Everyone loves a Ukulele

I know they say what goes on tour stays on tour, and there are certainly a number of stories I would love to share with you…but discretion and a commitment not to ruin anyone’s reputation means my lips are sealed. But I am going to share the inside track with a Band that I’ve been working with this week that collectively has more children than the Osmonds and take more drugs than the Rolling Stones (I should add Paracetamol or Ibuprofen only). This will be a ‘no holds barred’ expose!!!

I first heard the Swansea U3A Ukulele Big Band a number of years ago.  They were the house band for a special concert for the sponsors of Matthew’s House, the ‘Centre for Hospitality and Hope right in the Heart of Swansea’. They are great for a party. It’s a unique, joyous, wonderful sound and the band play all of the hits. 

The Leader of the Band is Andy Skilling, a witty, debonair, bass Ukulele player who leads from the front with the patter that would put many a gameshow host to shame. Andy spotted me at the back of the room. 

‘Maybe Mal will record us one day and take us to the top of the pops’ he said to the whole room from the microphone centre stage.  I have no idea what came over me and as I think back I still shudder when I remember the evening. 

All I could think to say was, ‘Andy, I’m a musician not a magician!’.

Well, this week it was the turn of the Swansea U3A Ukulele Big Band to lend their magic to the new Diocese of Swansea & Brecon Centenary Anthem ‘For This Reason’. The Anthem started as most projects do with a text message from Mandy Bayton, the Bishops Officer for Evangelism and Outreach for the Diocese.  Once I had a good idea of what was wanted I started writing the music and more importantly the lyrics. 

As this was to be a Celebratory Centenary Anthem it needed to say the right things.  Something this important needed ‘sign off’ from lots of different people in the Diocese. After a week or so of waiting I finally got the go ahead and started working on pulling together another ambitious project.

What I wanted to do with the recording was to bring together people from all over the Diocese and further afield to bring their talents to the Anthem.  Having got my band the Jacks and my usual string and brass arranger Andrew Griffiths to set the foundations for the project.  The next job was to bring together singers and instrumentalists to add flavour and colour to represent the diversity of the area.

I went through my contacts book and started calling people like Steve Balsamo and Kev Johns asking if they would like to be involved.  The great thing about old mates is that you have so much dirt on them, so they never say no!

I had a number of great female singers in mind including Lorraine King who sang with me on ‘Song for Europe’ sometime before the war.  Then there were new singers Lisa Williams and Camille Meskill. As well as taking individual lines this group of singers came together to create a modern gospel sounding choir for the chorus sections.

I had wanted the traditional sound of the Diocese to be fully honoured and was delighted when Jon Pilgrim agreed to play the Brecon Cathedral Organ for us and Stephen Power, the Director of Music at the Cathedral agreed that the Cathedral Choir could also join the gathering throng.

Andrew Griffiths and I had planned a session to record The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra for my new album out later this autumn.  It seemed too good an opportunity to miss so Andrew wrote out all of the parts for the Orchestra and we recorded them last week in Prague.

So far so good…but what else could we add to the mix to give it flavour and context… A Ukulele Big Band!!!

It was earlier this summer that I found myself in Clyne Gardens on a Sunday Afternoon.  The Gardens often have concerts featuring all types of music and as I wandered through the park I heard the unmistakeable sounds of the massed Ukuleles. I was like a moth to the flame and soon found myself a comfy spot just out of sight of Andy Skilling.  Having been singled out the last time I saw the band I was taking no chances. The band played an eclectic mixture of songs old and new and as I sat there on the grass I knew they would be perfect for the Anthem.

When I got home I messaged Andy and laid out the plan for him.  The website had downloadable resources which included the score and a video of the backing track.  Within a couple of days he got back to me to say he had arranged the whole song for Ukulele, and they would start rehearsals as soon as he got back from his holidays. 

Before I go any further I should maybe explain the idea behind the University of the Third Age.  The U3A describe themselves as

‘A self-help learning organisation for people who have completed their career or finished raising a family.’

They have groups to help you learn a foreign language, how to paint or find out about local history. There’s bowls and ballroom dancing, computer studies or cross stitch. And then there is the Ukulele.

The U3A has a number of Ukulele groups.  You can start off as a beginner or learner, progress to Ukulele for All-Comers and if you like the limelight maybe you can join the Ukulele Performance Group, that’s the group run by Andy Skilling.

Cards on the table, I love a Ukulele. I got my first Uke when I was working on a musical about Tommy Farr the boxer. After retiring from the ring Tommy started making records with George Formby the King of the Uke.  For those of you who don’t know, whereas a guitar has 6 strings a Uke only has 4.  It is tuned differently to a guitar but essentially the chord shapes that work on the bottom 4 strings of a guitar will work on the Uke.

Instead of putting the Uke back in the box after the Musical I kept on using it on other records.  It has a light sound that seems to sit on top of a recording helping it to sparkle. 

I arrived nice and early at Holy Trinity Church Sketty Park to make sure I could set up my recording equipment and cameras.  By 2 o’clock we were ready to rock.   We made a number of recordings.  Firstly, I interviewed Andy about the Band to give our video some context.  Then Andy took control and made sure everyone was in tune and everyone was in their special place.

I recorded the Band playing and singing the Anthem all together and then made separate recordings of only the band playing, then just the Band singing and finally individual strums of each chord.

We broke for a cup of tea and I packed down.  The Band went back to their rehearsal.  Today they will perform at the Horton Hullabaloo and they want to make sure they are on top of their game for that.  If you are going I know you are going to love them.

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