Beginning in the late 1990s, celebrities such as Jake Shimabukuro, Zooey Deschanel and Eddie Vedder helped to reintroduce the ukulele to America. And then there’s The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. The band’s been strumming away since 1985, when an idea to go lo-fi got out of hand.
“Now it’s coming back into fashion,” George Hinchliffe, orchestra co-founder and director, told The Telegraph back in 2009.
Seven years after Hinchliffe’s comment and “30 plucking years” after the orchestra’s inception, some might still find it hard to believe that an ensemble of ukulele players has achieved worldwide success. Orchestra members, in fact, jokingly accept part of the blame for the current “hot for uke” movement. It started with a small group of friends, including Hinchliffe and co-founder Kitty Lux, playing for fun.
From there, “the Ukes” performed in Germany and realized just how big they were in Japan, a country that embraces many aspects of Hawaiian culture.
“Then in about the year 2000, when broadband Internet arrived, people who did have left-field taste could stay much more in touch with each other,” said orchestra musician Peter Brooke Turner. “A lot of ukulele players are quite techie people, and so there were, very soon, lots of people watching ukulele videos on YouTube. And since a lot of our stuff was put on YouTube, a lot of people watched it.”
The whole process was do-it-yourself, a sentiment that echoed the instrument’s history. The ukulele started out as the machete, a four-stringed chordophone taken to Hawaii by Portuguese laborers. Some enterprising immigrants with woodworking skills caught on to the instrument’s growing novelty and opened their own ukulele shops, bringing the “bonsai guitar” to the masses by the mid 1880s.
An instrument for the people
From the beginning, even after Hawaiian royalty adopted it as their own, the ukulele was a people’s instrument—an accessible, affordable and portable way to play music. A four-stringed instrument also might be easier for some people to learn and master than a guitar.
“We generally find that once you learn one or two chords, off you go, really, for playing a whole bunch of easy songs,” Turner said.
In the mainland United States, Jazz Age soloists were the primary strummers of the ukulele. It endeared its way into jug, string and country music with its unmistakable, jangly pitch. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain cites George Formby (the United Kingdom’s highest-paid ukulele player in the 1930s and ’40s) and Tiny Tim (famous for his performances on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” in the 1960s) as influences even before they knew they wanted to create a band of ukes.
When a group of eight musicians pluck away at a tiny instrument, it’s bound to make a big sound. Even with seven musicians on stage—Lux won’t be joining the orchestra for the U.S. tour coming to the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State Tuesday, Oct.13—the Ukes will sound fuller than one might expect. But the ensemble rarely performs with fewer than six members, lest it become an “unplugged” version of itself.
“Generally as long as we have enough of the original members, we can achieve some sort of a critical mass,” Turner said.
Time for a uke-off?
The orchestra’s success at playing everything from pop to classical seems to have helped create a cottage industry of ukulele ensembles. Anyone who sets trends knows that knockoffs are sure to follow. Decades after the orchestra’s creation came ensembles with names like The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra (New Zealand’s own), The Ukulele Orchestra of the Western Hemisphere (from California) and The United Kingdom Ukulele Orchestra (based in Germany).
In a January interview with www.b-c-ing-u.com, Hinchliffe addressed how the concept of an orchestra composed of ukulele players, originally created for a laugh and a bit of irony, became a household term. He doesn’t begrudge anyone for starting a ukulele ensemble but takes offense at copycats.
“We were the first ukulele orchestra and invented the term. The term 'ukulele orchestra’ is now used by many groups who have been inspired by us to form their own ensembles. Some unscrupulous people have even passed themselves off as us and imitated our brand, our style, our lineup, our show,” Hinchliffe said. “However, in general, we support all musicians, all ukulele players, indeed anyone who’s been inspired by us to start their own ukulele orchestra, in whatever country. We don’t like misrepresentation and duping of the public, however.”
According to the BBC, a legal battle kicked off in September 2014. In July, a judge decided that the German orchestra “misrepresents to a substantial proportion of the public (in Great Britain) who recognize The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain as the trade name of a particular music group” and that the German counterparts’ actions “caused damage to The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s goodwill” over the original ensemble’s reputation as performers.
“The judgment we got was quite satisfying,” Turner said. “It was just very irritating, really, to be—I hesitate to use the word—copied.”
“Copied” seems to be an understatement. The United Kingdom Ukulele Orchestra, the ensemble named in the 2014 lawsuit, went so far as to book a string of performance dates in the United States, an itinerary that seems to shadow the Ukes’ dates and locations. In fact, a New Hampshire venue recently advertised The United Kingdom Ukulele Orchestra’s concert using The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s photo, promotional wording, press quotes and song lineup.
Perhaps the orchestras need to schedule a ukulele duel.
An appeal for enthusiasts
One aspect of the Ukes’ appeal is its audience engagement.
“We always get a chance to go out and talk to people who are playing the ukulele,” Turner said. “It’s very important for us to keep in touch with the grassroots of the scene. We know that a lot of people started playing ukulele because they’d seen us at a concert.”
For enthusiasts who need more ukulele, they can watch busking at Penn State by two local ukulele clubs prior to the Ukes’ performance—PSUkulele at West Halls courtyard and the Allegheny Ukulele Kollective in the HUB-Robeson Center.
One might compare a ukulele orchestra of today with the drum circles of yesterday.
“It’s not a pompous or pretentious instrument. It’s very inclusive,” Turner said. “It’s very social, and the people who play it are always friendly.”
For a musician who grew up in alternative, progressive and rock scenes in England, spending one’s days playing around for fun with a group of like-minded friends, while selling out major concert halls, sounds like a dream come true.
“It’s been a career I never envisioned happening,” Turner said. “That’s one of the wonders of this life, that I’ve ended up earning a living playing the ukulele.”