Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - May 10, 2024

Uproarious ukuleles

Sometimes when we've bought tickets for shows at Kansas State University's McCain Auditorium, we are not really sure what to expect. But the following promotional material overcame our hesitancy as it sounded like fun:

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is a group of all-singing, all-strumming Ukulele players. A concert by the Ukulele Orchestra is a funny, virtuosic, twanging, awesome, ... and melodious light entertainment featuring only the "bonsai guitar" and a menagerie of voices in a collision of post-punk performance and toe-tapping oldies. ... Going from Tchaikovsky to Nirvana via Otis Redding and Spaghetti Western soundtracks, the Orchestra takes us on "a world tour with only hand luggage" and gives the listener "One Plucking Thing After Another. ..."

When we entered the seating area, the usher asked husband Art and me if we had seen them before. When we said we had not, he replied, "You’re in for a treat." Then the man next to me described himself as a "groupie." Those comments primed us to enjoy the show.

The dictionary I checked described an orchestra as "a large group of musicians who play a variety of different instruments together." Seven people all playing ukeleles seemed a stretch, but they did wear concert attire - the five men in black suits, white shirts, and black bow ties and the two women in black pantsuits. But with one of the men sporting striped red-and-white socks and one of the women wearing red sneakers, well, we knew it would fun.

Founded in London in 1985, the orchestra features ukuleles of various sizes and registers from soprano to bass. Introducing the pieces with droll humor, they performed tongue-in-cheek versions of popular songs from a wide variety of genres. These included "On the Road Again," "Sweet Charity," "Airport," "Limehouse Blues," and a medley that covered "My Way" and other tunes. In between, they interjected comments that resonated with the audience, including references to "The Wizard of Oz" and Manhattan's nickname, "The Little Apple."

During one song, a musician balanced an umbrella on his forehead. While the others played "Airport," he zoomed here and there on stage with his arms spread like airplane wings. Then, he launched multiple paper airplanes into the audience, with one landing in the lap of our groupie. Antics such as these and comments of group members kept us laughing, while their skill with the ukuleles had us tapping our feet.

The UOGB was formed by multi-instrumentalist and musicologist George Hinchliffe who gave his friend, the post-punk singer Kitty Lux, a ukulele for her birthday. Hinchliffe told the Chicago Tribune he chose the ukulele because: "It has a sweet voice, it's cheap and easy to play, and you can carry it as hand luggage."

The group is independent, meaning unsigned to any record label, but has released more than 30 albums. Yet most of the time it is on tour.

It has performed all over the world, including Spitsbergen, Svalbard above the Arctic Circle, the Chongqing Taindi Theatre in China, the Royal Festival Hall, the United Kingdom's Houses of Parliament, New York's Carnegie Hall, and the Sydney Opera House.

In 1995, the UOGB performed at the 50th anniversary of the Victory-in-Europe-Day celebrations in London's Hyde Park before an estimated crowd of 170,000.

In 2009, it performed at London's Royal Albert Hall, where at least 1,000 audience members with ukuleles participated in Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." In 2016, the UOGB entertained Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle at a private party to celebrate the queen's 90th birthday.

During the 2020-21 COVID-19 pandemic, the orchestra's members - unable to tour because of the lockdowns - released 13 music videos on YouTube.

The Daily Telegraph, Guardian and others have described the orchestra as a "much-loved British institution."

One reviewer said the group had "taken the comic aspects and musical capabilities of the ukulele and blended them together into a well-honed act, delivered with marvelous nonchalance and impressive versatility."

The group has often been credited for the world-wide resurgence in popularity of the ukulele. Developed in the 1880s, the ukulele is based on several small, guitar-like instruments of Portuguese origin. It was introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by Portuguese immigrants. An important factor in establishing the ukulele in Hawaiian music and culture was King Kalākaua, who incorporated it into performances at royal gatherings.

In the Hawaiian language, the word ukulele roughly translates as "jumping flea." Legend attributes it to the nickname of Englishman Edward William Purvis, one of King Kalākaua's officers, who was small, had a fidgety manner, and played like an expert.

But the instrument has experienced many ups and downs in popularity. It became an icon of the Jazz Age and it made inroads into early country music and old-time music. From the late 1940s to the late 1960s, a plastics manufacturer produced about nine million inexpensive ukuleles. Those of a certain age may recall Arthur Godfrey featuring musicians playing the instrument on his television show in the 1950s.

Beatles George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and John Lennon all played the ukulele at some point in their careers. Singer-musician Tiny Tim found substantial notoriety in 1968 by reviving the 1929 song "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" while playing the ukelele and singing in a falsetto voice.

The instrument's popularity waned until Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's release of his 1993 reggae-rhythmed medley of "Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World." I've often told Art and our daughters that I want Kamakawiwo'ole's song played at my memorial service because it is such a sweet combination of two songs I love.

As the orchestra was approaching the end of its concert, Leisa Rea, who had introduced many of the numbers, told us part of the group's reason for being in the U.S. was "to make America Great Britain again."

We laughed and applauded, providing a perfect ending to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s music and antics. The usher was right ... it had been a treat!

Orchestra members after the show

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