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.

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