Welcome to Uke City

Worldwide fame: Katie Pham
Worldwide fame: Katie Pham
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KATIE Pham is big(ish) in Brazil.

She’s a Nether Edge teenager who plays the cover versions on the ukulele. Not in front of people. Just in her room to an internet camera.

Laura Burn-Acaster and Mary Booth

Laura Burn-Acaster and Mary Booth

Now this 18-year-old economics student has something of a growing fanbase is South America.

Dozens of young Brazilians are among the nearly 1,000 registered followers and subscribers to her YouTube channel.

“People in Portugal seem to like me too,” shrugs the former Sheffield High School pupil. “It’s quite strange.

“When I first started posting the videos online it was just to make my friends laugh.

You cannot be serious: Toby Foster

You cannot be serious: Toby Foster

“It’s weird to think there’s people from all over the world watching me. Sometimes they’ll send me messages saying they’re thinking about taking up the uke because they’ve seen me. It’s nice, I guess.”

Welcome, reader, to Sheffield Ukulele City.

Perhaps it is the Toby Foster effect, perhaps it is because schools are looking for new instruments to teach, perhaps it is simply that a new generation finally understands what their grandparents have long-since known: George Formby is a genius.

Whatever the reason, it seems, in South Yorkshire in 2011, the humble Hawaiian four-string is all the rage.

Sales are booming, lessons are on the rise, and Toby Foster’s now semi-legendary uke band The Everly Pregnant Brothers (best song: ‘No Oven No Pie’) have gone from drunken bet in 2009 to selling out the Lyceum in 2011.

“We’re even looking at playing the arena next year,” says Toby, founder of Sheffield’s Grin Up North Festival. “It’s ridiculous.

“This group started as a drunken bet between middle aged men and now we’re all living our rock and roll fantasies - but I have no doubt that’s because it’s a uke band.

“You can’t be serious on a uke - if you try you’re a tosser, frankly. It’s a good time instrument and, because we’re having fun on stage, the audience has fun too.

“I wouldn’t say we’re responsible for Sheffield Ukulele City, though - although it would be nice to be on commission if shops are selling more.”

That stores are doing a roaring trade, there is no doubt.

“We’ve been selling about 25 a month this summer,” says Steve Basford, owner of Sheffield Music Shop, in Ecclesall Road, which stocks more than 100 of the instruments. “This time last year it was less than 10. It’s definitely notable and I think that’s great.”

So, obvious question: why?

It seems The Everly Pregnant Brothers influence cannot be over-looked - “I’d set up my own uke shop in Orchard Square if I had the time,” says Toby.

But just as important, says Steve, are the fact schools are increasingly teaching the instrument, the Sheffield folk scene is in rude health, and they are relatively cheap and easy to learn.

“My dad taught me when I was about three,” says Mary Booth, uke player with city band Little Robots.

He performed as a George Formby tribute act, while she has just got back from a mini tour of New York City with fellow Sheffield player Laura Burn-Acaster.

“It was amazing,” says the 35-year-old adult education worker. “They loved our ukes and our accent, it was just the trip of a lifetime.

“We played four shows then did some busking in Central Park. A homeless guy gave us some dimes. I wanted to tell him his need was probably greater than ours but I was in the middle of the song.”

Now perhaps such acts of adoration await young Katie Pham, that bedroom player with the Brazilian fan base.

With so many online followers generated by nothing more than a video or two a month and some word of mouth plaudits does she ever think about playing somewhere other than her own house?

“Maybe if someone offered me lots of money or I could go on tour with my favourite band,” she laughs. “I got asked to do some teaching in America but I’m more interested in going to uni for now. I’ll still keep posting videos online though.”

Long may she do so.

Long live Sheffield Ukulele City.

Watch Katie at www.youtube.com/user/katiephampham

See Little Robots at the Heeley Institute, in Gleadless Road, on September 9.

Get details about The Everly Pregnant Brothers at www.everlypregnantbrothers.co.uk

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