.Uke It Up

Ukulele Orchestra invades Berkeley 

In 1999, well-known ukulele fan George Harrison wrote, “Everyone I know who is into the ukulele is crackers; you can’t play it and not laugh!”

Another George would agree. George Hinchliffe, co-founder of George Hinchliffe’s Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, which plays UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall on April 26, said in a phone interview from the U.K. that one of the two basic rules of the group has always been, “Let’s have fun.”  

The other is, “Don’t lose money.”

Following both rules has not proven a problem for the group, founded on a lark, which now tours the world to sold-out shows. It has been credited—some would say blamed—for the global ukulele-playing frenzy, now extending, said Hinchliffe, as far as Antarctica, which is about as far away from Hawaii as one can get.

Hinchliffe convinced a colleague to “learn an instrument that gives you a harmonic vocabulary”—aka the ukulele. He saw a masterful performance by a classical guitarist, but realized that a group of ukuleles playing together could recreate the elements the guitarist had to intricately play by himself. And, a group could more easily bond with an audience.

So, in the fateful year of 1985, he persuaded musician pals to get together and play ukuleles for fun. “We tried to find a previous use of the phrase ‘ukulele orchestra,’” said Hinchliffe. It didn’t exist. “We met some old guys who played with Felix Mendelssohn and the Hawaiian Serenaders, but it seems we conjured up the term,” he said. They booked one gig, just to amuse themselves.

Virtual overnight success ensued. 

The UOGB now tours the world with a roster of seven-to-eight musicians, all of whom also sing. Asked how they audition new members, Hinchliffe harkens back to his old band days, asking, “Do they have a sense of humor? And, can they drive?” Musically, he said, they need to be able to play the uke and carry a tune vocally, but “with character, not bel canto.” Stage presence is also essential.

Music selections for their concerts range from Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” to the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, to Handel, and everything in between. Recent Googling of videos pulled up a stellar performance of The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” 

According to CalPerformances’ materials: “No repertoire is safe from the crackerjack lasses and lads of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.”

They receive reviews such as this 2022 one from the Edinburgh Music Review: “While the show’s format doesn’t change much, with introductions to numbers taking you down a road for audiences to be joyously thrilled, what is actually sung is a total surprise. This trope even works when you know what’s coming, such is the love for UOGB. For example, as Mr. Hinchcliffe is asked about his Yorkshire roots and he says he’ll sing something Yorkshire, what we get is their hilarious rendition of the Kate Bush hit, ‘Wuthering Heights.’”  

The Yorkshire Post commented that same year: “From swinging our beards in a stunning arrangement of ZZ Top’s ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’ to the group’s uplifting version of Paolo Nutini’s song ‘Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down’ this was live entertainment at its very best.”

But, said Hinchliffe, though the UOGB may take a lighthearted approach to the music, and even make a few “musical jokes,” they are true to the text, and consider their renditions as a form of homage to the originals. (No comment on that has been forthcoming from any of the various Handel societies.)

The UOGB, despite its many touring dates, has never played Hawaii. There have been three attempts by film companies to bring them over to aid in recording film scores, Hinchliffe said, but none materialized. However, they have played Berkeley in the past, although this is their first show at Zellerbach. 

East Bay uke players will undoubtedly turn out in droves. They likely already own By Request: Songs From the Set List, the CD available on the UOGB’s website that features renditions of tunes such as “Highway to Hell” and “The Theme from Star Trek.” Or possibly the UOGB’s latest album, One Plucking Thing After Another. Or both.

Yet, agreed Hinchliffe, there remain hordes of potential ukulele players yearning to strum free. “When we’ve run workshops, we get people who weren’t able to play the scales in school,” and were teased and humiliated as a result. “They come to have a bit of fun, and it opens up the gates,” he said.

Mastering some of the uke basics takes some practice, but “you don’t ‘work’ music,” he said. “You play music. Ultimately, music is about playing.”

Some people, he noted, buy art as an investment. “But if you don’t like it, why buy it?” he asked. “Playing music is not an ‘investment.’ You need to make sure it’s fun.” 

And while most people venturing into the ukulele-playing realm will never get to be on Top of the Pops, who cares? he said, advising this writer to stick it out, despite having no apparent musical ability. 

As for George Harrison, so fond of the uke that Paul McCartney chose to solo on it during the posthumous “The Concert for George” as a tribute to his friend? 

“George sat in with us once,” Hinchliffe reminisced. “He gave me his number and asked me to come play with him sometime.” Although that jam never happened, the “shy Beatle” is likely smiling somewhere as ukulele-strumming pervades the universe. Possibly it is now the music of the spheres. And it’s all the UOGB’s fault.

George Hinchliffe’s Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, April 26, 7:30pm, Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley. Presented as part of CalPerformances. Tickets: calperformances.org/events/2022-23/family/george-hinchliffes-ukulele-orchestra-of-great-britainor 510-642-9988.

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