Jeff Tamarkin on the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britan returns to Carnegie Hall next week for an evening of "sheer fun and outright daffiness" (The New York Times). Recently, music journalist Jeff Tamarkin spoke with the "Ukes" co-founder George Hinchliffe for Carnegie Hall.
Carnegie Hall has always been known for the diversity of artists who grace its storied stage, but even the co-founder of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain finds it somewhat amusing that his own collective has earned that honor. "It feels kind of funny for a bunch of ukuleles to be playing at Carnegie Hall," says George Hinchliffe with a hearty chuckle. He pauses, then adds with typical, self-deprecating British cheek, "It's ridiculous."
Nevertheless, when the octet returns to the venue on October 17, the house will undoubtedly be full once again and the applause will be thunderous. Simply put, no one else does with a song what these ukulele virtuosos do. Whether they reimagine the rock band Nirvana's classic "Smells Like Teen Spirit"—a live version by the orchestra has nearly two million hits on YouTube—or take on music by Mozart, the Sex Pistols, Ennio Morricone, Hank Williams, or Lady Gaga, the Ukes (as their devotees call them) leave slack-jawed, ecstatic audiences in their wake.
"What we tried to do with the Ukulele Orchestra from the beginning was to establish a territory free from pretention and the hoopla that goes with the worst aspects of the music business," says Hinchliffe. "We try to keep some flavor of what we like about music while avoiding some of the other stuff. Picking an instrument that is limited in terms of its pitch range seemed like a good thing for us. It's almost like doing pencil drawings instead of oil paintings."
But just how do they choose their eclectic material? "If you've got infinite possibilities, it's sometimes hard to think of what to do. But if you've only got a restrictive palette, sometimes that acts as a stimulus, trying to make something convincing with some limitations," Hinchliffe says. "One of the key things we do is to try to find a little bit of a twist on a well-known tune. So sometimes the really cheesy, corny tune or the hackneyed and clichéd tune is exactly the one that we should be playing."
The group formed in 1985 and the current lineup has been together since 1995. The Ukes have performed all around the world and have helped bring a new respectability to an instrument that, until recent years, was considered a toy by some. "There's now a uke scene," says Hinchliffe. "Tom Petty's got one and Springsteen is playing it. Paul McCartney is an enthusiast. And we now seem to represent something in the uke scene because we've been around such a long time."
Hinchliffe won't say if the group plans any surprises for its New York date—they may even toss a couple of original compositions into the mix. They like to change the repertoire around, and one of the Ukes' goals, he says, is to introduce fans to songs they might not know. Whatever they come up with, their concert will be a memorable experience.
"We've got a reputation for an entertaining show that the audience will feel good about," Hinchliffe says. "In a way, we're victims of having stumbled across something that people have latched onto."
Jeff Tamarkin is a veteran freelance music journalist.
Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
Ticket holders: Download a PDF score of George Hinchliffe's Relentlessly In C, then bring your ukulele to the performance and play along
Download explanatory notes for the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain Relentlessly In C participation piece