From the Summer 2016 Issue of Ukulele Magazine | By Karen Peterson
Up for some spontaneous, crazy uke fun this summer? Consider spreading your joy via what can be one of the most startling—and smile-inducing—street performances of them all: a ukulele flash mob.
Flash mobs started as a social experiment in New York City circa 2003, and though for a while faded from the limelight, they’ve been resurrected by a growing number of fun-loving pluckers and strummers worldwide. Some mobs are formed by invitation, say, for a surprise wedding or anniversary performance; others advertise an upcoming ukulele event.
But I’m talking about classic flash mobs—those that appear en masse seemingly out of nowhere, for no apparent reason. I’ve also included a flash mob that requires only one intrepid mobster: you.
Talk about #summergoals.
The Mother of All Uke Flash Mobs
Lorraine Bow, a ukulele performer and teacher, is queen of London’s celebrated flash mobs. Simply known as Ukulele Flash Mob, her mobs have no official membership roll. True to form, they are purely spontaneous, open to anyone, and organized online through their website ukuleleflashmob.com, Facebook page, and Twitter account, as well as Bow’s weekly jams at various London pubs, called Ukulele Wednesdays, and her band, KaraUke, at which the audience does karaoke to a live ukulele backing band.
Bow sends out the upcoming flash mob’s location, day, and time to subscribers of her hefty email list and includes the song, music, and an audio version; the tunes themselves are chosen for appropriateness to the venue or season. The most recent was held last Halloween at All Souls, Langham Place, where the mob strummed “Monster Mash” in the spired historic 19th-century church.
Bow’s flash mobs have been held under Waterloo Bridge and at Trafalgar Square, where the project started in 2012. Up to 200 players gathered at the Trafalgar Square launch event to play “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” in tribute to the iconic venue’s four famous feline statues.
Playing in public spaces, as you’ll see in our next example, is tricky. Local authorities apparently enjoyed the novelty of the first Trafalgar Square flash mob, but the second one, at Christmas and featuring “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” was not so warmly greeted. “We were booted out, sadly,” Bow says.
If you’ve watched a Trafalgar Square uke flash mob video on YouTube, it’s likely Bow’s, which has more than 84,000 views at press time. (…watch the video at the top of this page…)
Flash Mob Etiquette: Lorraine Bow schools us
“Look as stereotypically ‘normal’ as you can” to blend in with the unsuspecting crowd around you.
“Hide your ukulele” until it’s time for the surprise to be unveiled and make sure it’s tuned before you show up.
“Ukuleles are quiet instruments, so make sure you can hear the lead and each other.” Bow’s group begins in G for a few rounds so that everyone can join in before the singing begins.
Stay in character. When the show is over, “Walk away like nothing happened,” suggests Bow, adding, “[The performance] will be an amazing feeling, but resist being self congratulatory until after you’re away from the location!”
Uke Clubs Take to the Street
Clubs across the United States are also giving flash mobs a whirl. Rich Leufstedt, who runs the Union Ukulele Club in Worcester, Massachusetts, put together the group’s first flash mob last December to coincide with a local holiday craft fair. So many people were packed into the festival that “only a few hundred people actually heard us,” Leufstedt reports, “but their applause made the effort worth it.” Leufstedt recommends choosing an arrangement that is simple and easy to sing along to (they played “Jingle Bells”). Another benefit of choosing an easy song: onlookers realize that they could do it, too. “We got a new member as a result,” Leufstedt says.
To accommodate the varying skills of the club players, Leufstedt prints out chord “cheat sheets” and club information that members then attach to their bodies with blue painters’ tape, becoming “human music stands” viewable to both players and the public. “We passed the sheets around to others nearby so they could sing along and learn about the club,” he says.
Cali Rose teaches ukulele and leads the CC Strummers out of Culver City, California, home to MGM Studios, a locale pertinent to this mob: A recent performance took place outside the historic Culver City Hotel, where the “Munchkin” actors stayed during the filming of The Wizard of Oz. To be on the safe side, Rose contacted the local police and fire departments a month in advance and visited shops around the venue. “I think this is good public relations and I wanted them to feel like they were in the loop,” she says. “We were performing, after all, in their space.”
About 40 of her strummers showed up and attempted to look inconspicuous, save for their music stands. With all players gathered, Rose counted to four and began playing “Sweet Dreams,” cue for the Strummers to come forward from where they had tried to hide—sitting on park benches, standing behind trees, leaning against buildings—and the show began. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was the keynote tune, appropriately, and the impromptu concert ended with “Happy.”
By that time, Rose says, “Our audience was cheering and yelling for more.” The Strummers didn’t have an encore planned, but did rise to the occasion with a rousing by-ear rendition of “Hound Dog.”
Solo Uke Bombs
Shirley Cranstoun is “The Ukulele Lady” in her small township of Waianiwa in Southland, New Zealand. It’s not just her pink ukulele and effervescent personality that have earned her the moniker: She’s famous for what she calls “uke bombs.”
A few days before Christmas last year, Cranstoun began thinking about how to say thank you to the merchants who had served her well during the year. Rather than chocolates or cards, Cranstoun turned to her uke—and the “bombing” began, first at the gas station. “I purchased my petrol, and then said I would like to wish them a Merry Christmas and thank them for giving me great service. I played ‘Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,’ chorus and verse, and ‘Jingle Bells.’”
Next stop, Burger King, then the local butcher, supermarket, discount store, banks, florist, local fish and chip shop, and also the mechanic “who had faithfully serviced our cars for the year.” Cranstoun didn’t just uke bomb her own favorite shops, she bombed a hairdresser for a woman watching her perform at the grocery store. “It was sort of like a singing telegram,” she said. “I was happy to oblige.”
In all, Cranstoun uke-bombed 19 businesses in two hours, including travel time. “No one asked me to leave and many of them had smiles on their faces when I had finished.”
Cranstoun has continued uke bombing, most recently with love songs on Valentine’s Day. But first she journeyed to Bluff, New Zealand to commemorate World Ukulele Day on February 2—and bombed a group of German tourists at the visitor center with, among other tunes, the New Zealand national anthem.