More people are playing the ukulele than ever before. Stuart Anderson met the Pompey Pluckers, a group that strums for charity.
It’s a small, sunny instrument that’s becoming the star of the amateur music scene.
More and more people are picking up the ukulele, a Hawaiian strummer whose name means ‘jumping flea’ and sound of which evokes the beach and happy times.
Among the scores of ukulele groups that have sprung up over the past five years or so is the Pompey Pluckers.
Members of the 90-strong band have become a regular sight at festivals, concerts, club meetings and old folks’ homes.
Pluckers committee member Lyn Browne says there is no secret to the ukulele’s success.
‘It’s such an easy instrument to pick up,’ she says.
‘People might have tried the guitar and found that really difficult - it really is a hard instrument to play.
‘But it’s much easier to pick up a tune with the ukulele.’
Lyn, 63, of Copnor, says she started playing in 2011 and has been in love with the ukulele ever since.
She says it’s one of the most accessible instruments around.
‘The chord chart shows you where to put your fingers, so you don’t actually have to read music, which can be a big issue for people,’ Lyn says.
‘There are only four strings so you don’t have to stretch the fingers, and it’s easier to play those strings because they’re nylon, whereas some guitars have steel strings.’
Lyn says the ukulele’s modest price tag and size were other plusses.
‘You can get a good one from a proper music shop for £25,’ she says.‘That’s good for an instrument.
‘Most people start on the soprano ukulele, which is a small instrument and very portable.’
The Pompey Pluckers started when Linda Wilson, who lives in Southsea, put a quartet together and invited others to join in.
The idea was to raise money for good causes through the uplifting power of music.
Every year, the Pluckers pick a new charity to fundraise for through their gigs.
Since 2009 the group has raised more than £22,000 for causes including The Elizabeth Foundation For Deaf Children, Naomi House Children’s Hospice and the Rowans Hospice.
The group’s beneficiary this year is the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Air Ambulance.
For many, the ukulele will forever be associated with George Formby, although he was usually behind the stem of a hybrid strummer called a banjolele.
Formby was a fixture on the home front in the Second World War, his cheerful and often bawdy tunes the perfect antidote to grim reality.
But, Lyn believes, you don’t have to be old enough to remember Formby to enjoy the instrument he made famous.
School music teachers have started to shun screeching plastic recorders for the ukulele’s gentle strains.
Lyn thinks the instrument’s popularity will be more than just a flash in the pan. She says: ‘Of course you do get fads, and if you listen to adverts nowadays quite often the backing music is a ukulele.
‘It’s something that when you play, you notice a lot. But I think because it is being taught in schools it will always have a good future.
‘I used to play the recorder in school but I stopped when I left. Where was I going to play it?’
Most of the Pompey Pluckers wear kazoos around their necks, with which they pipe out a refrain in the middle of their songs.
The group also benefits from a tea-chest bass and a Peruvian percussion instrument called a cajon, which adds depth and a beat to the music.
Lyn books the Pluckers’ gigs, a job which she says is becoming more complicated as the group’s reputation has spread.
‘We get so many requests each week,’ she says.
‘But the more people that learn, the more gigs I can book for us and that enables us to raise more for our charities.
‘We had three in one day before Christmas, which we covered with three different groups.’
Lyn says the group gets a lot of satisfaction from playing to people at nursing homes. She says even though some residents suffer from dementia or alzheimer’s the Pluckers’ music still strike a chord.
She remembers: ‘One of the carers said to me: “the chappy over there was singing and yet he doesn’t even talk normally”.
‘He sang all the songs we were playing.’
A risqué name
The Pompey Pluckers were very nearly called something else, says member Martin Mason, 64, of Farlington.
Martin says the group’s founder, Linda Wilson, originally suggested calling the group Portsmouth Ukulele Band.
But the name was changed to better reflect the instrument’s saucy history.
Martin says: ‘One of the guys who has since moved on to another group said: “Let’s call it the Pompey Pluckers”.
‘It sort of rolls off your tongue and it’s a bit risqué in a way.
‘It’s a bit more like what George Formby songs were like in the 40s, they were really near-the-knuckle stuff.’
Indeed, Formby’s With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock was once banned by the BBC.
Martin says: ‘It’s innuendo without being too suggestive.
‘You have to wonder if he is being vulgar or funny.
‘The Pompey Pluckers is a name in the same vein.
‘It’s a fun, cheeky title with a local angle.’
Martin says the Pluckers’ playlist spans classical music, wartime swing, rock ‘n’ roll and modern hits such as Valerie.
Other popular songs are Delilah, Bring Me Sunshine, Rawhide and Bad Moon Rising.
‘We do music from all generations,’ Martin says.
‘We always joke and say we don’t do any music from this century, but we do a couple.’
Martin says the ukulele has a knack for cheering people up.
‘It’s a happy instrument - you always think of fun and laughter and sunshine.’
At a glance...
Where and when: The Pluckers’ beginners’ jam is on Mondays from 7.30pm at the Auckland Arms pub in Netley Road, Southsea.
There are also ‘Pompey Pickers’ meetings on Mondays from 7.30pm at Langstone School in Lakeside Avenue, Copnor, for people interested in playing tunes with more ‘twiddly bits’ and less strumming. The Pluckers have gig practice on Thursdays at 8pm the Old House at Home in Milton.
Other ukulele groups in Portsmouth include the Wednesday Afternoon Auckland Group (the Waags), which meets at the Auckland Arms from 1pm on Wednesdays and the Portsmouth Ukulele Jam which has beginners’ sessions on Tuesday from 8.30pm at The Kings pub in Albert Road, Southsea.
Gigs: To see a list of upcoming Pluckers’ gigs or to book the group, visit sites.google.com/site/pompeypluckersgroup
Contact: For more information e-mail Lyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A dream come true
Learning the ukulele was the lifelong dream realised for Chris Porter, who says he had always wanted to learn an instrument.
Chris, 67, says: ‘I was in business all my life.
‘I was in the motor trade for many years and then I built houses and flats and factories.
‘I’d always wanted to learn to play an instrument and when I retired I heard a ukulele being played and a friend of mine told me they were fairly easy to learn.
‘Plus I wanted to get involved with a charity so both these things linked together nicely with the Pompey Pluckers.’
Chris says the first song he learned was Bad Moon Rising.
He says: ‘Everyone will tell you that - it’s the easiest one in the world.
‘Once you get confident you can put your own spin on it.’
Chris says he loves the camaraderie of the group as well as learning to master new songs.
‘When you get to the point where you can actually play a song, it feels brilliant.
‘Then you look at other songs and straight away you can play them.’
Jump to it
‘You always leave people smiling,’ says Pompey Pluckers member and ukulele devotee Pauline Sandiford.
The 67-year-old semi-retired nursery owner says she gets a thrill from performing live, especially to seniors.
‘One of the nicest things is we do is play at nursing homes,’ she says.
‘Some of the people there can’t remember what they had for dinner yesterday but they know all the words to the songs we play.’
Pauline says the group is always a hit with audiences.
She says: ‘They join in, they sing along, the get up and dance if it’s a rock ‘n’ roll number.
‘You don’t see anybody sitting there bored.’
‘It transformed my life’
Southsea’s Dave Baker, 76, joined the Pluckers about two-and-a-half years ago.
‘After my wife passed away I had this urge to join a choir,’ he remembers.
‘I went to Southsea Community Choir and when I joined that I got talking to a guy and I told him I was also thinking about playing the ukulele.
‘He said, “I’ve got one you can borrow”, so I started coming down here on Monday nights and learned to play.’
Dave says he saw Berry Reeves, one of the original members of the group, playing a tea-chest bass and decided to give it a try himself.
He loved the instrument so much he made his own modified version.
Dave now not only provides the bass for the Pluckers but he has also founded his own group, the Dave Baker Project.
‘I made it a bit quirky with f-holes and a bridge on the front,’ he says.
‘It fills out the sound of the band and adds a bit of resonance.’
Dave says that just a few years ago he couldn’t have imagined himself playing in a band.
‘When I’m playing in front of audiences I can’t believe that I’m doing it,’ he says.
‘It’s given me a lot of confidence and it’s transformed my life.’
Helen Deacon, 55, says she started out as a groupie of the Pluckers before taking up the ukulele herself.
The Hilsea resident says she was encouraged to join the group after seeing how much her partner, Martin Mason, enjoyed it.
Helen says: ‘I used to follow them around when they first formed. Musically-wise, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.
‘Standing on a stage playing to people, you get enjoyment and they get enjoyment, it’s just great. We were playing at a Lions Club group last week and they got up and they started dancing. It’s nice when it’s that spontaneous.’