The ukulele theory: save yourself with passionate performance


GIVE ME A BREAK:Ukulele players are obsessed and everyone else should be too – with our lives, loves and displays of talent, writes KATE HOLMQUIST

NEW SYNDROMES are ten a penny, yet still fascinating. The latest is UAS — ukulele acquisition syndrome. Sufferers purchase ukuleles only to find they can’t stop playing them, a bit like the girl in Hans Christian Anderson’s The Red Shoes, who can’t stop dancing. She keeps going until she would rather die, yet even when an executioner does as she asks and chops off her feet, replacing them with wooden ones, the red shoes won’t stop dancing and it’s only when she reaches heaven that she finds spiritual acceptance without needing to perform.

Google “ukulele” and you will find a strange red-shoe world with a population of self-styled ukulele artists who can’t stop playing and need an audience. There’s a ukulele club in Sandycove, Co Dublin, on the second Saturday of every month, and tonight King Kukulele is playing at the Odessa Club in Dublin.

The ukulele is the perfect recession-busting instrument – cheap to buy, requiring little talent to play, and just the right size to fit in your carry-on. Once you start, you can’t stop. Having been trapped on a flight beside a UAS-sufferer who carried on playing through the pilot’s announcements, the inedible in-flight meal and the unwatchable movie, I can testify first hand that ukulele-players are obsessed.

You could argue that these people are in denial of the digital-media twitter age. Do they want to go back to the Renaissance when a troubadour could turn up in the village and be idolised without the need for amplification, PR and X Factor judges? Or are these ukulele rebels prescient of the collective need for what we now call “live” experience, as opposed to the dead experience of consumer media?

Being on Facebook requires nothing like the courage of standing up and playing your ukulele in front of a potentially hostile crowd. Yet a friend of mine jealously guards his reputation as the “world’s worst uke player”, because he has met the friendliest people he’s ever known in the world community of ukelele players, even though he plays badly.

I think he’s on to something. We all need to be recognised in our local community – be we butchers, bakers, or uke-players. Ireland still has communities where everybody knows your name, to quote Cheers, and this glue that holds us together should be nurtured, even if it means you can’t wash your smalls without someone knowing.

Being a naturally solitary and obsessive writer, who will keep writing until I die, I think writers and ukulele addicts have a lot in common. Despite our shyness we need to engage with an audience, so much so that we’re perversely immune to public embarrassment, even at the risk of seeming as freakish as greasy-haired Tiny Tim tip-toeing through the tulips.

We create because we have to do it – even without electronic devices, synthesisers, cute backing singers and an agent. We write because we know, deep down, that our stories are important.

So here is my ukulele theory of writing: your instrument is your lap-top and you write not just to entertain people, but to keep yourself dancing. Real music with real people in real time sounds more beautiful than music synthesised on your iPod. Who cares if people ridicule you? Feel it and play the music anyway. Anyone can do it.

I’m on firm ground here, because for the Irish, writing is the ukulele of choice. Thousands have a book inside them, as the popularity and abundance of writers’ festivals illustrate. Trying to get paid for this work is a fool’s errand, usually, but that doesn’t mean you should stop. Keep a private journal, however mundane daily life may seem. Think of it as playing a sweet song on your ukulele for your ears only. Someday you’ll read your journal back to yourself and realise the incredible journey your life has been, and you may even find that an audience finds it interesting as well.

Two writers I most admire, Brian Keenan and Martina Devlin, have shared their journeys and survived by turning their experiences into musical words. They have graciously agreed to let me interview them (admission free) upstairs at the Country Bake in Dalkey this Sunday at 12.30pm as part of the Dalkey Book Festival, which has dozens of such events. Sian Smyth (married to David McWilliams) has launched this first ever festival on what I now formally dub the ukulele theory: bring real people together in a real place to share real talent, and somehow there will be real magic.

Sian has managed to pull in all the neighbours – Maeve Binchy, Conor McPherson, John Waters, Ross O’Carroll Kelly, Joseph O’Connor, Mark Little, Marita Conlon-McKenna and many others. All troubadours of the written word who are contributing their talents because they want to keep the community of Dalkey alive. If someone brings a ukulele, so much the better.

King Kukulele plays the Odessa Club tonight at 8pm, €8. The Dalkey Book festival takes place this Friday, Saturday and Sunday.