Voltarol - related music

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Anarchy in the UKe

And before we go any further, this is the only mention that the Sex Pistols will get in this posting. I'm sorry, I just couldn't resist the horrible pun. So - now that we've got that cleared up...

My father was dead against me having a guitar and so I had to do a great deal of saving and scrounging before I finally got the massive sum of £5 together and bought a beat-up nylon string model from the son of our next door neighbour. I was fourteen by now and we had moved from the flat over the hardware shop to a semi on the main road (although still less than a mile from where I was born). The guitar's previous owner was the cousin of Johnny Kidd (of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates) and he made much of this connection as Kidd was beginning to have some chart success, but this was completely wasted on me because I had already given Rock and Roll the thumbs down and was far more interested in accompanying myself on folk songs.

There were inevitable ructions when my father came home to find the guitar in the house. I was instructed to 'take it back right this minute' and told firmly that "...you'll never play that thing as long as you've got a hole in yer arse." After much ranting and roaring he finally conceded that I could keep it, on the strict understanding that he never, ever saw or heard it again. I took it upstairs to my bedroom and with the aid of a picture hook and a piece of string, hung it on the wall. Later that night, when I had retired to my bedroom, I gently lifted the instrument down from the wall and held it an an approximation of the playing position. Before I had so much as touched the strings my old man's voice came bellowing up the stairs - "PUT THAT BLOODY UKULELE DOWN!!!" It was uncanny. The man was definitely psychic. For the rest of the time that I lived at home I could never go near the thing when he was in the house. He always knew and always complained vociferously. It just wasn't worth the hassle so I would do all my practicing at a friend's house.

Some years later, during The Jugular Vein years, Max Emmons introduced us to the ukulele as a credible instrument. Max grew up in Clapham and his mother would take in lodgers to help balance the family budget. One of these lodgers was a young Chinese actor named Bert Kwouk, who, according to Max, was a reasonably competent uke player who taught him to play 'The World is Waiting for the Sunrise' on that instrument. Thus it was that that tune became a favourite with the J.V. Thank you Bert. I couldn't find a pure uke version of the tune on the net but this one features two Japanese enthusiasts on banjolele and ukulele respectively, performing a version that is uncannily similar to our performance of it. We used mandolin ( played by 'Fingers' Bartram) as the other stringed instrument and also featured washboards (me) and Jug (Mr Murfet). I eventually acquired a uke myself and would play it on some of our numbers.

I retained a fondness for the ukulele long after I had left the jug band, but rarely had an opportunity to play it in public. I eventually sold my uke during a bout of minor impoverishment and did not own another one until I was given one as a birthday present a few years ago. Alas, by then arthritis had begun to rob me of what little nimbleness I had and I was never really able to play one again, any more than I could the cavaquinho (pronounced cav/ar/keen/yo) that I had purchased in Brazil the previous year.

The cavaquinho is widely played in Brazil in samba and especially in choro. I had noted the similarity between the cavaquinho and the ukulele but had never realised that the uke had actually evolved from the Portuguese instrument. The two are very similar in size and appearance (like a mini four string guitar) but they are tuned slightly differently and the cavaquino has steel strings as opposed to the uke's nylon ones. Both are remarkably versatile instruments but the uke, with its softer sound, can often have a somewhat comic edge to it, whilst the cavaquinho can be a very driving sound (when used as a rhythm instrument) and both plaintive and aggressive when used as a solo instrument.

This is not to say that the ukeulele is not a serious instrument, but this comic aspect has more to do with the general public's perceptions of it. Say 'ukulele' to most people and they think of George Formby, the toothy Lancastrian film and music hall performer. Formby did not in fact play the uke but rather the banjolele (same tuning but with a banjo body), although it seems almost impossible to get this fact recognised. Even the Wikipedia entry for Formby has him down as playing the Ukulele! In fact, the above clip of the two Japanese musicians playing 'The World is Waiting for the Sunrise' clearly illustrates the difference between the two instruments.

The late George Harrison was a great uke enthusiast and played both 4 and 6 string versions of the instrument. This clip of him performing 'Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea' with, amongst others, Joe Brown and Jools Holland, is presented in a light -hearted and comical fashion but it still manages to be - for me at any rate - remarkably moving. (Incidentally, it also illustrates what just what a good singer Harrison was.) Talking of the Beatle, here is a virtuoso performance by Hawaiian uke wizard Jake Shimbukuro of 'While my Guitar Gently Weeps'

Australian Azo Bell is a phenomenal musician who just happens to have settled on the ukulele as his main means of expression. Here is a clip of him performing the Miles Davis classic 'Milestones' with his trio, The Old Spice Boys. Although the veneer of this is comical, the actual musicality of the piece is positively awe-inspiring.

In the last few years the uke has been brought back into prominence - at least in the UK - by the extraordinarily successful Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. They also take a comic approach to the instrument which thinly disguises a high level of musicianship and some great arranging skills - witness this extraordinary rendition of David Bowie's 'Life on Mars'. Incidentally, it was only whilst compiling this posting that I noticed that the U.C.G.B. had actually recorded a number entitled 'Anarchy in the Ukulele', so I'm not alone in my crime. If you're still not convinced about this much-overlooked instrument then go and have a look at what YouTube has to offer when you search on 'Ukulele'. I think you'll be surprised.

In my next posting the subject will be the uke's close relative - the cavaquinho.