The mere mention of the word ukulele conjures up images of cheery twanging tunes in the Hawaiian sunshine, the toothy grin and cheeky double entendres of George Formby, or the falsetto stylings and flowing locks of the eccentric Tiny Tim tiptoeing through the tulips. Ridiculed by some and adored by many, the four-string ukulele is currently enjoying a musical renaissance. The hugely talented Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain are arguably single-handedly responsible for putting this tiny instrument firmly back on the musical map.
A similar instrument, the lethal-sounding machete, was sailed over to Hawaii in the 1880s by Portuguese immigrants. The adapted ukulele caught on like wildfire and it rapidly became the national instrument of Hawaii. Its popularity crossed the shores to 1920s USA Vaudeville where artists like Cliff ‘Ukulele Ike’ Edward unashamedly strummed the uke into the realms of mainstream popular music. In Canada, the ukulele, being cheap and relatively easy to learn, was widely used in schools in the 1960s to promote musical literacy. Ukuleles are also a big hit in Japan, where Hawaiian-born virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro has achieved huge popularity. Shimabukuro’s YouTube rendition of ukulele-loving George Harrison’s ‘While my guitar gently weeps’ is up to 12 million hits. Ukulele artists abound on You Tube channels. Check out the pyrotechnics of Korean genius Sungha Jung and the quirky uploads of Julia Nunes.
But for all-round entertainment, the dapper and droll Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain are the undisputed masters. Danish audiences are in for a real treat as, at last, the brilliant band of ukulele merrymakers are set to grace these shores with a concert at DR Koncerthuset this Friday.
Formed in 1985, as a potential one-off novelty act in a pub, they have been bringing broad smiles to the faces of captivated audiences from Sydney Opera House to Glastonbury and from Carnegie Hall to the Royal Albert Hall. Indeed, it was in 2009, in the impressive setting of the Royal Albert Hall, which was as close to ukulele heaven that you can possibly get, that nigh on 1,000 devoted ukulele enthusiasts strummed Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ in unison and waved their chosen instruments joyfully in the air afterwards. After 28 years together and numerous world tours, the ukes, as they are known to their legions of fans, absolutely know how to put on a good show with all the ingredients.
Combining tight vocal harmonies, an endearing, self-deprecating sense of humour and dexterous ukulele prowess, a typical show includes all manner of interpretations of work by a pot-pourri of artists and composers including Nirvana, the Sex Pistols, Hawkwind, Blur, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Ennio Morricone and St Saens.
While some of the numbers showcase the incredible talents of the troupe, others playfully twist the originals into something completely different. ‘Anarchy in the UK’ is played as a soft folk lament, Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ becomes a jaunty toe-tapping number complete with audience responses, and the awe-inspiring number ‘Handel with Care’ cunningly demonstrates how the very same chord sequence is used again and again in a number of popular songs: ‘Fly me to the Moon’ weaves its way through to ‘I will Survive’, before checking in at ‘Hotel California’ in a magnificent mélange that allows the underestimated vocal talents of the band to shine through. The ukulele can be a surprisingly funky instrument and versions of ‘Shaft’, ‘Psycho Killer’ and ‘Le Freak’ tend to bring lively audiences to their feet.
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain have spawned imitators a-plenty across the globe as the ukulele has developed into quite a fashionable mainstream instrument over the last few years. The Ukulele Orchestra themselves have worked together with Madness, David Arnold, the British Film Institute, the Ministry of Sound, Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) and the Kaiser Chiefs.
Despite their undoubted talents, these accomplished performers are reluctant to take themselves at all seriously. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek with a focus on good old-fashioned fun, and a healthy dose of British humour thrown in for good measure. The spiritual leader of the band, the charismatic George Hinchcliffe, calls the show “one plucking thing after another” and DR Koncerthuset is in for an excellent evening’s entertainment as the six gents and two ladies of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain demonstrate just what the unassuming ukulele can do in the right 16 hands.