did so.  While we faffed and fretted about it, he borrowed a uke and within minutes had decided to ditch the Mandolin, lovely though it was. He's now the proud owner of a lovely Tanglewood concert uke but he's completely ruined our name!

We've only been playing for a few weeks but already we can sing and play a few songs and it is just so much fun. Why schools bother teaching kids to play the recorder when the ukulele is just as easy and much more fun.Honestly, who ever learns the recorder at school then keeps it up into adulthood?

On the other hand, all these cool and in some cases surprising people play the uke

Neil Armstong - yes, that one!

Jamie Oliver - pukka!

Zooey Deschanel

Zac Efron

Frank Skinner on banjo uke. Griff
Rhys Jones and Harry Hill also play

Not to mention all the famous musicians who play or played the uke; Joe Strummer from The Clash, Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters, Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam, Roger Daltrey from The Who, George Harrison and Paul McCartney, Kate Bush, Taylor Swift, the list really does go on and on. 

You don't even need a teacher these days, you can learn on YouTube. Just do a search for Ukulele Mike, everyone's favourite Californian, and within hours you'll be able to play something recognisable. And you don't need to spend a fortune. £18 will get you a half-decent instrument to start on. And once you do, you won't stop smiling. Honest! It has also made international stars of the likes of Jake Shimabukuru who is a virtuoso player and Julia Nunes who is just plain fun!

In the right hands (not mine just yet!), the humble uke is an instrument of incredible beauty.

Take a few moments to sit back and listen to Jake playing Bohemian Rhapsody. He's incredible.
We now take our ukes to the pub on Friday evenings and have a little sing-song. So far no-one has thrown us out and we've even had some positive comments. The landlady has now agreed to let us start a strumming group once a month so we are hoping to connect with other ukers. At the end of the month we are heading down to Taunton for the South West Ukulele Union Jam. Eighty or so ukulele players will converge on a pub in the town for an afternoon of jamming and probably from me, not a few bum notes. Afterwards we are going to play for a bit at the Ice and Fire Festival. It should be enormous fun.

So get with the program and get yourself a Uke, and make your own personal contribution to world peace.

Even the leader of the Free World plays one -
well he is from Hawaii.  Get your uke-playing
Obama figurine here!
And for your further delight and delectation, Bette Midler, another well know uke player, singing 'Ukulele Lady' in Las Vegas. Sadly she's not playing but her daughter is.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Carbon Monoxide kills so you should be alarmed!

I normally like to keep  my blog lighthearted and fun but every now and again, you have to get a bit serious. Today is, therefore, A Serious Day.

I like to think of myself as pretty clued up but it was only following coverage of the new regulations in Northern Ireland requiring all new-build houses to be fitted with a carbon monoxide detector, that I learned a couple of things that I didn't know. Now, I was a bit of a duffer in the sciences so please don't groan loudly and pull your hair out if I'm telling you something you already know.  Oil-fired and solid fuel boilers can give off carbon monoxide.  I thought it was just gas boilers. We all know about them. There have been enough tragedies in recent years for us to have no excuse not to know that, but I honest didn't realise that other types of boilers had the capacity to be just as dangerous.

Also, don't bring your barbeque indoors. Obvious too, but when we lived in France, every winter there were a handful of deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning.  The houses are not generally central heated and, with the winters often being far colder than you would imagine, it wasn't unheard of for people to bring a barbeque in and light it for bit of extra warmth. But charcoal can also give off carbon dioxide making them lethal in confined spaces.

Carbon monoxide is a silent killer. It is odourless and colourless and, surprisingly nearly 20% of the British population don't even know that it can kill you.  You would know nothing about it until you wake up dead, to quote a certain 80s heavy rock band. Symptoms include dizziness, nausea and tiredness so if you didn't go on a bender the night before, it's time to get your appliances checked. In a recent survey, 69% of houses didn't have a carbon monoxide detector and nearly half of people questioned didn't get their appliances checked annually.

It's a good move by the Government in Northern Ireland and one we'd do well to follow here but until it becomes law, you should make sure you are safe. You can pick one up for under £20 at your local stores or go online and visit this site. So if you have a gas or oil boiler, be alarmed and don't let the silent killer get you.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Get me a Surrey With a Fringe on Top so I can ride right out of here!

Last night I had the dubious pleasure of helping my parents take their Over 60s Club to an Am Dram production of Oklahoma! (the exclamation mark goes with the name of the musical, it's nothing to do with me)  The dubious pleasure was not taking the seniors, who were a marvellous bunch; lively, fun and very, very drole, it was the prospect of a night of Am Dram.  I'm no fan of Am Dram to be honest, although also to be honest, I did my fair share of it in my younger days. 

The trouble with amateur productions is that they have to make use of the actors they have, rather than being able to cast people who are suitable for the role. The end result was that Miss Laurey was in her 40s, an old maid by the standards of the day and very unlikely to find herself a suitor. Curly McLain was suitably curly but with a good few years on Miss Laurey and with 'Am Dram' make up that made him look a bit like one of Santa's elves on a day pass, I wasn't convinced.  The 'lonely, disturbed farm hand,' Jud Tyler seemed to have been modelled on Norman Bates crossed with Hannibal Lecter and used every Am Dram 'I'm a mental looney' trick in the book. Meanwhile, Will Parker, the cowboy love interest of Ado Annie, the original good time girl, was camp as a row of tents round a cowpoke's campfire and minced around the stage like Larry Grayson on speed.

The triumph of  the evening was Aunt Eller, who was perfect and even managed a very passable American accent and, despite her years, could certainly still tap dance.

Things got off to a bad start when the curtains opened to find Aunt Eller on her rocking chair doing some turn of the century domestic chore while a soundtrack of clucking chickens played.  I can only assume that Aunt Eller was one of the first American battery farmers as the sound of the chooks was deafening. She indicated her displeasure to the conductor/special effects supervisor with a look that would freeze a nuclear winter and the battery farm was quickly reduced to a backyard flock.

She rocked and pounded a stick in a bucket...and rocked and pounded her stick in a bucket...and rocked some more, looking more and more furious. Surely this was Curly's cue to breeze in singing 'Oh what a beautiful morning'?  Maybe it wasn't that beautiful. After a ridiculously long pause where the orchestra reprised their overture, Aunt Eller ad-libbed and strode off to remind Curly that the morning was indeed beautiful and he'd better move his cowboy ass and come and sing about it.

When he eventually did, sing that is, he had a pleasant voice, which was A Good Thing but the comedy pink cheeks were definitely not.

Miss Laurey arrived, all 40 odd years of her, looking like a caricature of American Farm Girl from the Turn Of  The Century. Think oversized dungarees and 'Dorothy' hair.  For anyone not familiar with the story, it basically revolves around a Box Social, where the young girls make a lunch which they put in a lunchbox and the men get to bid on them. If they win, they get to eat lunch with the girl who made it.  Very politically incorrect these days. That's it in a very small nutshell. There are of course various subplots; Ado Annie and Ali Hakim, Ado Annie and Will Palmer (the slapper), Curley and Jud (no, not like that although they do have a very bizarre scene in Jud's bedroom where Curley tells him his rope is perfect for hanging oneself. Auto-erotica perhaps?)

But back to the plot.  Poor Curly wanted to go to the box social with Miss Laurey. He'd even hired a 'Surrey With A Fringe on Top.'  I mean, what girl could say No? Miss Laurey, that's who, the little minx. She's agreed to go with the pathologically insane Jud Tyler, who was now channelling Quasimodo as well as Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter. What on earth was she thinking? But of course she really wanted to go with Curly, she was just playing hard to get.

Light relief came in the form of Ali Hakim, a comedy Persian peddler coated in dark pancake but wearing an oddly 21st Century-looking suit.  He had clearly based his character on Omid Djalili with the accent of Fabio Capello.  It was a bizarre thing.

Much of Act I is taken up with Miss Laurey trying to convince herself/Aunt Eller/Curley that she is not in love with him while Curly tries her to convince her that she is. It was tempting to just stand up and shout 'Oh for God's sake, you know you want him!' after an hour of will she/won't she.  Poor Miss Laurey is so confused that she buys a magic potion from Ali Hakim that he tells her will make her decide. I mean, what choice is there between a rosy cheeked cowboy and a psycho? It's not that hard.

The laudunum in the potion sends her to sleep during which she has a long dream ballet sequence, ballet of course being very popular among the pioneers on the Frontier.  The real reason is that they have to change the scenery and it's a bit complicated so we have to have fifteen minutes of ballet to cover it up. Finally, after a marathon two hours of Am Dram, Scene I ended. The next twenty minutes was spent trying to prise the poor seniors out of their seats, their artificial knees and bad backs having locked in place, and then try to beat the stampede for the toilets. Really, two hours was far too long for them and some needed a good few glasses of restorative wine in the interval to get them through Act II.

Poor Jud Tyler had obviously used the interval to descend into full-blown Am Dram madness and was now stalking around the stage with fists clenched and eyes a-rollin'.  The end result was that every time he came on, my mum and I got a terrible fit of the giggles. As it was a special Senior Citizen's preview the theatre was only about half full so we had to try and mask our giggles. I ended up sounding a bit like Basil Brush on acid.  But it wasn't just us. The majority of the audience descended into very untheatrical fits of the laughter and as I looked round I noticed a sea of shaking shoulders and handkerchieves stuffed in mouths.  I honestly thought I would have to leave the auditorium.

Needless to say, by the time the box social came round, Jud was fully mad and determined to win Mis Laurey's lunchbox in more ways than one. Curly had brought along his loose change but unfortunately for him, his adversary had been saving his pay for years and had managed to amass a small fortune by local standards.  Poor Curly was forced to sell his horse, his saddle and his gun to outbid Jud, who, whatever Curly came up with seemed to have 'two bits more'. It was a bit like eBay. You know, those irritating auctions when someone outbids you by a few pence. But in the end, Curly gets his girlie and within minutes they are married. Fast movers those Pioneers!

But Jud isn't taking this lying down.. or even standing up and dragging his left leg and he gatecrashes the wedding, pulls a knife on Curly, they fight, he gets killed, yada, yada, yada.  It all ends with a rousing chorus of Oklahoma, OK! OK, of course being the two letter code for Oklahoma, you know, like NY for New York or TX for Texas. How clever of them to come up with a system that didn't even come into proper usage until 1963.

My highlights were the deliciously camp cowboy dances which were very YMCA and a young girl who clearly wasn't much of a dancer and spent most of the production looking terribly serious until she remembered to smile and she would then grimace at the audience for about 30 seonds before going back to her serious look.

We were eventually back on the bus home at 11pm after what seemed like the longest performance of Oklahoma! ever. It lived up to it's name. It was Oklahoma and it was OK.

That's me, trying to escape...