Never a bum note with The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (From East London and West Essex Guardian Series)
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The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain discuss the importance of the ukulele ahead of their gig at Walthamstow Garden Party
Who are The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain?
George Hinchliffe, Kitty Lux, Will Grove-White, Peter Brooke Turner, Dave Suich, Richie Williams, Hester Goodman and Jonty Bankes.
Why of all instruments did you choose the ukulele?
At the time we began, in 1985, there seemed to be no conventional way of playing the ukulele and so it seemed possible for us to play any sort of music in any sort of style. The absence of a tradition made anything possible, a bit like skiffle, a bit like punk. We were concerned that at the time there was a great deal of pomposity and ego mania in music, both pop and classical, and we thought that the ukulele, which some people mistakenly thought of as a toy, would have an atmosphere about it which in a way made fun out of the pomposity and over serious nature of a lot of music and musical performers. We liked the fact that the ukulele was thought not to be a ’real’ instrument, although we knew that it was capable of any sort of music; it is fully chromatic, it can play melodic lines, riffs, polyphony, chords, and it can be used as an accompaniment to singing.
How do you choose the covers that you play?
We try things out and see if they work. The ukulele acts as what the Daily Telegraph said is a ’bullshit detector’. If a song is weak then the ukulele reveals this. With a big production, a bad song can be made to seem good, but the stripped down ukulele treatment lets you know if the song is good music or not. Sometimes we play songs we’ve written, cover versions are great. We play Beethoven and Mozart, just like the Philharmonic Orchestra.
Are there any songs that you tried to play but then decided it's just not working?
Almost any music can be made to work with ukuleles. Some music needs thought and musical imagination in order to find a way of playing it. Many techniques can be used of course; ones which broaden the scope of the ukulele include tremolo, arpeggio, campanile, homophonic strumming, percussion on the strings and the body, and so on.
How did people react at first, when they've heard of the ukulele orchestra?
Our audiences often have preconceived ideas of what they are going to find at one of our concerts. They often think that it will be old swinging music, and though we like to set the toes of our audiences tapping, and we usually include a few hot jazz pieces, we also include rock, even grunge and classical music and some music which probably defies classification. We find that we have great word of mouth (so far!), and that people who have been to our concerts often come again but bring their friends. They like to see the change in their attitude of their friends; apparently it is common for people to think it might be ok, but then to have an
epiphany, a sort of 'ah hat moment, when they start to think that all their prejudices are inappropriate and that they simply will have to sit back and enjoy the show. We had a very famous theatrical producer who came to see us. He was brought by his wife and
admitted to us afterwards that he had not been too keen to see us. But he said after seeing our show that he thought is was fantastic and vastly entertaining. His summary was that although we only use ukuleles in the show, and sing, in fact it was nothing much to do with ukuleles and everything to do with talent and skilled entertainment and rapport with the audience. I don't think it's too egotistical to pass that on, after all, while we like ukuleles, we like music more, and we like to have fun, and if we have fun then the audience can have fun with us, and they usually do.
Do other musicians take you seriously when they see your "toy guitars"?
We have had a lot of very complementary comments from other musicians. We try to make sure that there is something in our show for a wide range of audience members, both in the style of music, but also in the way of performing. We try to have something which can operate in different ways and on different levels. We usually find that the same speeches and the same musical arrangements, for example our 'mash ups' of different types of music simultaneously can be appreciated in different ways by different people, some might like the humour, which others, perhaps the more musically knowledgeable will find layers in it and references to other sorts of music.
Is it possible to be serious with these kinds of instruments?
It is possible to be very serious about music with any instrument. The ukulele is just another instrument. Anything can be played on the ukulele, just as it can on the church organ, the string quartet, the mobile phone. Of course we play with the fact that people sometimes make the mistake of thinking the ukulele is a toy or a joke, but in fact we simply try to present our music in an entertaining way but the music we play is good, solid, a stomping rocking swooning ecstatic and heartbreaking ride. After all, music is not work, it is play. It should be fun. Even serious music is play with emotions and references. In English we say we 'play music' we don't 'work music'.
Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain play the Barbican Stage at Walthamstow Garden Party, Lloyd Park Walthamstow, Saturday, July 26.