The ukulele is an inherently curious instrument. It’s simultaneously capable of performing beautifully subdued music and being a punchline. It can elicit both groans and thunderous applause. When the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain performs at the Eisenhower Auditorium on Oct. 13, they will showcase the varying array of oddities that this tiny and terrific instrument is capable of performing.
“A ukulele often comes across as disarming and it’s hard not to smile,” said George Hinchliffe, the orchestra’s musical director. “The instrument is like a little dog — friendly and making a high pitched noise. It’s fun, but too much of it can get irritating. Our audiences maybe think that the show will be simplistic, with a ukulele maybe the bar is set pretty low in people’s expectations. After that, anything positive is a bonus. We often get repeated standing ovations, whooping and cheering.”
Currently touring the United States in celebration of its 30th anniversary, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain has been in a reflective mood. The longer the members stay together and tour and perform, the closer they become. At this point in their impressive career, the group is a well-oiled machine — down to earth and ready to continue strumming.
“We’ve played at Sydney Opera House, The Royal Albert Hall and in front of festival crowds up to 170,000,” Hinchliffe said. “Where do we go from here? We have a great band, we all get along, more or less, we still have a lot of fun, we still enjoy the music and our fans still enjoy joining with us and having a great time. We look out for each other and we all know each other very well.”
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If anything, the past three decades have enabled the eight members of the orchestra to know the limitations of their namesake instrument. More importantly, however, they know how to work around them and get the most out of those four short strings.
“A gig with a solo ukulele gives certain problems in that there are no bass notes. Maybe that doesn’t matter though,” Hinchliffe said. “We are an orchestra though, so we have bass, baritone, tenor, concert, soprano and all the other registers. We are more in tune with an orchestral conception than a ukulele enthusiast’s preoccupation. Having said that, most of the time we play rock music — Nirvana, The Clash, Lady Gaga, Pharrell Williams, Talking Heads and so on. It’s all being listened to through the prism of the ukulele.”
Of course a traditional orchestra may not have a ukulele section stuffed between instruments that are traditionally viewed as being “more mature.” There is an unfairly applied school of thought that associates a uke as more of a plaything, something to serve as a distraction before the real instruments arrive.
“Music is all about play. If you’re working hard, it ain’t playful and music should be playful,” Hinchliffe said. “Even serious music is playful. We try to keep things lighthearted, amusing, thought-provoking and entertaining. If it isn’t moving you — getting you fired up, making you laugh, cry, dance, think, hand jive or feel something — then it’s not worth much.”
This approach to the art is what makes the orchestra so refreshing. While they’re seriously talented musicians and songwriters, they don’t take their craft too seriously. In addition to its music, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain has made a name for itself because of the on-stage banter and unrivaled chemistry and comedic chops.
“We always try to get on with the audience, to make the show as entertaining as possible,” Hinchliffe said. “Humor comes about because we interrupt each other and we all have different perspectives. We’re like a legendary league of superheroes who acknowledge that they’re not so super, but have flaws, foibles and characteristics which set them apart from each other.”
The ukulele, in all of its glorious simplicity, is the perfect instrument for The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. It mirrors the band’s approach to their profession and has served them quite well since they first started performing in 1985.
“Every night, we turn up on stage with a ukulele each. That’s it,” Hinchliffe said. “There’s no flamboyant production, fireworks or hoopla. Just no-nonsense music. And we tear the house down, raise the roof and get the audience hopped up. Once we start it’s like a magic carpet ride and we and the audience just have to hang on for dear life.”