(Jacqui Wicks writes about her love for the Ukulele)
Five years ago (2008) I went to see a show at The Edinburgh Festival. It was called ‘Learn To Play The Ukulele in Under and Hour’ … I was excited! I don’t know why, I’d never thought about the ukulele before, I just saw it in the programme and thought ‘WE’RE DOING THAT!’. Everyone in the audience was given a brightly coloured Mahalo Ukulele and invited to ‘learn to play it in under an hour’.
During the course of the show we learnt how Sam Brown (writer, director and performer) had become fascinated and a little bit obsessed with the ukulele having found a pile of ukulele sheet music amongst his recently departed dad’s belongings. We learnt how he’d quickly gone from mocking those afflicted by the ukulele bug to becoming one of them. After 55 minutes I was in. I’d mastered ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ and was desperate to own my own ukulele.
I started to play. I could remember vague chord shapes from my teenage guitar playing years and set about trying to teach myself to play. It was way easier than guitar, fewer strings, more space on the fretboard and so much more portable.
The first time I played it in public was at a jazz gig in Bradford. I wowed (ok I’m exaggerating) the audience with my ‘Ring Of Fire’ and broke into a massive sweat as I limped through three chords. My band were very accommodating , amused really I think, but accommodating non-the-less. It soon became a regular feature. I’d demonstrate that I was a reasonably competent jazz vocalist and then at the end of the gig, once I’d got an audience on side, I’d whip out the ukulele for a spot of Light Entertainment whilst the band looked on with the kind of benign smile parents reserve for their child playing a lead in the school nativity.
Thing is. I soon realised that I could learn a lot from this little instrument.
Over the next three years the Uke played a bigger and bigger part in my musical life. It peaked for me when after a rousing blues set at Glastonbury in 2010 I whipped out the ukulele and did an encore on my own, the band despatched to the bar (sorry lads). It was an acoustic version of ‘Here Comes The Sun’ to a packed Jazz and Blues Stage and I loved it, the audience loved it. There’s something about the space created by the human voice accompanied by the ukulele that is magical. Encores at gigs were always accompanied by cries for ‘More Ukulele’ … and the ultimate joy came when I actually played WITH my own band when we headlined Marsden Jazz Festival in 2010. That singing lark is for the birds but playing an instrument in your own band is a genuine thrill.
In October 2010 I was so enamoured by my little ukulele that I decided to start my own club in Ossett. Ossett Observer didn’t exist then so I, Jacqui Wicks, started The Uku-ladies. It was a gals only affair. We met round my gaff every Wednesday night and learnt to play together. By December we’d done our first gig. We joined lots of other musicians at Bar 1:22 in Huddersfield for a night of Beatles tunes and shared our rendition of ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’. There was sweat, joy, adrenalin and much laughter from our merry band but the thrill of doing our first gig couldn’t be beaten.
The Uku-Ladies went from strength to strength. Local coffee shop Eller Coffee invited us to sing some Christmas songs at their cafe and whilst it’s not difficult to pack Eller Coffee we had our first experiences of packing it to the ginnels with folks wanting to hear these tiny instruments. After two years of Uku-Ladies it was time to let the lads in and Ossett Ukulele Club was born.
In the past 18 months the Ukulele Club has become a major part of the Ossett Observer story, a major part of my story. It was initially a filler, something I could do to put into our programme of things to offer back to Ossett when we started Ossett Observer. I never imagined that like me, others would find themselves completely hooked and that it would grow in quite the way it has.
In December 2012 we received Arts Council Funding to develop the club. We’ve now got a performing band, the grandly but not inappropriately titled ‘Ossett Ukulele Philharmonia’ and the beginners sessions, still held monthly at Eller Coffee. We’ve done performances at Bradford Cathedral, Slunglow, Wakefield Literature Festival, The Hepworth Gallery, Theatre Royal Wakefield , Long Division Festival, Disability Rocks, Junction Goole, Grassington Festival and in our home town.
I’ve seen members grow in confidence and skill in the past two years. I’ve seen friendships made and opportunities to learn grasped in a way that makes my heart soar. The personal testimony of some of our members as to the difference it’s made to their lives is on occasion very moving. Ukulele as rehabilitation, Ukulele as a social motivator, Ukulele as confidence builder. It’s more than a musical instrument.
In July this year Ossett Ukulele Philharmonia will become an independent community music project. It’s time for me and for Ossett Observer to concentrate on other things. I’m not leaving the band. Oh No! For as long as they want me I’ll be their band leader but the next phase in the Ossett Ukulele story is yet to come with the group becoming self managing and owned by the members. I hope to see individuals playing their own gigs, starting their own bands and finding themselves part of a wider community of musicians and enthusiasts who all, like me, LOVE their Ukulele.