‘Why don’t you come on over Valerie?’ A chorus of exultant voices hits me the second I step through the doors. It is 7pm on a Monday night and at Queen of Hoxton that can only mean one thing; time for the Ukulele Hootenanny.
Despite being held in the hipster-synonymous Shoreditch bar scene, the neon-lit room is a melting pot of young and old, professionals and students, experts and beginners like myself.
While most are waiting for the instructor to arrive, one table has begun playing and their cheerful music has a ripple effect throughout the room. Fingers strum, feet tap, voices grow louder and before I know it I’m belting out- what feels like the millionth- chorus to the Amy Winehouse classic.
The session is a self-taught free for all. There is a sense of being thrown in at the deep end and being asked to swim as we are told to “pick up a ukulele and go”. One suit-clad man does just that, striding in pulling a vibrant purple ukulele out of his rucksack, he finds a spot, strips away his blazer and joins in Elvis’ Blue Suede Shoes without missing a beat. It’s impressive. It’s intimidating. I sit for a few minutes and sink a pint, as I try to pluck up the courage to attempt to play.
“If you are not playing please do sing along, and if you are playing try and sing along” encourages our eclectic instructor, whose height and stocky build makes the ukulele residing in his oversized hands look comical.
I cautiously pick up my tiny guitar and soon find myself muddling my way through Katy Perry’s Hot and Cold. With only three chords to master, Perry’s pop melody is a relatively easy task. I am in time, in tune and also able to sing along. I start to fall into a false sense of security, maybe I’ve found my calling?
“Okay dudes now we are going to get very Jamaican and get lose, a very Marley feel.”
While Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds reverberates from everyone else’s ukuleles and lips, my fingers have lost their ability to keep up with the quick chord changes and I find myself stumbling over lyrics I thought I knew. “Fantastic. You’ll all have no trouble fitting in in Jamaica now” our instructor asserts. I am not so sure.
Spotting my difficulty, a petite lady named Rosa sits with me and becomes my personal tutor. She talks me through the difference between a G and a C chord and coaches me on the best way to hold my ukulele. Things become slightly easier and I start to get in the rhythm- no doubt the alcohol coursing through my veins is helping.
Eager cries for the song on page 36 explode from a- visibly tipsy- table at the back, as they wave their ukulele’s in the air to get the instructors attention. He ignores their calls and instead tells us to turn to page 14 for Don’t look back in anger by Oasis and I note how the ukulele can make any song sound jovial.
Pop, Rock, Reggae, Blues no matter what the song or style Rosa’s fingers flit agilely from string to string like nimble ballet dancers. Meanwhile, mine plod from one chord to the next in the slow fashion of a two-ton elephant. Nevertheless, she continues to tutor me and a cry of joy escapes both our lips when I manage to jump straight from an A to a G for the first time.
“Remember before we keep playing, singing is mandatory and there will be inspections” jokes our instructor, when the French song Aux Champs Elysees stumps even the most experienced players.
My complete lack of dexterity is a hindrance, but despite this the night is fantastic fun. The atmosphere is non-judgmental and everyone is quite happy for me to strum out of time while I try and get my fingers and voice to co-ordinate.
As the evening draws to an end, the rowdy table at the back get their wish and we turn to page 36 for Friday I’m in Love by The Cure. Everyone gives it their all for the final number, one man pulls a box from around the corner, sits on it and bashes out a beat with his hands. I strum away enthusiastically and sing -badly- at the top of my lungs.
“I don’t care if Monday’s blue
Tuesday’s grey and Wednesday too
Thursday I don’t care about you
It’s Friday I’m in love”
The irony is lost on many. For those who attend the Ukulele Hootenanny, Monday is definitely their love.
The Ukulele Hootenanny is held at Queen of Hoxton: 1-5 Curtain Road, London, EC2A every Monday night.
The event starts at 7pm and can run up until 1am, depending on how long people wish to keep playing (it ended at about 11pm on the night described).
Entry is free and ukulele rental is free, but there is a £20 deposit required upon arrival (there are not many ukuleles available so arrive early to guarantee getting one).
No booking required. See www.QueenofHoxton.com for more info.
Photo from Queen of Hoxton website.