More than a thousand ukelele enthusiasts are expected to converge on Huddersfield next weekend as the town hosts the second Grand Northern Ukelele Festival.

Organisers have chosen to stage the event in the historic town hall because they need a larger venue than last year when tickets for the festival, the first of its kind and held in Pontefract, sold out completely.

One of the festival’s founders, Tony Casey, explained: “The capacity of the venue last year was 350 but about 500 people turned up. This year we have added a fringe festival as well and we’ve had a lot of interest. We have already sold more tickets than they did for the UK ukelele festival.”

Huddersfield Town Hall can accommodate 1,200 ukelele fans and it looks very much as if it will also be a sell-out, such is the pull of the miniature stringed instrument and its big sound.

The idea for holding a Northern musical gathering was born when Tony met fellow ukelele musicians Mary Agnes Krell and Paul Mac (all three live in West Yorkshire) at the Dublin Ukelele Festival four years ago.

“We thought that it would be a good idea to have a festival in the North of England,” said Tony, “and the next thing we knew we were sitting in a pub in Manchester organising it.”

Headlining the festival will be Seattle-based blues, jazz and ragtime musician Del Rey, whose skills on the metal resonator ukelele are legendary within the musical community, but it will also showcase the home-grown talents of Sheffield swing and jazz band The Anything Goes Orchestra, Lancashire-based Chockinfeckle and Some Like It Ossett. Making a rare appearance at the festival will be The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain, which was founded nearly 30 years ago and has made appearances in films and on television as well as collaborating with bands such as Madness and The Kaiser Chiefs.

Del Rey, American blues ukelele player
 

The distinctive twang of the ukelele has been around for a long time but in recent years has enjoyed a phenomenal rise in popularity. It is the instrument of the internet, with YouTube and Facebook responsible for millions around the world enjoying the sound of virtuoso players. Increasing number of children are learning to play the ukelele at school.

As Tony explains: “I had played the guitar for 30 years but took up the ukelele in 2003 and have hardly touched my guitar since. I didn’t know of any other ukelele players at the time but now all you have to do is go on YouTube and put in ‘ukelele’ and there are huge numbers of people playing. It’s gone off the scale. There are dozens of ukelele clubs in the region.”

In fact, the ukelele has become an internationally much-loved instrument. So far, the Northern festival, a not-for-profit event, has enjoyed ticket sales from as far afield as Canada, France, Germany, Belgium and the Orkneys.

As well as satisfying the need for a larger venue, Huddersfield Town Hall was high on the organisers’ list for another reason. Said Tony: “Kirklees Council has a reputation for supporting arts events and I have to say that we have found that to be true.”

The festival, which will feature two day of main stage entertainment is also hosting workshops and fringe concerts by performers. Workshops proved popular last year and will be held on a range of topics, from playing techniques to making a ‘diddly-bo’, a one-stringed guitar, or a washtub base. Free beginners’ sessions will be run by ukelele teachers. Organisers are still looking for event sponsors.

So why is the ukelele enjoying such a renaissance? Tony explained: “It was very popular in the US at the beginning of the 20th century among musicians who couldn’t afford larger, more expensive instruments. It’s always been an instrument associated with hard times so maybe that’s why it’s so popular now.

“Unlike a recorder you can learn to sing along while you play, so it’s a good one for children to learn. It’s also an accompanying instrument and sociable to play.”

Details of the festival (September 13 and 14) can be found on www.northernuke.com Full weekend tickets are £39 and can be bought from website or by calling the town hall box office on 01484 223200. Most workshops need to be booked.

Grand Northern Ukelele Festival