Matthew Reynolds, the Duke of Uke
This charismatic fellow with the lively eyebrows is Matthew Reynolds, the self-styled Duke of Uke, proprietor of the ukelele and banjo emporium at 22 Hanbury St. “Every day we’re still here surprises me!” he said brightly, introducing the tale of how he started his singular business from nothing, before revealing,“It took a couple of years before I could get a night of sleep.” That was just four years ago now but, thanks his buoyant confidence and zeal, this shop with a rehearsal room and recording studio in the basement has acquired a big reputation as the destination of choice for everyone that loves these underdogs of the musical instrument family. It is a true community hub, full of musicians coming and going, creating music and giving lessons too – as well as a wonderful friendly place to drop in and admire the huge display of ukeleles in diverse sizes, shapes, colours and prices to suit every pocket. Some are so dinky, cute and garish they look more like toys than serious musical instruments. You can see one in the photograph made of a cigar box.
I always poke my head around the door whenever I am passing in the hope of catching a spontaneous concert, because if one person is playing a ukelele then you can bet someone else will snatch another instrument from the wall and join in. There are usually interesting people hanging around in here, they might not all appear remarkable at first glance, but once they take an instrument in hand a sublime transformation comes upon them. At any time of the day you are likely to stumble upon a happy musical party at the Duke of Uke. If I see an excited crowd on the pavement outside pressing their faces against the window, then I elbow my way to the centre of the throng, because it means someone famous is giving an impromptu ukelele solo inside. Sparing yourself the melee of the fans, you can click on the following names to see films of recent performances at the Duke of Uke by Pete Doherty, The Mystery Jets, Le Volume Corbe and Allo’ Darlin’.
Sure enough, when I arrived at the shop for my interview, customers Charlotte (a ukelele novice) and Christopher (a professional guitarist) who had just met, were jamming playfully together on their ukeleles. Charlotte who is evangelical in her advocacy, discovered the ukelele only recently when a friend bought one for her son, but she soon got one for herself and now has an amateur ukelele band composed of a half-dozen friends and relations who participated in the performance last year by the Ukelele Orchestra of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” at the Albert Hall. Immaculately dressed in tweeds, Matthew presides with a magnanimous grin from behind the counter in the manner of an old school publican, sympathetically allowing his customers make themselves at home and have a good time with the ukuleles. But only the tiniest cue is required to encourage Matthew himself to take his ukelele in hand and demonstrate the melodic flights that can be conjured by a master in a few adroit gestures.
With modest erudition, Matthew gave me whistle-stop tour of the history of the ukelele which originated when three Portuguese guitar makers emigrated to Hawaii, taking the machete or small guitar with them, there the royal family became besotted with these instruments, renamed as ukeleles. The 1916 Panama Exhibition in San Francisco introduced the craze to America and the fad lasted until the nineteen fifties when ukeleles were manufactured in a plethora of designs, and popular radio and television programmes broadcast lessons in how to play.
What is it that gets people about this little instrument that is so cheeky and cute, yet capable of poetry and pathos too? Being straightforward, Matthew tells he loves the ukelele because it is “a really simple instrument that has never reached its full potential,” continuing with a hint at the instrument’s unlikely sex appeal,“It is promiscuous, anyone can find a partner in a ukelele.” he says. There is something both comic and cheap about the ukelele, the perfect instrument for those early twentieth century sentimental songs. Yet, even though the honest ukelele has - just like those popular songs of yesteryear - acquired a greater emotional resonance over time, it never lost its sense of fun.