The Preston Ukulele Strummers Society: Bringing the unique ukulele sounds of Hawaii to the North West
There’s a Hawaiian revolution taking place in Preston. The weather may not quite be as tropical as one would hope and floral shirts are purely optional, but the soundtrack is bang on point. After all, it’s what the Preston Ukulele Strummers Society does best.
Translating roughly as ‘jumping flea’ in homage to a player’s nimble fingers, the word ukulele can’t help but inspire a pang of happiness, so indelibly associated with sunshine, beaches, and fruity cocktails is it. Originally founded in 2012, the Preston Ukulele Strummers Society is out to capture some of that joy and spread it around the North West.
Having previously met at the Korova Arts Café in Preston, the group was temporarily disbanded after the café closed around four years ago, but has been resurrected and nurtured over the past two-and-a-half years by member Martyn Rawlinson. Now meeting most Sundays at the Guild Ale House, the society regularly welcomes up to 20 musicians to each session. The good times are back.
"The Guild Ale House have a lovely room upstairs, so I thought I'd give it a go and restart it,” explained Martyn, 49. “I saw it as a challenge: I wasn't the best ukulele player but you improve the more you play, so I wondered if I could actually run the group and ever since then it's been really good.”
Name checking the likes of John Bullivant, who helps organise the group; Stuart Rambridge, who steps in for Martyn at times; and John Cruickshank, a local musician who's knowledge is ‘amazing’, Martyn says that he could not have got the society back on its feet without plenty of help. And the group is thriving.
Having recruited a ukulele bass player and an accordion player to ‘augment their sound’, the society has performed at numerous events, including The Lancashire Encounter Festival and the Parbold Ukulele Festival, and are gearing up for the wonderfully-sounding Garstang Ice Cream Festival, the Preston Pulse Community Celebration Day at the end of the month, and the Preston Arts Festival in September.
Going international, the group have also taken part in a twinning exchange with Preston's sister city, Recklinghausen in Germany, and have another twinning visit to Kalisz in Poland in the diary for later in the year. And when they’re not jet-setting or headlining local events, they’re playing for residents in local care homes for free.
“We're doing loads of stuff and it's really good at the moment,” said Martyn, who is Preston born and bred. “I enjoy it; I enjoy getting people together and playing, watching them improve. The community part is massive; one of the regulars said on the Facebook group that it feels like a family. That's how communal it is, and everyone supports each other, it's really welcoming.”
More than welcoming to beginners, Martyn says the group – which is free – has experienced increased interest in part due to Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's beautiful ukulele cover of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which went viral, and to the timeless music of George Formby.
"We tend to practise sets for events, but we do have a free-for-all session after practise where someone suggests a song and we all play together. Quite often, that's the best part, just jamming,” said Martyn, who is the Resources and Performance Cabinet Member for Preston Council. “The ukulele is easier to learn than many other instruments and it's inexpensive - you can pick them up second hand for £10. For people who've always wanted to play a musical instrument but haven't had the opportunity, it's an easy way in.
“Everyone enjoys joining a group, strumming along, and having fun,” he added. “I enjoy the group the best when everyone's talking and getting to know each other; talking about stuff that's not about ukuleles, making friends as they go along. I just stand back and let it happen because that's a big part of it, letting it form organically.
"It really is a communal instrument, it gets people together,” Martyn said. “People seem to smile when they hear it."