First, a small confession. While I’ve been aware of Ben’s Ukulele Road Trips – a unique project by the eponymous Ben involving lots of independent travel and ukulele-based songwriting – for a while, it’s remained on my list of Things To Check Out Properly At Some Point (along with Breaking Bad and sushi), so I really hadn’t read or listened to any of Ben’s output. Until, that is, A Ukulele Christmas landed on my digital doorstep. A couple of listens later it’s made me keen to get on to the rest of the BURT oeuvre ASAP.
The artwork is the first thing you’ll notice: a fun, slightly bizarre, Christmas card-style tableau of exotic animals in boxer shorts having an extremely festive time. Why a monkey and a giraffe? Well, seemingly just because. I’m already a fan of this.
The songs themselves are all Christmas classics you’ll be familiar with: the opening track is We Wish You A Merry Christmas, so clearly Ben isn’t worried about choosing original material that’s niche in any way. However, it’s the arrangements that stand out and show off some true musicianship. That first song is uncynically cheery in its delivery and offers something new in every verse, whether it’s a new set of backing vocals, a quick change to the minor key and back again or a half-time tremolo-backed solo.
Further highlights include: a key-change-heavy, bilingual Jingle Bells; a version of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, in which the distinctly homemade sound only adds to the charm exemplified by a lazy mouth trumpet solo; an O Tannenbaum straight out of classic cinema, and a smoky-jazz-club rendition of Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire. Whichever gear it’s in, this collection seems to get the right feel for each song.
The overall sound is really pleasing, with Ben’s pure vocal occasionally reminiscent of Beirut’s Zach Condon and frequent lapses into French suiting the generally old-fashioned ukulele sound very well. The small reservations I had – a slightly harsh handbell tone reappearing a little too much, and occasionally one too many verses – could easily be dismissed by one less grumpy than I, as they show extra creativity and provide more to listen to.
There’s enough interest there to sit and listen to the album with no distractions, but the familiarity of the songs makes this a good one to play in the background at any time over the holidays: whilst unwrapping the presents first thing on the 25th, during the second or third board game or when half the family’s asleep on the sofa during the ‘drunken stupor’ portion of the day. If you like ukuleles and you like Christmas, go for it.
Click here to buy the album. You can get it as a digital download, by post with lyrics and chords, or even request a Christmas song to be delivered live over the phone by the man himself!
In my opinion, Ben’s Ukulele Road Trips is one of the most creative independent voices in the ukulele world at the moment, so do have a look at the blogs, original songs and podcasts and see what you think.
Related: The Ukulele Gift Minefield
This week, everyone’s been watching the footage from America’s Got Talent of ‘next Taylor Swift’ Grace VanderWaal. Aged only 12, the youngster accompanied herself in quirky but impressive original song I Don’t Know My Name – on a Luna Concert ukulele. She then said some good stuff about the ukulele as a serious instrument in an interview with radio.com, so, all in all, I think this girl is great. I also think this is a great opportunity to check out some other young talents in the ukulele sphere, Hawaiian and otherwise (NB- my list of British Ukulele players you should know contains some young UK players, so have a browse of that before you berate me for leaving out Zoe Bestel or Michael Adcock!)
They may not all be quite as young as Miss VanderWaal, but they’re definitely all good enough to spend some time listening to. So, in no particular order, here are some of my favourite uke players under 30:
So there you go: plenty of options for your listening pleasure. Let me know in the comments section below if you think I've missed anyone, and remember - if you like something you hear, buy it! These people need our support to carry on doing what they're doing, and nobody makes decent money from YouTube without playing Minecraft or doing makeup tutorials.
If you're interested in having ukulele lessons, click 'Contact Jon' at the top of the page and get in touch.
Related: 10 British Ukulele Players You Should Know
It's Saturday morning on Albert Road, Portsmouth. On the surface it seems like any normal day among the eclectic mix of antique sellers and fried chicken joints (and for most people it is), but a closer look reveals something very slightly odd. Moving around in pairs, or alone, chatting or just taking in the nearly-seaside air, people are carrying ukuleles. It’s not exactly Glastonbury in late June, but the signs are there: the first ever Grand Southern Ukulele Festival is in town. I’d taken advantage of some people’s apparent overindulgence on the previous night and driven down for headline act Aldrine Guerrero’s ‘Perfect Practice Makes Perfect’ workshop (loved it, full of useful tips) and had almost 12 hours’ worth of ukulele performances to look forward to. The late morning and early afternoon found me in The Loft, a traditional small venue above the Kings Pub, enjoying the day’s preliminary schedule. Highlights included Liam Capper-Starr’s understated skill, 'Special Guest' Ricky Tart’s vocal power and loop pedal trickery, Chonkinfeckle’s speak-sung Lancashire comedy and a first of two sets from the high-tempo Dead Mans Uke. Just time for a quick bite to eat and then across the road to the Kings Theatre, where the festival would make itself at home for the rest of the day.
At 2pm, with a decent crowd settled in to both levels of the venerable auditorium, we met our host – Mister Joe Black, dressed to impress in the first of many monochrome outfits. Joe (pick your own pronoun) did a great job throughout the day, not only of frightening the more genteel sections of the audience, but of dealing with a ‘problem’ perhaps unusual to festival compères: the acts consistently being ready too soon. At an event where the onstage tech setup between performances basically consists of one person unplugging their instrument and the next plugging in and adjusting the height of the microphone, Black still managed to build a rapport while simultaneously dialling down his burlesque sensibilities (..almost – a suggestive Britney-related microphone incident did slip through the net. It’s fine. Maybe nobody noticed) to cater for the scattered preteens among us. He read the room well – audience and diverse performers alike – and gave the afternoon and evening sessions a cheeky, self-aware continuity that fits the ukulele perfectly.
First up were the Mother Ukers, just arrived in the DeLorean “from 1922, also known as Bournemouth”. Seasoned experts at taking chart songs of all genres and ukeifying them (that is to say, swinging the rhythm and adding chunky-chunky chords), their version of The Prodigy’s Firestarter never fails to raise a smile. Well done to them, too, for continuing my personal process of being slowly won over to the ukulele bass with a strong and tidy sound, simple but effective.
Peter Moss came next, bringing a steady hand, lots of solo experience and an air of quiet competence. He lets his uke do most of the talking, and was the only act to attempt a Roy Smeck number (Rockin’ The Uke) on the day. His Can-Can is classic ukulele entertainment, as are the quirks of his performance – staring down the audience, vaudeville-style, as he plays, and shouting “Hey!” with a big grin at the end of each piece.
The performance of classic rocker Ben Rouse, one of the festival’s organisers, was perhaps modestly low on the bill given his prowess and the stylistic variety he brings to the table. With many performers bringing in bass guitarists to counter the ukulele’s natural treble sound, a welcome variation was provided by Jamie Wilson, who accompanied Rouse’s entire set on cello. They’re not the first to think of it (see James Hill and Anne Janelle, among others), but low bowed strings complement the ukulele perfectly (the cello, played well, may be my favourite instrument to listen to anyway), and a song like AC/DC’s Thunderstruck isn’t really complete without the meaty, chugging rhythm part, impressive as it is played solo. This whole performance sounded great and lifted the energy in the theatre.
This was followed by sets from Michael Adcock, Vix & her MsChiefs and Seb Olway, all playing very different styles and winning over the audience in their own ways. But the afternoon session still had plenty left in the tank, with Italian Francesco Albertazzi – the day’s first non-Brit, treating us to some of his beguiling compositions and arrangements. With Andrea Negruzzo’s Einaudian piano accompaniment and Albertazzi’s Miloš-esque chops, this is the kind of softly-spoken music they play when you’re on hold to the car insurance company.. except half an hour of this might actually calm you down.
Two players who have their technical similarities but whose performance styles are very different are open-mic guru Krabbers and Bermudian Mike Hind (he’s from Bermuda, you know). Both kept it simple, playing low-key, strum-and-sing sets that included plenty of self-penned material, emotional at times but with plenty of laughs and audience participation too. Krabbers understands the power of a heartfelt rhyme, sung by a normal bloke over a Bbmaj7 chord (surely the saddest chord of them all), while managing to fit in a crude poo pun here and there for good measure. Hind (you know, from Bermuda), who played in the evening session, is evidently a seasoned stage entertainer, who bounces off the audience, his fellow performers in the wings, the compère – anyone he can find. It’s all about simply being together, laughing, crying and making music, and that always makes for a hugely rewarding experience for everyone.
Dead Mans Uke followed up their above-the-pub set earlier on by closing the afternoon session, ably accompanied by Scouse two-piece the Mersey Belles, whose backing vocals and smiley energy are a great fit for the father-son duo’s more deadpan humour and frenetic musical style.
After a break to choose from Southsea’s diverse restaurant selection (tapas, very nice, thanks for asking), we were back on track with Northampton boys Jono & The Uke Dealers, as close to true punk as you can get with two ukuleles instead of battered Strats. There’s that wonderful variety again – they even had a full drum kit! Their shoutalong song Life Is Chaos, mercifully, fell just short of inspiring a brutal mosh pit in the stalls.
Another visitor from the continent was next: unobtrusive and beguiling Belgian Ukulelezaza. Masterfully plucking away, lounging on a chair, he brings to mind a park-bench strummer playing only to amuse himself but looking down, surprised, to find a hat full of Euros at the end of the day. Listening to him play classic blues on a uke he made himself carries the same sense of relaxation of watching a master at work in any field, and his right-hand feel on a vintage Martin is a joy.
Then, a chance to watch British stalwart Phil Doleman at work. There’s a sense that he doesn’t need to hide at all, his ukulele doing all the work of a full band and accompanying his own rasping vocals. A fun and professional set, but left one question unanswered: what does Diddy Wah Diddy mean?
Victoria Vox treated us to a showcase of her considerable songwriting ability – if the next Bond film is set in Hawaii, she’s got a nailed-on theme song in Supermoon – along with charming vocals, inventive yet unfussy ukulele playing and her not-so-hidden talent, the mouth trumpet. An ‘instrument’ with popular roots in the early 20th Century that many people regard as exclusively a comedy device, and that’s harder to play than it seems? How could we not love it? Vox’s ‘chanson’ influences (she lived in France for a year, she informs us) show through the sense of mournful longing in Mon Coeur Vide – a beautifully stripped-back combination of baritone ukulele and breathy vocal.
The task of finishing the show fell into the capable hands of Aldrine Guerrero – he of those fab YouTube playalong videos – and he met the challenge with aplomb, harnessing all the day’s energy and guiding it to an awe-inspiring crescendo with the support of guitarist Aaron Nakamura. Playing in a similar virtuoso style to Jake Shimabukuro, but with perhaps a little less physical showmanship, Aldrine lets his incredible solo skills do all the work when taking on Santana’s Europa. A talent for songwriting is also clearly in evidence, though, in the sweet-as-pie With Love, From Italy. Listening to the accompanying story of his recent engagement, followed by the song’s jaunty beachside riffs, you start to wonder quite why Jason Mraz is so much better-known than Guerrero. Surely this, rather than I Won’t Give Up, or even I’m Yours, would make a better first dance at weddings? Get on it, people. This was one of those live performances that could either make you want to pack it all in completely or go home and practise until your fingers have biceps. I went home and practised. An amazing performance.
Unfortunately I couldn't stay around for the Late Night Ukulele Cabaret, but for those who could, the night was only just beginning. This entire event had a nice relaxed and accepting feel, and, spread out over a diverting shopping street near the seafront, a pleasant and prominent setting. The Kings Theatre itself played a starring role, an august and characterful yet unimposing venue that allowed the ukulele the breathing space it deserves without swamping it in empty space. There’s certainly the space, geographically speaking, for an annual event like this on the South coast, and hopefully the organisers, who did a sterling job, will be encouraged to do it all again for years to come.
I do enjoy a good quiz, and I've been a fan of free trivia website Sporcle for a while now, but how to combine this with a passion for the ukulele? A quick search for the instrument in amongst Sporcle's thousands of user-made games currently brings up a grand total of three quizzes. And two of them aren't exactly hugely challenging: 'What Does My Dog Have?' and 'Name the Strings on a Ukulele'. Head scratchers indeed.
So I've made my own! It's a lovely picture quiz with stills from films that (increasingly in the last 10 years) have hijacked the uke's natural charms to lend their characters some easy likability. There are a few old classics in the mix too - all you do is click 'Play' and start typing your answers.
Here's the link to my quiz 'Ukuleles on Film'. Note - this will work better on desktop than mobile. Let me know what you scored, and what you think.
The Half Moon pub in Putney is a proper music venue, boasting The Who, Kate Bush, U2 (yes, they did used to play in pubs, seemingly) and The Rolling Stones amongst past headliners. The single ukulele in pride of place on the wall next to the usual gifted guitars came, apparently, from Harry Hill and the Caterers. Not the most prestigious of acts, perhaps, and certainly not doing much for the ukulele’s ever-growing image as a ‘serious’ instrument, but the sign above the door to the performance space certainly had the punters talking: Uke Fest West. A full-day mini ukulele festival with workshops, stalls and an evening performance all crammed into that same room once graced by Mick Jagger and The Edge (and Harry Hill playing Smoke On The Water on the hornophone). The room itself was laid out with candlelit tables and chairs, but only enough for a lucky few early birds. With the rest of the crowd either standing or sitting around the edge of the room, this gave the beginning of the evening a slightly odd atmosphere. Someone even had a pair of Sunday roasts delivered to their table early on, the poor waiter having to politely elbow past audience members while carrying a plateful of meat and vegetables in each hand. Before too long, though, and with a good number of people through the door, it was time for the gig to begin.
Ben Rouse brought the curtain up with a solo set built on a foundation of ferocious speed and pounding rhythms. He did well, at times, to play over a slightly restless audience (including the aforementioned roast dinner brigade), soon holding the room’s full attention with his showboating style. There’s more than a whiff of heavy-metal-flamenco duo Rodrigo y Gabriela in his driving percussiveness and dramatic posturing. However, he also provides occasional breathing space with sensitive fingerpicking perhaps surprisingly good from a former rock guitarist. Crowd-pleasers Thunderstruck and Rolling in the Deep were present and correct, bringing some energy into the room – the reason Ben was the clear choice to open the show – but there’s certainly variety in there, including a gentle, almost Celtic feel in original composition The Fox and the Pussycat, an unexpected highlight of a really strong set.
Next up were hosts U Kew Lele, a group from the Richmond area. They represent a fairly wide age range, and explored a good mix of styles and eras over the course of a set that held the audience’s full attention for longer than can be expected from many amateur ukulele bands. Uke group standards like The Lumineers’ Ho Hey kept toes of all ages tapping and were sung with confidence and competence. There were fleeting chances for members to show off their individual skill, but a little more solo work wouldn’t go amiss – where’s that famous intro to Johnny B Goode? U Kew Lele’s overall sound is great, though, supported by a U-Bass with a lovely tone (well done to both the bassist and the sound engineer), occasional saxophone solos and a wonderful harmonica player who apparently used to play with Johnny Cash. I’m all for adding to the sometimes limited sound of ukulele groups with collaboration from instruments with varying timbres, and the harmonica achieves exactly that without overriding the joyous treble of the ukulele. This group embraces that ethos with open arms. Plus anyone that plays Raglan Road will always get my vote! A lot was made of the group being joined on stage by the Songbirds choir – a product of the same Ritz Music school as U Kew Lele – but their effect was lost somewhat by unsympathetic staging. It would have been nice to be able to see them! As this was a ‘world first’ collaboration, though, these details can surely be ironed out in future. Well done to U Kew Lele, overall, on an engaging and endearing performance.
And so on we pushed, through some aching backs and feet in the audience (perhaps just me – I’m sure I used to be able to stand up for hours on end with no problem..), to the headline act. Sarah Maisel and Craig Chee are an inconceivably talented engaged couple from San Diego who have combined their differing genres and voices to make something wonderful. Sarah approaches the ukulele with a focus on early 20th Century jazz and blues standards, while Craig seems to come from a more modern, Jake Shimabukuro-inspired place, and their warm, heartfelt original songs bring together elements from these styles and more. Assisted more than ably by the impressive James Agg (from Cheltenham) on double bass, Chee and Maisel glided through the early exchanges with the easy confidence of true professionals. Their voices, with two very distinct tones, blend with heavenly ease and their on-stage sincerity gives both of them an enviable immediate likeability. This – combined with some astounding ukulele playing, of course – meant their whole set flew by in what seemed like a few minutes. In reality, the audience was treated to nearly an hour of true musicianship from ukes and bass alike.
In all, it’s fair to say the first Uke Fest West was very successful, as evidenced by the fact I saw more than one person buying an instrument from the Noah Ukuleles stall straight after one of the acts. If it's inspiring people, what more can you ask for? Surely the next step in the ukulele’s friendly conquest of Britain is to have more events like this in the capital. London needs to up its game in terms of big uke shows and Uke Fest West is exactly the sort of thing we need. Here’s to many more!
Other recent blog posts:
The Ukulele Gift Minefield
10 British Ukulele Players You Should Know
While experiencing that birthday feeling again recently, and being one of those people that's maddeningly difficult to buy for, my thoughts turned to my fellow uke players around the world. There's a rising tide of ukulele-themed presents that are out there, vying for the penny, dime, rand or Euro of your partner, parents and desperate brother-in-law alike, and it's a hugely mixed bag. You might be given the useful little time-saving gadget you didn't know you needed, a strange little design that perfectly sums up your obsession, or you could be saddled with a ukestache tank top. It really can go either way. Let's dive in at the deep end and take a look at some of the best and worst ukulele gifts that could be landing in your lap on one of those two special days this year.
(I should note here that I've appreciated, and used, every ukulele-based gift I've ever received... But I've been one of the lucky ones!)
This covers anything that could conceivably become part of your everyday playing, whether practising at home or performing to others. Straps, capos and electronic tuners are perhaps the most common (and all totally acceptable, by the way - making the uke easier to play is the whole point!). The ukulele strap world is still catching up to the guitar, but you can get your hands on something more interesting than the standard black or khaki - see right (available at the Southern Ukulele Store). There are also plenty of options for ukulele stands and wall hangers (for ease of access in ukemergencies), as well as increasing numbers of manufacturers making their own leather or felt picks. I usually go to British-based Ukulele Plectrums to get feltrum sets for my younger pupils, who love the variety of colours you can get. Please, please can we stop selling plastic picks to use with ukuleles though? I know you're reading this, Amazon!
Anything you can play without using your hands can be played at the same time as a ukulele. If you've got shoelaces, you can use the nifty little low-tech gadget you see to your left - the Toe Tapper. If you've got shoelaces and anything resembling musical timing, you're 100% of the way to learning its use.
Here's a nice idea for the most vocally challenged member of your group: occupy those lungs elsewhere with a harmonica and holder! (Although I'd be more concerned with whatever bizarre chord that suave chap appears to be playing...) And, although we all know it's far too silly to be spoken of in the same breath as an instrument as serious and austere as the ukulele, the humble kazoo can also be an efficient and cost-effective way to ramp up those crucial silliness levels in your performance. We all remember this guy, surely? Just me? Well there he is anyway. That could be you, you know, with a bit of investment and a bit (a lot) too much time on your hands.
Ukulele Artwork: The Good, the Weird and the Ugly. And the Weird again.
Despite my natural aversion to wall art consisting of grammar-free text, I can't help liking this poster (see right), available from Zazzle and containing nods to some of the most important people, places and manufacturers in uke history. There's also a handy reminder of the spelling of 'Kamakawiwo'ole', and the word 'mahogany'... In case you really like the word 'mahogany'.
There are plenty of cheap and occasionally cheerful options in the world of badges, to be worn on clothing, strap or anything else you can put a pin through. Here's a tiny political message that could appeal to both the pacifist and heavy metal crowds in different ways (although the two aren't mutually exclusive, of course). Then there's the aforementioned 'Ukestache', and the occasional oddity that makes me wonder if I've missed the joke and then promptly make a mental list of my nine most understanding friends.
Another one I'm enjoying - a simple but effective chord chart t-shirt. Perhaps better bought for your non-uke-playing friend or partner, the equivalent to that bowling ball Homer Simpson bought for Marge. You can even buy uke chord temporary tattoos now, if you're really really cool.
Slogans: Approach with Caution
Without even mentioning the 'Keep Calm...' nonsense that still pervades all corners of the gift market (including this niche), there's something about most ukulele slogans that just doesn't hit the right note with me.
It could be the fact that you can seemingly just slap them on anything now without nuance, thanks to the (otherwise very helpful) internet. Exhibit A: the Comic Sans disaster to your left (£44 + P&P).
Don't get me wrong - if kept simple, slogans can be an accurate and concise way of summarising your passion for the world (take "Peace, Love, Ukulele" for example). It's just that they can so easily stray into overly-cutesy territory ("Happiness Is Playing My Ukulele"; "Uke Are My Sunshine" (?!)) or try to shoehorn generic humour - "Trust Me, I Can Play The Ukulele"; "Got Uke?".
For the most passive-aggressive among us, there's this friendly badge to ward off anything unwanted like sharing or friendships. Or this one, to wear to your wedding or work Christmas party. I mean, some of these are just gibberish, right?
Then there's this kamikaze car sign. Disclaimer: use at your own risk.
OK, I'll stop the slogan-bashing there, partly because the name of this very website can almost definitely be defined as a slogan, but there's a lot of cut-and-paste rubbish out there, seemingly written by some marketing company, that tries to apply to everyone and only makes us all yawn. Why not come up with a slogan yourself that defines your own unique relationship with the ukulele and all the joy and satisfaction it brings? Then you don't even have to put it on a t-shirt - use your mouth (or keyboard) to say it in a real, two-way human conversation! Or just enjoy playing your instrument and don't overthink it: up to you.
Disagree/agree with me? What's the best/worst ukulele-themed present you've been given? Please do comment below.
Good luck out there! - Jon
People who like the ukulele also like other fun and exciting things, right? Well, here's a song I wrote yesterday about British birds and voting. What?
Featuring me wearing my least daring knitwear and singing with all the confidence and panache of a fainted goat. Comment, share, enjoy! Oh, and Vote for a Bird.
So the electoral race is almost run
But if you want something more permanent and fun
There's a new debate of candidates with a different kind of bill
If all the earthbound legislation is enough to make you ill,
Vote for a bird, vote for a bird, Which feathered friend do you most love to see?
Who's your preferred? You must have heard
Who our nation's favourite avian could be
Well the robin's quite the favourite in the mix
He was successful wearing red in '66.
50 years ago we voted him the nation's #1
It was never made official but now his chance has come!
And Jenny wren's another common little thing
You wouldn't think she's quite so small to hear her sing
Then there's the blue tit - just look at it
He wears a Zorro mask 'cause he's a bandit
If you appreciate the colour that they bring,
Vote for a bird, vote for a bird. Which feathered friend do you most love to see?
It's not just for nerds, don't be absurd!
Anyone can vote, it's absolutely free
A couple of these birds live underground
Like the puffin - she's not here all year around
They love the summer sun but when it's done they scarper off to sea
They may bring lots of colour but they're awful absentees
The kingfisher's sharp beak might cause alarm
But if you've got lungs then you won't come to harm
Then there's the mute swan - the posh one
Her majesty likes them with tea and scones
And if you don't choose him he'll come and break your arm (apparently)
Vote for a bird, vote for a bird, which feathered friend do you most love to see?
If you've been spurred and your heart is stirred
The website can be found quite easily
Hen harrier's the saddest of the lot
To protect our famous grouse they all got shot
See barn owls hooting, swooping like ghosties in the night
Plus they've got those heads that swivel so they're neither left nor right
Red kites - hooray - they might be bouncing back
If you want a bird that glides she's got the knack
How about the blackbird? Yes that bird that the Beatles told to fly
They're already leadin' Sweden and the girls aren't even black
Vote for a bird, vote for a bird
This is our chance for true democracy
I've run out of words that rhyme with bird
Don't believe their manifesto, they're just feathering their nest-oh
Let's find out who our national bird will be
And you should also vote in the general election if you can.
Heard and enjoyed the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain? Got yourself a ukulele? Great! (And if not, why not?) While the UOGB have their many merits, though – including having helped to spark a real revival in the ukulele’s fortunes worldwide – there’s now much more to British uke life than strumming along to Ode to Joy in your local concert hall. So, for the first ever Ukes Up blog post, here’s a rundown (in no particular order) of - in my opinion - some of the UK’s best and most interesting solo ukulele players. They're a diverse bunch, covering a wide range of playing styles and ages, so there’s sure to be something to pique the interest of any willing ukeist. Enjoy!
Have I missed anyone? Think you deserve a mention? Want to let me know what a fool I’ve been? Feel free to do so in the comments section below: I’d love to hear what you think.
Related: 10 Young Ukulele Players To Be Impressed By
Jon Allen: uke teacher and occasional songwriter