Washington plays one. So does Amanda Palmer, and Boy and Bear. How did ukuleles become as essential hipster equipment as non-prescription glasses and Jesus beards? If you ask George Hinchliffe, the trend can be traced back to one group – his group – the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.
Hinchliffe and a motley band of actors and musicians formed the band in London 27 years ago for a one-off performance. “So we said, ‘OK, let’s not buy a round of drinks, and let’s buy a lot of ukuleles and do a gig.’ And in fact we had a tremendous response from the audience. Then within a week we got another gig and not long after that we got a national radio session.”
At the time most people’s idea of ukulele music was Tiny Tim screeching ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’. The orchestra instead discovered untapped possibilities in the toy-like Hawaiian guitar. “The ukulele seemed like an outsider instrument,” Hinchliffe explains, “an instrument without a pedigree or tradition, so it was like a level playing field and we could play anything we liked from classical music to quirky music.”
The eight-strong group plays songs ranging from classic Pink Floyd to Lady Gaga. “We pick comic songs or songs that have been worked to death, then find some twisted way to bring it to life again. Our audience seems to respond to things like ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’, Bob Marley, ‘Wuthering Heights’. I don’t know how it happens but the songs we often do are ones associated with 70s women singers like Kate Bush, Aretha Franklin’s ‘You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman’, Shirley Bassey’s ‘I Who Have Nothing’.”
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is headed to Australia on their “a world tour with only hand luggage” and look forward to confounding audience expectations. “The one reason we’ve been able to keep going for 27 years and it seems to be working is that we’ve got such splendid performers in our orchestra and musicians. A large part of it is down to it being a really good show – not just to do with the ukulele.”