The ukulele – a small, four-stringed member of the guitar family – is becoming ever more ubiquitous in modern popular music. It’s difficult to separate the instrument’s ascendancy from the rise to fame of The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, an eclectic octet of musicians formed in 1985. I went along to meet them before their recent gig in London, with the intention of finding out what exactly it is that makes the sound of the diminutive chordophone so contagious.
Sitting in on the sound check with their manager, Jodie, is almost as entertaining as the show itself. As we watch the band members jibe each other playfully and launch into occasional impromptu solos, Jodie confides that “the ukulele is an approachable instrument”. While admitting that she doesn’t play the ukulele herself, she extols it virtues as if she did. “It’s rewarding… you can achieve a high standard in a shorter amount of time than with other instruments”.
She tells me how the ukulele has opened up the world of music to people who wouldn’t otherwise have had the confidence to pick up an instrument. The orchestra has a markedly inclusive approach: it has performed to a sold-out Royal Albert Hall at the BBC Proms in 2009, but has also shared a far smaller stage with a group of ukulele-playing pensioners who “just played a C if they weren’t too sure”.
Our conversation is abruptly cut off by the beginning of the rehearsal proper. I soon realise that, for all the self-deprecating banter and easy-going attitude, these performers have considerable musical talent, and moreover are very attuned to each other. The diverse individual voices blend with the twang of skilful strumming and plucking to create a melodic, wonderfully arranged sound. Set highlights include a cover of The Who’s ‘Pinball Wizard’ (in the style of a sea shanty), ‘Teenage Kicks’ by The Undertones, Ennio Morricone’s theme for The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, and a fantastic mash-up that includes everything from Handel to Frank Sinatra, via Gloria Gaynor.
Backstage after the sound check, I am invited into a dressing room to have a chat with the band’s two female members, Hester Goodman and Kitty Lux. The others are off changing into their trademark black tie dress code; they are an orchestra, and like to dress accordingly.
I ask how, after more than twenty years together at the forefront of the popularisation of the ukulele, the performers’ attitudes toward their instrument has changed since the group’s foundation. “People used to laugh. No one knew what it was”, Kitty recalls, explaining that the warm reception the ukulele enjoys today has not always been the norm. In the past, support was contained mainly in “small pockets of enthusiasm”. Hester recalls one angry letter they received from someone who had taken offence at their version of Eric Coates’s ‘The Dambusters’, mistaking their playful attitude for outright disrespect.
The UOGB is indeed good at deflating the pretentiousness and injecting whimsy into the music that it covers. During their evening performance, they somehow manage to sing the words “I am an Antichrist” (during their version of ‘Anarchy In The UK’) and come off sounding clean. I wonder whether there are any songs which they consider “too sacred” for the ukulele treatment. “You can make anything ‘go’ on the ukulele”, explains Kitty. “But some things seem to work better and are more worthwhile to play… probably because they’re just better written”.
Their appearance at the Proms last year was a career high, and the fulfilment of a long-held dream. Their performance was the first and only late-night Prom to sell out entirely; what’s more, in a ground-breaking show of ukulele player solidarity, they were joined by a thousand audience members for an ecstatic rendition of ‘Ode To Joy’. When I ask Hester and Kitty how it felt to fill the Royal Albert Hall with Ukuleles, a smile passes between them: “It was a real accolade”, grins Hester. “There was a moment where people started waving ukuleles above their heads… it felt incredible”. Yet their career hasn’t peaked just yet. “We’ve sold out the Carnegie Hall in New York for the second of November!”, they exclaim. Not bad for an instrument that, until recently, was often mistaken for a toy guitar.