Master of the jumping flea

Jerry Williams onstage at Wedgewood Rooms. Picture: Paul Windsor

REVIEW: Jerry Williams at Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea

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Utter the words ‘George’ and ‘Formby’ in the same sentence and Ben Rouse raises his eyebrows.

Utter the words ‘George’ and ‘Formby’ in the same sentence and Ben Rouse raises his eyebrows.

‘It’s still the first thing most people associate with the ukulele. They go ‘‘ting, ting, ting’’ and talk about cleaning windows,’ he sighs.

But he would be the last person to dismiss the cheeky ukulele-playing comedian, actor and singer-songwriter who shot to superstardom in the 1930s in the music halls and on film.

‘Let’s be honest, you can’t ignore him. He’s a huge part of the history of the instrument, but there is so much more to the uke than George Formby.’

Next weekend Ben and fellow uke player Mark Griffiths will set out to prove how versatile it is by organising Portsmouth’s first international ukulele festival to be held at the Kings Theatre, Southsea.

Ben, 38, would never admit it, but he is one of Britain’s leading uke players. He is so sought-after that he recently made his debut with the band which has transformed the instrument’s image in the past decade.

He has just deputised for a player in the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, the evening dress-clad group who are fast becoming household names having appeared at Glastonbury, on Jools Holland and headlining numerous festivals at home and abroad.

‘I was so lucky to be asked,’ says Ben who now plays the uke for a living.

‘I’d obviously made an impression and George Hinchliffe, the founder and musical director, asked me to fill in recently. It was a huge honour and I’m really hoping they’ll be more.

‘The orchestra, which plays everything from Hawkwind, Nirvana and AC/DC to Bach with bags of humour and fun, has done more for the ukulele than anyone else since Formby.

‘It’s suddenly become incredibly trendy,’ says Ben.

If you doubt what he says about his beloved instrument, take a look at portsmouth.co.uk to watch him in action, producing sounds you might never have thought possible from a uke.

As you might suspect, Ben, who grew up at Gosport and now lives in Southsea, had no intention of ever playing the instrument with the Hawaiin name meaning jumping flea because of the speed at which fingers leap between the frets.

‘I’d been a pro guitarist for years, but when I started with the uke my career suddenly took off.

‘I keep bumping into old friends from my guitar-playing days. They ask what I’m doing now and they can’t get their head around the ukulele. They tend to say: ‘’Really? What a waste after all those years playing guitar’’.

‘I tell them it’s not quite what they think, that it’s not a joke instrument.’

Ben admits, after some pressing, that, yes, he is one of those intensely annoying people who can pick up an instrument and play it – well.

Violin, flute, trumpet, saxophone and mandolin are among those on the list.

‘Yes, I can just pick up an instrument and get a tune out of it, but it won’t be any good. What I do do however, is spend a huge amount of time sitting for hours and hours practicing until it looks as though I’ve just picked it up.’

He continues: ‘I started on the drums when I was about nine. Music lessons had started at school and I wanted to play guitar, but you had to buy one and we couldn’t afford it

‘I did the drums for about two years and enjoyed it, but when I was 12 my grandparents bought me a guitar and that was it. I sat down with it every day and played and played and played.’

Now at Bridgemary School, Gosport, his teachers began to take notice, especially the guitar-playing ones.

‘Me and the teachers formed a band. We played at all the drama productions and that forced me to learn to play the guitar properly.’

He adds: ‘At 16 I knew I wanted to be a rock star so I got an electric guitar. I dedicated my whole life to that ambition. I did session work, got my own bands together, did small tours and started writing my own material.

‘But it never happened. Life simply got in the way.’

Oh, how age changes us. Ben now spends much of his time composing classical pieces for the ukulele and adapting JS Bach for the instrument.

But considering his instrument repertoire Ben came to the ukulele late.

‘I was 27 and working in the Gosport music shop, Just Music, when the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain got big.

‘They were playing on Jools Holland and everyone was going ‘’wow, what an instrument that is’’, so we started to stock them in the shop and I bought one thinking it was no more than a fun toy.’

Such is the popularity of the instrument, there are now two ukulele clubs in Portsmouth, the Portsmouth Ukulele Jam and the Pompey Pluckers.

‘What I learned very quickly is that they certainly are not a toy, but a serious instrument.

‘The Orchestra of Great Britain started a revolution in uke playing,’ adds Ben. ‘They’re really easy to learn. They’re small therefore portable and ideal for children.

‘Perhaps the best thing is that they are cheap. You can pick one up for £20 and be happy with it for a long time.’

He adds: ‘Next weekend will be the biggest ukulele festival ever held on the south coast, with some of the world’s biggest stars.

‘Watch these guys and you’ll never think about cleaning windows or ting, ting, ting again.’

FESTIVAL

’Yes, it’s a gamble, but Mark Griffiths and I thought it had to be one worth taking,’ says Ben Rouse about the Grand Southern Ukulele Festival at the Kings Theatre, Southsea, next weekend.

It’s a first for Portsmouth and whether you are an amateur plucker, experienced strummer or simply intriuged by the instrument’s potential, there’s something for you.

Ben is on the bill, but he and Mark are thrilled their headliner is one of the world’s leading uke virtuosos – Aldrine Gurrero from Hawaii.

Ben says: ‘Google ‘‘how to play the ukulele’’ and Aldrine’s name will come up first. He runs the biggest uke learning resource on the internet, his videos have had more than seven million views. Anyone who has started to play the uke will have watched him.’

Next Saturday’s festival runs from 10am until about about 11pm at the theatre, but there are also jam sessions and workshops at The Kings pub opposite the theatre from 8pm on Friday and throughout Saturday.

The festival spreads farther along Albert Road with events at the Edge of the Wedge and at the Wedgewood Rooms.

The latter includes a late-night Saturday gig, after the events at the theatre finish, which will include a burlesque-style concert hosted by Joe Black.

Ben says: ‘This is a chance for people to see the explicit, naughty side of the ukulele. ‘

For full details of the event go to kingsportsmouth.co.uk.