The ukulele, an instrument once ridiculed for its ties to vaudeville acts and Hawaiian vacations, has gone in and out of favor over its roughly 140-year history. Its recent popularity can be traced back to Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder’s 2011 solo album Ukulele Songs, Joaquin Phoenix serenading his virtual assistant with a ukulele in the 2013 film Her, and a host of other celebrity-with-ukulele appearances.
Long before any of this, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain was making the instrument relevant by pushing back against stereotypes with material not usually associated with the four-stringed instrument. That might include clever arrangements of “Theme From Shaft,” Blondie’s “Picture This,” a section from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, or AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” The eight-piece ensemble, founded by George Hinchliffe and the late Kitty Lux in 1985, appears Sunday, March 24, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center.
Peter Brooke Turner joined the ensemble in 1994. On the phone from his home in the U.K., he explained that the instrument’s uncool reputation was one of his motivations for picking it up. “When I started playing, the ukulele was considered a joke of an instrument, like a slide whistle. People who played it were oddballs. It was a neglected instrument with little associated with it but corniness. But that appealed to me. I liked it because it was an outcast.” His infatuation came from, among other things, watching clips of Tiny Tim play “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” on the late ’60s and early ’70s television program Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. “Rowan and Martin were making fun of him, and I looked at them with their slick suits and slicked-back hair and I thought, Tiny Tim’s a lot cooler then these guys. I think he was a bit ahead of his time.”
Turner, who began playing the ukulele in 1989, first saw the orchestra at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London. “Even in the beginning, they weren’t interested in the instrument’s old music connections,” he said. “They were playing Velvet Underground and soul tunes.” Now he estimates the group has some 120 songs arranged for eight ukuleles in its collection, with a current touring repertoire of 40 or 50 numbers. “When we go to different countries, we’ll modify the show a bit. We always play Sibelius’ Finlandia when we go to Finland. One of our more recent additions, ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie, we play a lot in Germany, because of its connection to Berlin and the wall. We almost always play the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly because people ask for it. We’ve been playing it for 20 years.”
Ennio Morricone’s theme for Sergio Leone’s 1966 spaghetti Western starring Clint Eastwood provides a good introduction to the orchestra’s fun way with a piece of music. After a brief bit of spoken scene-setting backed with percussive effects tapped on the instruments, the group strums its way into the familiar theme, adding the vocal effects — oohs, ahs, and trumpet-like cries — as well as the whistling heard in the original.
The song is also at the center of the orchestra’s international fame. The Ukes, as they like to call themselves, were mostly an English phenomenon until YouTube came along and made a small sensation of their version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s theme. “Somebody took songs from our DVD, our material with our copyright, and started putting them on the internet,” said Turner, pointing out the irony in an old-fashioned instrument catching fire with the help of modern-day technology. “We just didn’t get it. But it turns out that if you gave something away for free, you could sell tickets abroad. We soon found ourselves going to Germany and Sweden, going to the States [they’ve appeared at Carnegie Hall twice] and Australia and New Zealand. No one ever expected that kind of success.”
Choosing material for the ukulele requires a process. “The instrument has a capacity to act as a musical lie detector,” Turner said. “If a song is pompous, it will reveal that.” Some tunes, like the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” with its hard-strummed rhythms, adapt easily to an ensemble of ukuleles. Others, like the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” require more picking and less obvious harmonies. “Ukuleles are like saxophones,” Turner said. “There’s a soprano, a tenor, a baritone.” Member Jonty Bankes plays the bass ukulele, an instrument whose size makes it easy to mistake for a guitar, if not for its four strings. “The classical pieces we play take a lot of sit-down arranging,” Turner explained. “When we do pop pieces, it’s less formal. There’s the melody and the rhythm. We all fill in with our own textures. Vocals play a role. We’ve all known each other for so long that we can anticipate what the others will do. And we all harmonize very well.” ◀
▼ George Hinchliffe’s Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
▼ 7:30 p.m. Sunday, March 24
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ $45-$50; 505-988-1234, ticketssantafe.org