Emma Owen and Patt Ross-Davies of Wirral's Summer Strum

Wirral Ukulele Orchestra bring strumthing for the weekend with July music festival

“The range of songs ukuleles cover is fantastic. You can pretty much do anything on a ukulele, from 1920s ballads to hard rock and heavy metal. The Summer Strum is going to offer a really good mix.”

So says Emma Owen who, with fellow Wirral Ukulele Orchestra member Pat Ross-Davies, is hosting the Summer Strum in July at Hoylake Rugby Club, a ukulele festival with international ukulele players coming to the Wirral for a free-for-all weekend of great music, workshops, food, drink, fundraising and more.

“We’ve got some amazing local, national and international musicians booked and we’ve got a band coming from Finland,” Pat tells us.

“Yan Yalego is also playing and the Great Northern Ukulele Festival (GNUF) has very kindly sponsored him to come over from France to headline on the Sunday.” Yan was able to come over thanks to GNUF’s partnership with the Southern Ukulele Store, and will be playing on the south coast the day before his Hoylake appearance.

“We’ve also got Ukulele Uff & the Lonesome Dave Trio from Liverpool, headlining on Saturday and they’re just amazing. And the fabulous Mersey Belles will also be playing again on the Sunday, as well as the great Ukulele Club Liverpool.”

29 acts have already been confirmed for Summer Strum with over 200 players set to perform (D’ukes of Hazzard is one of the cleverest band names we’ve ever heard). In its fourth year, Pat and Emma are in their second year of organising the festival to help raise money for Wirral Hospice St John’s and MIND.

Summer Strum will take place between 8 – 10 July 2016, and helped raise over £1,100 for Claire House last year. “It’s exploded. It started in Chester four years ago. There were groups from around Merseyside and Cheshire that came along for the first festival. More came along for the second and its grown every year,” says Pat.

“Chester handed over the baton to Emma and I and we first hosted it in Hoylake Rugby Club as we were looking for a bigger venue. We were getting more and more enquiries from other ukulele groups so we gave it a go – we’d never done anything like that before – and the Wirral Ukulele Orchestra hosted the event.

“In Chester it was a day event whereas we’ve gone for the whole weekend, starting from Friday night and going through to Sunday. There will be camping, stalls, food, workshops and more.”

Instrumental fundraising

Pat and Emma have already organised a huge amount for Summer Strum with a main outside stage and a Merseyrail Sound Station stage set to feature, as well as an open mic stage in the main clubhouse. Also at the rugby club will be camping facilities, stalls, barbecues, workshops and fundraising events.

It sounds like an awful lot of work to host a free festival, though, but the pair remain undaunted. “We got caught out a bit with the rain last year but we all managed to decamp inside and set up a stage. It worked really well in the end. The support from the other musicians was overwhelming,” says Emma.

“It was a challenge but it just seemed to work. All the other ukulele players and bands have just been so supportive. I can’t think of any moment where we really panicked. We were run off our feet and were dead by Sunday, but the help from the community was amazing.”

Pat wants more of the same this year, hopefully with better weather. “It was really successful last year. The feedback was amazing and it went like clockwork. I suppose that was down to the planning and organising beforehand. We had HUG from Hartlepool (Hartlepool Ukulele Group), they were a large group and said it was one of the best festivals they’d ever been to.”

We’re still struggling to get our heads around the fact that this is all ukulele-based. The only time we’ve heard of ukuleles are when they’ve been mentioned in the same breath as George Formby and window cleaning, two things totally alien to us. What’s suddenly made it such a popular instrument across the globe?

“I think because it’s such an easy instrument to pick up and play. There are a lot of people in our group who hadn’t played an instrument before; it’s a very easy and happy instrument. You can just get in a group and sing along with each other,” Emma explains.

“Some of us play other instruments, too. There’s a bass player and a drummer. Pat will get her accordion out and I’ll play the flute or melodica and some have kazoos, a mandolin, and even guitars!”

“There’s a big social aspect to the ukulele, too,” adds Pat. “We all call ourselves the uke family now. The orchestra’s 21-strong now. There are some groups that are pure uke but we’ve introduced other dynamics into it.”

Lots of local love

Despite the amount that’s been done so far Pat and Emma are still going to be hosting fundraising events before Summer Strum hits Hoylake, with the next an afternoon cream tea singalong in West Kirby on 30 April 2016 in the Wirral Arts Centre. The Wirral Ukulele Orchestra were nominated Community Champions in February by Persimmon Homes, and were awarded a cheque of £1,000 towards the Summer Strum.

"Summer Strum wouldn’t happen without our local sponsors"The pair are putting a lot into the community, and are keen to point out that they couldn’t have gotten Summer Strum to the level it is now without the help of their local ukulele connections and a variety of local businesses helping them raise money for worthy causes.

“Last year was Claire House. This year we sadly lost one of our members to a brain tumour. She was cared for at St. John’s so we decided this year that it’d be one of our charities. Also MIND; we want to spread the well being of music. The concerts we do, you see a lot of people smiling and it’s very uplifting,” Pat explains.

“[Summer Strum] wouldn’t happen without our local sponsors. We’ve had a couple of fundraisers so far. Hoylake Rugby Club has been very supportive, not only in using the venue, but they let us host a race night fundraiser recently for free.

“Last year we had local scaffolders Handy Scaff do the stage for us for free, and they’ve offered to help us out this year, too, which we’re really grateful for. We’re currently looking for other local businesses for support with raffle prizes and more.”

“The Holiday Inn are also offering a discount for rooms – the Friday night’s already booked up,” says Emma. “It’s great to see the local community come together when it comes to events like this, and they’ve put up a great raffle prize, too.

“There will be fundraising events on the day to help the charities. We’ll also have workshops for beginners and more advanced players kindly led by members of local bands and the chance to talk with local players and maybe join a group. There are plenty out there!”

Fest of the rest

Emma and Pat are content to keep Summer Strum at a local level for the foreseeable future.

Despite the growth of Summer Strum into international territories and the good work they’re both doing for the community, Emma and Pat are content to keep it at a local, humble level for the foreseeable future.

“We don’t have any aspirations of it becoming a big thing, we’ll see how it goes,” Emma says. “It’s astounding the amount of Ukulele festivals there are across the country. I saw a new one before; we were inspired by Chester and just wanted one that was local to Merseyside and Cheshire.”

Pat agrees, and highlights how important events like Summer Strum are at helping the community. “There’s already the Great Northern Ukulele Festival which has been going for a while and has also extended to the Great Southern Ukulele Festival. The organiser, Mary Agnes Krell, is just amazing at getting acts from all over the world to come; it’s one of the big ones.

“We are keen to keep it as a free festival so it is community-based and families can come. Festivals can be expensive for families if they have to pay for tickets and accommodation at the more professional festivals.”

Summer Strum – 8 – 10 July 2016, Hoylake Rugby Club

The Summer Strum website

The Wirral Ukulele Orchestra on Facebook

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