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Ukulele Against the Machine

Updated: Apr 17

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain performs Saturday, April 13 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.


The musicians currently on tour with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, from left: Laura Currie, Jonty Bankes, Hester Goodman, Ben Rouse, Leisa Rea, Ewan Wardrop and Peter Brooke Turner. Photo courtesy of UOGB/Stefan Mager
 

Consider the ukulele.


It’s not exactly the Rodney Dangerfield of instruments. That’s the accordion, obviously. But it’s not the Cary Grant either. Ukes have a reputation of being easy to play and cheap to buy, but they have a limited range of notes and can’t manage complex music very well. That simplicity makes it perfect for kindergartens and cruise ships. But it has limited popularity and even less status.


Not to say it hasn’t had its moments in the spotlight. There have been a few times in the recent past in which the ukulele has reached the pinnacle of the West’s cultural mainstream. First in the 1960s, and the reign of the falsetto-voiced Tiny Tim, an eccentric performer whose act – strumming a ukulele while warbling through a repertoire of novelty songs – bafflingly catapulted him to a stratospheric level of fame. He got married on “The Tonight Show” and 45 million people watched. Double the number of Americans who watched Prince William marry Kate Middleton. What were we thinking?


Then, in 2004, a haunting medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/It’s a Wonderful World” by the Hawaiian singer and ukulelist Israel Kamakawiwoʻole shot to No. 12 on the Billboard charts. The record was certified platinum in 2014 (26 years after it was recorded and 17 years after the singer’s death), and sold more than 4.2 million copies in the U.S. alone. The recording’s music video is a member of the YouTube billion views club, and has been added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry. Kamakawiwoʻole’s tender and unaffected voice is saturated with loneliness, longing and heartache and in the 2010s it was everywhere, the soundtrack to the Age of Hipsters. 


That brings us to today and the instrument’s resurgent fame, in no small part due to the much-beloved Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (UOGB) which has dressed the instrument up in formalwear and made it fit for civil society. Currently on a world tour, the UOGB visits the Irvine Barclay Theatre on April 13, courtesy of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.


Founded in the post-punk London of 1985, the ensemble is a global phenomenon, aided no doubt by its 30 albums and score of viral videos. Have a look at the orchestra’s 2007 Cambridge Folk Festival performance as they cooly navigate through Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft,” and you’ll get a good sense of their magic. There’s something intrinsically hilarious about a tuxedo-clad middle-aged man intently playing a tiny guitar while asking in an elegant British accent the eternal question: “Who’s the Black private dick who’s a hit with all the chicks?” In perfect call-and-response form, the ensemble answers in unison: “Shaft!” We can dig it. It’s as close an approximation to American soul music as seven ukulele players will ever get.



But it’s more than the deadpan humor. It’s the orchestra’s virtuosity. Victor Borge was a comic, but first he was a concert pianist. Weird Al Yankovic is an extraordinarily skilled and well-trained musician, as was Spike Jones. Comedy can’t serve as a cover for sloppy technique, and the UOGB has done the seemingly impossible: They’ve refined the instrument, brought it to the adult’s table, made it go legit. They’ve shown something about the instrument that hadn’t really been shown before: It has range. 


Guided by the founding brief of “have fun and don’t lose money,” they play more than 110 concerts annually, animated by a spirit of serious fun and the post-punk milieu that they emerged from. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, co-founder George Hinchliffe said that the idea was for the orchestra to be an "antidote to pomposity, egomania, cults of personality, rip-offs, music-business-standard-operational nonsense and prima donnas." In short, a thumb in the eye of the status quo.


Leisa Rae is the UOGB’s creative producer and has been an ensemble member of “The Ukes” for 18 years. More than anyone, she’s aware of the group’s paradox: tiny instrument, massive success. 


“We play bonsai guitars,” she says. “It a friendly instrument. You can pick one up at a party and play through some chords and you have music. It’s not intimidating. Everybody can play one. George Hinchliff who started the group along with Kitty Lux says we have instruments you can buy with loose change.”


From that accessibility and friendliness, a juggernaut was born.


“The joke is, it started in some dusty room in a pub above London, with a group playing ukuleles in tuxes,” she says. “It was such a gimmick, and it immediately had a cult appeal, a cult following. Those people stayed close to the ukes and followed the ukes. I’m not sure when the big break came, but we had small crowds who loved it, and if you stay at something long enough, and are good enough, and people like it, you move to bigger venues. We went from a self-deprecating joke, with a little anarchy in there, where we were not like other things in the music box, to the biggest opera houses in the world.


“People want a great night out, and that’s how we are, we know how to put on a party. That’s why they come back. They’ve had a great time. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. How can you when you play ukulele?” 


Those great nights out start with the repertoire. Tongue in cheek, musically engaging, all executed with superior artistry. The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK.” A movement from a harpsichord suite by Handel. “My Way.” Ennio Morricone’s title music for “The Good, the Bad And the Ugly.” Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” ZZ Top’s “Gimme All Your Lovin.’”

 

“It’s unmistakably ukes on stage but it’s in the way we play them,” she says. “We approach every genre differently. We also have another instrument, our voices. We used to do a song with NO ukes, a sea shanty version of “Pinball Wizard.” We simply take songs that were done in one way and treat them in another. We’ll take them at a different speed, slow them down, give them swing. It’s a good barometer of whether a song has legs. Whether it’s complex classical, New Wave, punk, heavy metal or synth, if we can make it sound ok, there’s something in it.” 




The key to making the songs work is the orchestrations. There are ukes with different registers spread out on stage, some instruments that handle the higher notes, some the lower. Divvying up the notes creates the complexity that is missing from solo uke performances.


“How we apply the technique to it is in the roles we play within the band,” she says. “We’re not doing the same thing as the person next to us. Everyone knows their roles so well. I play a sopranino uke, and  tell the audience that it’s formal name is ‘fridge magnet.’ We also have a sound engineer and she knows exactly how we play and what the instruments sound like and what happens in the orchestration. She can bring out high bits, low bits, bass lines, voices. She knows us so well.


“I guess if we appear virtuosic it’s great, not everyone can play well, but more than anything it’s our approach that makes it sound that way. If you think about it, community uke groups often play only in unison. There’s more to life than ‘down, up, down, down, up.’ There’s nothing wrong with people getting together to play, they’re bonding, and having fun. But we could be the comb-and-paper orchestra, the tin bucket orchestra. It just happens to be ukes.”


Not that a sense of informality and a mechanical understanding of the instrument is all that qualifies one to be a member of the Ukes. 


“We understand one another,” she says. “You can’t be just a uke player, you have to bring more. You have to understand the vibe, to have great fun, to give the audience a great night. That’s something I never take for granted. We’ve become successful, but I believe we’re as good as the last show we do. It's always a new adventure. We scrub up quite well and know what works on stage. It’s infectious, and still is a lot of fun.”

Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

When: 8 p.m. April 13 

Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine

Cost: $45-$110. Currently sold out; contact the box office for further details

Information: philharmonicsociety.org, thebarclay.org or (949) 854-4646


 

Classical music coverage at Culture OC is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Culture OC makes all editorial decisions.

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