In the basement of a pub in central London, just off Oxford Street, some 50 people, from students to middle-aged couples, are crammed around tables chatting. Suddenly a call goes out: “Maggie May!” and everyone in the place flips to the right page in their songbooks. They each whip out a ukulele – some expensive concert instruments, others cheap, brightly coloured toy versions – and start strumming.
A man shouts, “one, two, three, four” over the din, and they all start singing Rod Stewart’s hit in unison.
It’s Ukulele Wednesday at the Royal George, a London institution that will celebrate its fifth birthday this coming spring. The weekly get-together was set up by Lorraine Bow, who went to a ukulele workshop on a whim and wanted a way to stay in touch with the other members of the group. It has grown since then to the point where latecomers are forced to sit on the stairs in order to squeeze in.
Last year Keira Knightley was one of the many uke fans who squashed into a corner with her instrument and sang along with everyone else.
Others have included Dave Brock, the singer from Hawkwind, and a gatecrashing Polish tuba player whose rigged-up tuba shot flames into the air when he played certain notes.
“That was pretty spectacular,” said Paul Redfern, who helps run the sessions. He compares the experience of finding a community of ukulele players to Harry Potter arriving at Hogwarts: “There are Muggles, and then there’s this other world.”
The strangest thing about Ukulele Wednesdays is that it doesn’t feel strange at all: it’s becoming an increasingly commonplace sight in London to see big groups strumming ukes together, not to mention the ukulele bands, orchestras and other meet-ups that happen virtually every night of the week. Since 2006, London has even had its own dedicated ukulele shop – the first in the world outside Tokyo – called the Duke of Uke. Hanging on its walls are instruments signed by Gina Birch from The Raincoats, the actress Cybill Shepherd, and the film star Jack Black, who popped in to buy a ukulele the last time he was in the country.
The trend isn’t just happening in the UK, either; it’s worldwide. Whether you want to point to Eddie Vedder and his latest album Ukulele Songs, released in May this year; Zooey Deschanel’s fondness for the instrument; the actor Ryan Gosling serenading Michelle Williams with one during last year’s film Blue Valentine or the uke strummed by the country-pop starlet Taylor Swift, there’s no doubt that the great ukulele revival is here. And, according to the Duke of Uke’s owner Matthew Reynolds, who has looked at sales figures over the years, it’s the biggest wave yet.
So big, in fact, that the instrument has got its very own documentary. First released in Canada last year, Mighty Uke (subtitled The Amazing Comeback of a Musical Underdog) has been touring the world for the past 18 months, with its filmmakers and a duo of musicians in tow. The director Tony Coleman and his crew have already shown their film in Japan, Hawaii, New Zealand, the US, Europe and Israel, and screenings are currently being scheduled for China and Thailand. “People are discovering that making your own music is good for you,” he says while having a smoke outside a cinema between a workshop and screening. “We’ve left a trail of ukulele players and ukulele clubs over the past year and a half.”
Mighty Uke traces the roots of the tiny, four-stringed, guitar-shaped instrument from its journey from Portugal to Hawaii in the 1800s, through a hula-themed craze in the 1920s, another peak in the 1950s, and the revival of the past decade. It tracks down not only virtuoso performers and ageing Hawaiians who get together to jam, but a Canadian school in which ukes are used to teach music, resulting in a generation of passionate ukulele whizz kids.
What’s clear in the film, as it is when you talk to anyone who’s ever noodled on a ukulele, is that the instrument isn’t just democratic because it’s cheap to buy, small to carry and easy to play.
There’s also something about its chirpy, plinking sound that makes people smile, and that tends to make them bond with other players. A ukulele doesn’t stoke the ego the way a guitar can, and so ukulele gatherings are generally welcoming affairs.
“People crave a genuine experience,” Coleman says. “We are so marketed to now, and with the ukulele, it’s just about being in a room with a bunch of other ukulele players, making songs and making happy. No one is posing and there’s no hidden agenda.”
On a “loftier” level, he says, humans have made music for thousands of years, until the record player was invented “and we were told we were no longer good enough and we had to go out and buy the music and sit there and listen to it”.
That’s wrong, he thinks. “We should be making it together.”
Coleman himself was working at the Canadian Broadcasting Centre as a director and editor, playing bass in bands in the evenings, until he was bequeathed a ukulele by his older sister, who died of cancer, and started writing songs on it. “All of a sudden I was writing songs like I’d never written before,” he says. “All these barriers were disappearing.” After making the documentary and making friends around the globe on the way, he says he doesn’t know whether to “make another film next or open a ukulele shop”.
According to Matthew Reynolds, the ukulele movement shows no signs of slowing, and a new generation of folk and country-influenced bands, such as Noah and the Whale, The Wave Pictures, Beirut and Tune-Yards are popularising the instrument for a new generation. As well as its versatility (Vedder likes to ask himself “can I make this happy little instrument as depressed as I am?”), part of the appeal of the uke for these bands is its plucky punk spirit.
“It stands as a simple instrument,” Reynolds says. “And what crosses over from the punk aesthetic to the folk aesthetic is the simple fact that anyone can do it. I think that’s what makes it the people’s instrument.”