10 Things I Learnt at the London Uke Festival 2009

I spent a very pleasurable Saturday at the London Uke Festival and I’m now a world record holder.

The centrepiece of the day was an attempt to break the world record for largest ukulele ensemble. And it was a success. More than doubling the previous record with a total of 851. If you don’t believe it, here’s a tweet from the editor of the Guinness Book of Records confirming it. And if you don’t believe I was there, look at this picture (both photos on here are by matthewpurves). There I am. Plain as day.

London Ukulele Festival World Record

Rather than bore you with the who-snogged-who tittle-tattle, I thought I’d let you in on what I found out from the day.

1. Ukers are good people.

The definite highlight of the festival for me was meeting up with so many fellow ukulelists: YouTubers, emailers, commentors, readers. It was a joy to meet you all. And a big thanks to everyone who came up and said nice things to me. I never know what to say to stuff like that – I don’t get much practice – but I really appreciate it.

A special mention to Alexandre of COULE (seen here chatting with Ken Middleton) who was representing for France and is a top guy.

And do you know who’s really lovely? Kathy Clugston.

2. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain are adored.

Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain a rel=nofollow href=http://www.flickr.com/photos/matthewpurves/matthewpurves/aNo surprises that the UOGB drew the biggest crowd of the day. And the reception they got was incredible.

They’ve obviously been a huge influence on the current revival of ukulele in the UK: big groups, covers, humour, inventiveness, eccentricity. There’s not much arguing with their star status (which will no doubt only increase with their performance at The Proms).

3. Being the soundman in a venue that wasn’t designed for it must be a nightmare task.

The only disappointment of the day* was the sound quality of the main stage. The festival took place in Devonshire Square – which is actually two connected courtyards. The first – which housed the main stage – is very enclosed with six-storey high buildings on all sides and a roof on top. It wasn’t built with ukulele gigs in mind. And the sound was terrible. Echos flying all over the place. Krabbers did a full reccy of the area looking for a spot where the sound was acceptable – he didn’t find it. You can get a good idea what the sound was like from this video.

Early acts like the Bobby McGee’s and The Re-Entrants were impossible to hear. A huge shame. It also made it impossible for most people to follow what was going on during the world record attempt.

The sound did improve later on, but it was still a long way from doing the performers justice.

The second performance area – used for the amatuer acts – was much more open, ukulele-friendly and had a nice, laidback vibe (and overpriced food – but you have to expect some gouging at these events).

This video does a very good job of summing up the feel of being at the event, the two areas and the feeling of seeing people you know but haven’t met yet (including me if you’re exceptionally eagle-eyed).

*Okay, there was one other disappointment: the non-presence of a few acts I would have had down as essential such as GUGUG and The Half Sisters.

4. The world needs to watch out for the Sugarsnap Sisters.

The Uke Festival was the great unveiling of the trio of Tricity Vogue, Cousin Alice and Honey Mink (who does a very funny mock-impressed face). And what an unveiling it was. They’re like the Andrews Sisters with lipstick and Suzi Quattro poses. Not to be missed.

My brother compelled me to tell you that they were his favourite act of the day. And I have to agree with him. Your next chance to catch them is at the Paris Uke Fest.

5. Ian Re-entrant does a bang-on impression of Jimmy McGee

I hope he’s going to be putting it up on YouTube soon.

The Re-Entrants had to dash off to play at a water polo tournament. I should make clear, they were playing ukes there.

6. Trying to chat normally to a Scotsman in full face paint isn’t as disconcerting as you would expect.

I finally got to meet Jimmy of the Bobby McGee’s at the Uke Fest. He wanted me to show him how to play Rockabilly Roustabout which was a bad move as I never bother memorizing my own tunes – seems a waste of brain space.

I got to try out his KoAloha. Very nicely put together piece of kit. But reminded me why I prefer tenors with slightly higher action.

7. The ukulele manufacturers missed a trick.

The only presence from uke sellers was Duke of Uke (which was only a short walk from the venue) and Pete Howlett. With most of England’s ukulele movers and shakers in attendance checking out each other’s ukes, it seems like a missed opportunity for them to have done a handy bit of influencing. Having said that…

8. Ohana did a smart thing hiring Ken Middleton

Although he wasn’t there is in official capacity, Ken was there. He knows his stuff and he’s rightfully respected in the ukulele community

9. It brings joy to my heart to walk around and hear ukes being strummed.

Not seasoned performers pulling out the tricks. Just people plunking away mindlessly. Lovely sound.

10. I love walking around London. I’d hate to live there.

We took a few breaks from the festival to wander round the city – including a trip to Duke of Uke – and it was great. The architecture in particular. Old, forceful, square-sholdered buildings next to towering glass – there’s no getting around it – phalluses. It’s a pretty obvious sign of the way London big-wigs see themselves having changed over time.

Trite as it may be, it’s always strange to turn a corner and go from wide boulavards and pristine buildings where fortunes are made and – mainly – lost to stinking streets full of run-down shops.

The most magnificent sight of the day was watching a huge pane of glass being accidently dropped to the floor in Shoreditch. Glorious.

But, being a sensitive flower, it’s all a bit much and I was happy to return to my lair and resume attempts to Keyser Soze myself.

Things I already knew:

– I can’t reliably play three chords in the right order. There’s a reason that all my videos are about 1 minute long; it’s because that’s my concentration span. After that my mind wanders onto thoughts of aeroplanes, hats and that cute girl in the sailor suit.

– If I attempt to carry a ukulele through a train station it will be bashed against door frames, pillars and the heads of small children.

View Comments


  1. Donnie Bubbles June 24th, 2009 6:49 pm

    It looks like it was a smashing good time! This talked me into attending the next festival that comes up near my neck of the woods…

  2. todd June 24th, 2009 6:51 pm

    lovely points Al,

    sounds like it was a blast for sure…..my favorite point below…..i wonder if it stokes up the same feeling when one is at a ukulele club meeting and 20+ people are bashing out ‘the crawdad song’ or ‘down by the riverside?’ Such a happy sound :)

    ‘9. It brings joy to my heart to walk around and hear ukes being strummed.

    Not seasoned performers pulling out the tricks. Just people plunking away mindlessly. Lovely sound…..’

  3. Emily June 24th, 2009 7:44 pm

    shhh…I sometimes fantasize about bashing my ukulele against the heads of small children. That’s what public servitude will do to you.

  4. Paolo June 24th, 2009 7:45 pm

    NIce piece, Al. It was a fabulous day, and playing with 850 other folk was moving and powerful. I loved the uke wave (Hawaiian wave?).

    One of many things I learnt is that Sir Tom Courtney owns a stunning Larrivee. So stunning that I didn’t realise it was Tom Courtney until seeing pictures the next day!

    I was one of the people who pressed your flesh fleetingly (tall guy, sideburns, beard like a twisted magiciian) to say thanks for your good work. In fact, I’ll say it again. Thanks for the good work!

  5. Jen June 24th, 2009 7:51 pm

    It was a fab day, I’ve not had so much fun in ages.
    We did see you but were too scared to say hello.
    You should do the chords to the Record Breakers Theme in tribute :o)

  6. Hello Jodi June 24th, 2009 7:54 pm

    Sounds like a blast! I will be attending my first ukulele festival (Bushman doesn’t count) in September. I will also not publicly post who hooked up with whom.

    PM me…

  7. Jen June 24th, 2009 7:58 pm

    … and I’ve just noticed our little gang is visible in the group picture(fame at last!)

  8. Iain June 24th, 2009 8:14 pm

    One of my favourite saturday afternoons for many a year.

    p.s. sorry for accosting you outside KFC. Too much booze and a world record make for a hyperactive boy :-)

  9. Felix June 24th, 2009 10:32 pm

    Was a great day out… I can see myself in a couple of the pictures :D

    I got filmed by some people for a documentary XD can’t wait until next year. It feels good to own 1 851th of a world record :)

  10. Woodshed June 24th, 2009 10:35 pm

    Donnie: Have a good time.

    todd: Definitely good times.

    Emily: I didn’t say I did it accidentally.

    Paolo: Great to meet you. I don’t have much of a clue what Tom Courtney looks like nowadays.

    Jen: Damn, that’s a shame. I wish you had done. But, yes, I am very scary.

    Jodi: Have a great time (and fill me in on the gossip).

    Iain: Not at all. It was great to meet you.

  11. Ian Re-entrant June 24th, 2009 10:57 pm

    A few points:
    Firstly, it was lovely to talk to you there, and it did have a wonderful atmosphere;
    I like that simple strumming sound too. Cool, isn’t it?
    The sound was unfortunate, but nobody’s fault. It improved later because of the greater number of, what we call in the trade, MABs. This stands for: ‘Mobile Acoustic Baffles,’ and refers to audience members. Nothing like bodies for soaking up echo.
    As to my impression of Jimmy McGee – as soon as I can locate an appropriate beard, it’s a done deal. He was a lovely fella.
    I x

  12. LonnaB June 24th, 2009 11:10 pm

    shhh… Emily is right!

    Great write up, Al. Breaking glass and all, it sounds like you had a lovely time. I agree with you- sound quality issues can be a major heartbreak.

  13. joert June 24th, 2009 11:29 pm

    Thanx man really enjoyed you’re article, I’ve been scouring the internet for a recap on the uke fest, you’re s was the first one to pop up. It was a fantastic day if only every one could play the uke!

  14. Raven June 24th, 2009 11:30 pm

    Thank you for the memories. It was such a great day!

  15. JCMcGee June 25th, 2009 12:19 am

    It was an ace day!

    We all owe a big thank you to Jez & Quincy the kinda unsung heros who organised it all!

    I wanna do a Brighton Uke Festival now!

    Also you should do report on The George Formby Society meetings…don’t they have big get togethers in Blackpool?

    Great day!…I keep remembering more people I met!

  16. Ken Middleton June 25th, 2009 7:18 am

    Thanks for the generous comments Al. And thanks too for a great summing up of the day. I like these “10 points” articles very much.

    I really enjoyed talking with you and the others that I had never met before. It was a great day out.

    A huge debt of gratitude is owed to you by the world’s ukulele players for all the work you do. Like many others, I check your website every single day. Thanks Al.

  17. krabbers June 25th, 2009 8:34 am

    yep that pretty much sums up a fun day , i took some video but the same sort of stuff has already been posted
    thanks for the shout out, i did get a good sound spot in the end, it was about 6 inches from the pa speaker

  18. +one June 25th, 2009 9:52 am

    that looks like a fantastic day – pity Australia is so far away!

  19. Woodshed June 25th, 2009 11:58 am

    Ian: Great to meet you too. Fill the place with 5000 people and it might sound OK.

    Lonna: I usually find a boot to the child’s face to be more efficient and less damaging to to my uke.

    joert: Thanks for the walkabout video. I think it has nearly everyone on at some point.

    Raven: It certainly was.

    Jimmy: The George Formby Society scares me a bit – with everyone dead set on doing the voice and note-for-note renditions of his solos.

    Ken: Thanks very much. I’m now quite tempted to go hiking round all Europe’s uke festivals.

    krabbers: Glad you found it eventually.

    +one: Are you going to the Cairns Uke Fest?

  20. Narciso Lobo June 25th, 2009 1:01 pm

    So who snogged who?

  21. Dagada June 25th, 2009 6:19 pm

    Yay! I’m ever so clearly visible in the photo – at last, I’ve made it onto Uke Hunt.

    The fest was a wonderful day, and it was an amazing feeling to be surrounded by so many gorgeous ukers. It was great to finally see The Bobby McGee’s live (and I’m loving the new CD) as well as Mr B. And the rush of euphoria during the world record smash was astonishing!

    Now, my chum was in a sailor suit. She may be most chuffed to hear she’s cute!

  22. Woodshed June 25th, 2009 7:20 pm

    Seeso: I snogged yo mama.

    Dagada: I should have mentioned Mr B as well. He put on a good show. Just a shame you couldn’t hear what he was saying too well.

    I’m sure your chum’s aware of the fact – you can’t be that cute and not know it.

  23. LonnaB June 25th, 2009 8:46 pm

    Woodshed, I’ve got the fluke. I’m pretty sure it would hold up ;)

  24. Woodshed June 25th, 2009 8:50 pm

    Lonna: The Fluke? Yeah, thwack away with that one.

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