Róisín Ingle: Why this little bit of wood and plastic is just fantastic
Some claim the ukulele is not an instrument, except maybe of torture. That’s just snobbery
Bressie reckons we should give every politician a ukulele. Photograph: iStock/Getty
A while back, when I was lamenting the fact that I hadn’t learned anything in lockdown – apart from the facts that oven-roasted Brussels sprouts are delicious and that I don’t fancy working in an office again – a friend let me borrow her little yellow ukulele.
I am keenly aware that, with this opening paragraph, I am taking a serious gamble. The ukulele has been massively rehabilitated and even celebrated by hipster types in recent years, but, in my experience, ukulele-loathing remains a very real phenomenon. Some people really did not appreciate the plinky-plonk ukulele covers of rock anthems that were, for a while, the musical backdrop of every second TV and radio ad. So, yes, I am aware that I have lost some readers, but, for those who remain, I promise to try to make this worth your while.
(This column will also contain Bressie. Wait, come back.)
Anybody can learn to play the uke, which has been, eh, instrumental in bringing a lot of happiness and comfort to people, especially in recent times
My friend let me borrow her ukulele after being given a more expensive version of the instrument. Some of you will be arguing that the ukulele is not an instrument, except maybe of torture, but that’s just mean-spirited snobbery.
The ukulele may be humble, but it has sweet, soft strings and produces charming music. Also, anybody can learn to play the uke, which has been, eh, instrumental in bringing a lot of happiness and comfort to people, especially in recent times. More of which later.
If any ukulele-haters are still reading (fair play to you) you might be surprised to learn that it’s quite easy to spend hundreds of euro on a ukulele. In motoring terms, my friend’s very fancy uke is like something Elon Musk might drive compared to my Dinky car of a thing. But uke lovers don’t indulge in oneupukeship, a word I just invented that looks strange now I write it down. Ukulele evangelists are all about the democratisation of music.
Whether you have a toyshop uke or a uke made from mahogany, such as the Ziegenspeck Sunrise Ukulele Concert, which costs €1,500, all ukes are worthy of praise in this welcoming environment.
The ukulele, as an instrument, stands for love and peace and equality. As the American artist Amanda Palmer sings in her fantastic Ukulele Anthem, warning against the perils of not allowing people to sing and scream: “It takes about an hour to teach someone to play the ukulele, about the same to teach someone to build a standard pipe bomb. You do the math.” Indeed.
The first person I ever saw play the ukulele was George Formby. He was singing When I’m Cleanin’ Windows with that big, toothy smile. But I fell in love with the instrument when my friend Anna sat in my house one evening years ago and sang a sweet song called Hares on a Mountain accompanied by her trusty uke.
My friend Simone, who loaned me her little yellow uke, does a scarily brilliant ukulele version of You Bloody Mother F**king Asshole by Martha Wainwright
It’s only in lockdown that I took up the instrument myself. I was delighted to discover I could play the F chord easily, something I was never able to master on guitar. I can now play my favourite pop songs, from Sigrid to Taylor Swift, on the ukulele. My friend Simone, who loaned me her little yellow uke, prefers tunes by Lana Del Rey, and does a scarily brilliant ukulele version of You Bloody Mother F**king Asshole by Martha Wainwright.
Lorraine Bow, who runs a company called Learn to Uke, made the point once that “people who say ‘bloody ukulele players making s**t music’ are ignoring the fact that connecting with one another through music is part of our make-up as human beings”. Which brings us to Mullingar’s finest, Bressie, aka Niall Breslin, author, musician and mental-health advocate.
He’s had a very good pandemic, recently winning a podcast award in Britain for his show Where Is My Mind? Early in lockdown he came up with the idea of sending ukuleles to people who were cocooning, including a lot of older folk but also those with a variety of health conditions, many of whom were living alone. He got 700 emails from people keen to take part.
It started with 45 ukuleles from Music Maker, which managed to get another few hundred, and then An Post got involved, and in the end more than 400 instruments were sent to people all over the country to help soothe their lockdown experience. Bressie’s Blizzards colleague Justin did a six-week online ukulele course, and this week Bressie’s Ukulele Lockdown Rockdown released a cover of Home, by Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, with a video made on one of those gloriously sunny lockdown days.
I rang Bressie to ask him about the ukulele-haters, and he laughed and told me about one message he got. “This guy said, ‘You’re supposed to be helping people’s mental health, but you’ve just sent out 400 ukuleles to people who’ve never played music before, and my dad is downstairs playing it, and I’m losing my mind here...’ but even he had to admit, in the end, it was making his dad happy.”
I will leave the last word on the joy of ukuleles to Amanda Palmer: “You’ll minimise some stranger’s sadness, with a piece of wood and plastic. Holy f**k it’s so fantastic, playing ukulele.”
Actually, I’ll leave the very last, absolutely final word to Bressie. “We need to send ukuleles to everyone in the Dáil,” he told me. “This would be a much better country if every single politician could play the ukulele.”