You and your Uke

Yes! It's that obscure instrument from Hawaii and indie films - the ukulele. Chinese Maureen Xu fell in love with it and found some fellow uke lovers in Groningen.

It’s Friday night, and Maureen Xu, a 25-year-old PhD in pharmaceutical analysis at UMCG from China, is biking up to the bustling O’Ceallaigh Irish Pub. She’s been out of town for much of the past month, which is about as long as it’s been since she last played her beloved ukulele.

She first heard the sound of the happy little instrument at a concert by an American musician, playing traditional Hawaiian songs, in one of the many churches in Oxford, where she got her master’s degree. For Maureen, it was love at first listen. ‘I really liked the sound of it – when you play it, you feel a lot of joy. Whatever you’re going through, it just makes you so happy.’

Ukelele for Dummies

At the time though, she was too poor to afford her own instrument. Now that she’s been in Groningen for a year, she’s following her dream – a few months ago, she bought herself a uke at an instrument store in the Westerhaven. ‘When I was deciding which one to pick, the guy in the store played them for me, and I just thought, ‘wow, this instrument is so cool! How can you make such beautiful music with this?’’

That was in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing, however: ‘When I tried to play it later, it was a completely different story,’ she says, laughing. She has been practicing frequently though – she watches YouTube videos to try to learn and even bought a ‘Ukulele For Dummies’ book. She’s hoping to take it to the next level tonight: a ukulele master class, attended by nearly all of the active members of the Groningen Ukulele Society, is just up the winding staircase at the back of the pub.

17 ukelele players tuning

Ukelele society


Groningen Ukulele Society meetings are held every other Tuesday evening at O’Ceallaigh Irish Pub on Gedempte Kattendiep 13 from 19:00 to 21:00. Meetings are free, and a couple of spare ukuleles are available for beginners to try.

Paul d’Clog, the founder of the GUS, set up the group two and a half years ago after returning home to the Netherlands following a stint in the UK. ‘I had a ukulele and no one else did, so it built up slowly with 7 or 8 people at first’, he says. Today, the club has grown: there are 17 ukulele players tuning their instruments, like dozens of harps echoing off the antique Guinness and Murphy’s beer signs lining the walls, before the master class begins.

In the faintly smoky and beer-scented space, American guitarist and ukulele player Del Rey leads a Ukulele Blues Party Master Class for lovers of the little instrument here in the north. ‘Aren’t you guys lucky to get to do this? It’s really a special experience to have her here’, Paul says, followed by appreciative applause. The room is also the location where the society gets together to play every other Tuesday.

After the master class, Del Rey gives a small concert on the oriental rug-covered stage downstairs. The sound is more blues and folk than Hawaiian this time, but Maureen is happy all the same. ‘The concert was really good’, she says. The warm bar was filled with joyful American music as she got to know some of her fellow ukulele players. ‘I had a great night.’