How Eilidh's daily ukulele ceilidh averted a confidence crisis
IT is high noon, the sun smudged and hazy behind perpetual Glasgow clouds. A young woman is sitting outside an Italian cafe on Pollokshaws Road, singing a song and accompanying herself on what looks like a tiny wee guitar.
"It's Eilidh's daily ukulele ceilidh," she sings, her voice high and jaunty, "Eilidh's daily ukulele show. You can come and dance quite gaily, you can bring a capercaillie. It's Eilidh's daily ukulele show!"
At the start of 2007, Eilidh MacAskill set herself a challenge – to give a performance on her ukulele every day of the year. The first ukulele ceilidh took place in Glasgow's Kelvingrove Park in the early hours of January 1, but in the course of her attempt, MacAskill has played concerts as far afield as New York, Nova Scotia and Inverurie, and blogged about her experiences on her MySpace site.
She has given impromptu performances in shops, cafes, airports and toilets. On her 27th birthday she performed 150 songs in a pub – "though four of them were 'Happy Birthday' in different languages". Her final show, the 365th, will take place in Kelvingrove Park, near the big fountain, at 1.30pm tomorrow. MacAskill hopes you will attend and bring mince pies.
"The rules of what constitutes a ceilidh are flexible," she says. "There has to be a ukulele involved, I have to be there and there has to be another living entity." In America she has played to audiences of 400, but is just as happy performing to her cat, Daisy. Sadly, Daisy is less happy. "The ukulele scares her. She just runs away."
MacAskill looks rather like a ginger Julie Andrews. During formal performances she wears a tartan ensemble – "the best PDSA could provide" – but is dressed down today. Over black coffee and the festive ringtones of other cafe patrons, she explains that her project has its origins in a drunken conversation and also her desire to keep busy while Fish and Game, the theatre company which she co-runs, was inactive.
"I had spent a lot of time not having work, procrastinating, and sitting around the house watching daytime TV," she says. "Well, that's not really what I want to do with my life."
During this period of inertia, MacAskill happened to read The Scots' Crisis Of Confidence, a book by Dr Carol Craig which struck a chord. MacAskill is a trained performer, but off-stage she lacks self-assurance. The ukulele ceilidhs have been a way of prying herself out of her comfort zone and forcing her to engage with people in an informal, if bizarre, way.
"People have been very good about it, mostly," she says. "They like the idea of this slightly eccentric woman having to do this odd thing. There have only been a couple of times when it's gone down like a bag of sick. Like a couple of open mic nights where people with guitars played quite long, dirgey, emotional songs, and then I came on with my plinky-plonky ukulele and did a song about buying shoes from TK Maxx."
Over the course of the year, MacAskill has written an album's-worth of songs, including one about Newsnight which involves rhyming Kirsty Wark with "a hat of cork". She has also mastered a wide range of cover versions, notable among them Baccara's Hispanic disco classic 'Yes Sir, I Can Boogie', to which audiences have been known to dance the military two-step.
Although fond of the ukulele and its sound, MacAskill takes a somewhat comedic approach to performance which is not always appreciated by serious enthusiasts. "Going to the New York Uke Festival was amazing but very scary," she recalls. "There's lots of strict aficionados who are very wary of people taking the piss out of the ukulele. Some of these players would come on stage and do this amazing finger-picking and all this fast, intricate stuff, but they weren't really able to talk to the audience. After three hours of that, everyone gets really bored."
MacAskill had more fun at a ukulele festival in Nova Scotia. The best uke players seem to be Canadian as the instrument has been taught there for decades as part of the school curriculum. In recent months, primary schools in England and Wales have started teaching children to play the ukulele, and MacAskill believes that Scottish schools should follow suit. It's a much better first instrument than the "horrific" recorder, she says. "What's especially bad is having to pull a recorder from a bucket of sterilising solution, when everyone else's slavers have been in that bucket, and put it to your mouth. Ukeleles are a lot cleaner."
They aren't just for children, of course. MacAskill believes there are a lot of adults out there who own ukuleles, but are so ashamed of their instrument that they only play at home, furtive and forlorn. "Ukuleles are flying off the shelves of music shops, so there are definitely players out there. They just need someone to help them out of their closets, and that person might be me."
If the ukulele is seen as shameful, that probably has something to do with its notable practitioners. In Britain it has long been associated with the music hall star George Formby, and therefore has seemed twee and camp. In America, the ukulele was the favoured instrument of Tiny Tim, a shudder-provoking individual much beloved of acid-addled 1960s counter-culture who preferred ukes to nukes.
The ukulele became popular in the early 20th century, having been developed in Hawaii in the 1880s. It is often said that the word "ukulele" translates as "jumping flea" but this is controversial among the uke community. They seem to prefer the alternative translation – "the gift that's come from afar".
MacAskill thinks she will miss her daily ceilidhs in 2008, but is determined not to give up altogether. A short tour of Scotland is planned, and next month she starts work as a learning assistant at Kelvingrove Museum. "I don't really know what it involves," she says. "But they did say I could bring my ukulele sometimes."
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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