The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain embarks on its fourth decade of existence as it heads for a date at Portsmouth’s New Theatre Royal on Friday, April 22 at 7.30pm.
Last year they celebrated 30 Plucking Years of ukulele action; this year the theme is that they will have been active for One Billion Seconds. Once again, artistry and comedy will combine with the unexpected.
George Hinchliffe, founder member and director of the orchestra, says: “Somehow it just seems to keep on going. We started in 1985, but it must be that we are doing something that our audiences like because people keep on buying tickets!
“When we started, it was quite an odd thing to be doing. Now it seems to be quite commonplace to be playing rock songs on ukuleles, but I remember the first time we went to Chicago in 1988, we probably played some tunes from the 1920s and 1930s to start with, and then we played Born to be Wild and the audience were just scratching their heads. They didn’t know what to make of it.
“It all started in Leeds. I was doing music with Dave Bowie who was our first bass player and whose real name is Dave Bowie, unlike the more famous David Bowie. I was in a soul band that Dave ran, and I was doing some music with another band with Kitty (Lux, fellow Ukes founder). Kitty was doing lots of sessions, singing, and some guitarist was saying to her she wasn’t getting the note quite right, that she was singing a flattened eighth when she should be singing a tormented 17th or whatever. But Kitty was pretty experienced, and I was saying to her later that she was probably right. And I bought her a ukulele because it seemed to me she needed to be familiar with chords so that she had some ammo to throw back when somebody was trying to blind her with musical science.
“And then friends came round and were saying ‘Let’s have a go on that!’ And various people started playing. Somehow the potential suggested itself to do various things, and then shortly after that a number of us had moved to London, and we thought ‘Let’s do a ukulele gig in a local pub.’ It was just supposed to be a bit of fun, but we did another gig, and it all just snowballed from there.
“I suppose some things have changed quite a bit since then. I think it was all a good deal more anarchic in those days. We used to do more original songs, and we were never quite sure what was going to happen, but now it is more about entertainment. I suppose the difference is that when you are playing to 20 people, it is more of a party. Now when you are playing to several hundred and more, it has got to be a bit more professional!”
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