I was proud to be asked to headline a brand-new ukulele festival on Saturday: Walkington Ukulele Festival. Walkington has the picturesque look of one of those quaint English chocolate-box villages that TV has us trained to believe hosts exactly one murder a week always getting predictably solved by a doctor or a couple of elderly ladies in petticoats.
The festival was completely contained in the village hall and the acts were chiefly local ukulele groups from Beverley and Hull with kids from a local school who performed by singing along with recordings. Even for young kids this at first seemed like a bit of a cheat to me. That is until I realised how much fun they were having and how confident they looked. The music was like training wheels for them. Changing my thinking I realised that having such a positive early experience onstage is, in the long run, far preferable to being up there and having a negative one. For the rest of the time the kids were able to see older and more experienced players perform. This sort of exposure to home-made live music is so important for children. It was all quite marvellous and I’m sure they will go on to do much more.
The real heroes of the event were the organisers of the festival: Gary and Hazel Hughes. I think that anyone who puts on a festival is something out of the ordinary but Gary and Hazel’s motivation is born out of great personal tragedy. In 2014 they lost their son Stephen who was only 23 years old. He’d been a fit and healthy young primary school teacher who enjoyed playing sports and music in equal measure. He had started to become unusually breathless and thereafter died of a frequently undiagnosed heart condition called Myocarditis.
Myocarditis affects about 7000 people a year in the UK. But an accurate diagnosis has only been possible with a heart biopsy – which doctors are generally unwilling to do unless there are other signs of heart difficulties (which usually don’t show up in fit, young people). As a result, the condition, which is initially caused by viruses (flu, glandular fever, chicken pox and others) goes undiagnosed and often the heart gets enlarged to the point where it fails and can no longer pump sufficient blood around the body. Those of us who have raised a child find it all but impossible to imagine the level of grief that must come crashing down on a parent for whom the very worst happens. But Gary and Hazel transformed their energy of loss and repurposed it towards positive activity and ultimately the creation of joy.
They started the Stephen Hughes Foundation which provides sports and music grants to school age children. The money they raise is given to schools to provide instruments and materials for kids to make music. Most especially, ukuleles. Grants also make it possible for kids to do sports such as rugby, cycling, table tennis, martial arts, orienteering, skateboarding and more.
So far, their foundation has raised £85,000 and they are now set on a goal of £100,000. If you have any doubt that donations sent to the British Heart Foundation have made any medical difference, it was announced that the Stephen Hughes Foundation has directly contributed towards a simple blood test that could be a diagnostic tool for myocarditis. It has also contributed towards a growing understanding of the causes of the disease: useful in developing treatments to combat the heart inflammation. The foundation says, “The research still has much to discover, including why some people are more susceptible than others, but provides great hope of preventing future loss of life to myocarditis.”
But think about the genius of what they have done: the positive changes in young lives and the long-term joy and benefits to humanity that have blossomed and grown out of their personal devastation. And now they’ve gone and made a ukulele festival too!
I was delighted to learn there is a Canadian behind the event. A fellow called Mike, keen thespian and ukuleleist, who lived for many years in Dorval, Quebec and is now Chair of the Walkington Village Hall Committee. He was the one who suggested it might be a good place to hold a ukulele festival. And how right he was.
The festival was well attended and supported. There were smiles all afternoon and into the evening: at one point helped along by Mike’s hilarious verbal contributions to the raffle. As I was leaving, and loading my gear into the car, I heard some voices begin to sing the national anthem of Canada: O Canada. For the day was Canada Day: July 1st. It was Mike and his two daughters, Helen and Sarah, outside the door of the hall. I quickly ran over and joined in and felt a wonderful warm feeling for the country where I was born and have had so many good times. There is a certain feeling of pride when you’re away from any country that you love, and an exuberance that you get when you meet others who feel the same. The four of us were unstoppable. Right there by the sidewalk we sang our hearts out, not caring what people thought, and ended in fabulous (to me anyway!) harmony on the final notes of, “O Canada, we stand on guard for thee!”
It was a grand, grand day and if Stephen is up there looking down on all of this he must be chuffed to bits!
Anyone wishing to contribute to the Stephen Hughes Foundation can do so here at the Stephen Hughes Foundation webpage
Or here at their Just Giving page
It was a small, but very special event, in more ways than one: