The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

ukulele orchestra of great britain

Well, there’s a thing. 

Thanks to a kind invitation (thank you, Rona) to help celebrate my dear friend Rex’s… er… somethingeth birthday, and in furtherance of my New Year resolution to Go To More Things, I have just been to a concert by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain – at another delightful venue, the Drill Hall in Chenies Street, off Tottenham Court Road (the concert was one of a series to raise money for the Hall, which needless to say doesn’t have enough to keep going).

Rex has, to say the least, eclectic tastes – besides being THE world expert on pianolas (well, one of two, and Dennis was there too:  we have met them before in these pages…), so this was going to be a treat for Rex as well as for the rest of us.

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is eight assorted people – six men, two women – strumming on a variety of ukuleles ranging from small to tiny, apart from the guy on the end with his – to my ears over-amplified – electric bass ukulele (not a bass guitar!  ‘This is the future:  you can’t fight it’).  It was made very clear that ‘banjo’ and ‘guitar’ were both dirty words in this company.  However, the ensemble could give amazingly realistic imitations of orchestras of bouzoukis, banjos, mandolins, balalaikas, Paraguayan harps or flamenco guitars.

What is their act?  Impossible to describe – is it a ‘novelty act’?   ‘Comedy turn’?  Serious music?   They present themselves with that sometimes infuriating and very English offhand pretend-cluelessness laced with surrealism (I wondered what my American chums would have made of it;  in fact the audience was just about as weird as the players – and not just the 29 of us in Rex’s party).  But the ‘cluelessness’ masks some fearsomely accomplished playing, inventive sounds and disciplined ensemble. 

What they played was certainly ‘eclectic’;  I was reminded of the Penguin Café Orchestra.  We had bluegrass, hillbilly, trad, Django Reinhart, ethnic music of all sorts, and stuff I couldn’t begin to categorise.  Some of the musical references went over my head;  others didn’t, but probably went over other people’s.  Likewise the verbal references:  one number was introduced as a ‘folk song in the style of Nina and Frederik…  Hans and Lotte Hass… Armand and Michaela Denis (On Safari)…’ – taking some of us back to our black-and-white BBC childhoods.

Each of the eight players turned out to have special talents in both playing and singing (no programme, no names, none the wiser).  I would have liked to be able to see more of their techniques – some strummed, some used a plectrum, I couldn’t see if any had finger picks or other devices.  ‘Dave’ at the end (with the pony tail, and Spike Milligan face and sense of humour) at times seemed to withdraw into a world of his own, making magical slide guitar sounds with what appeared to be a bottleneck on his tiny instrument.  The MC and guiding hand (George?) was the master of ‘witty banter’ but also played mean solos.  Everyone sang, nearly everyone sang solo at some point.  One of the chaps, hitherto quiet and unremarkable (but very tall), launched into a Shirley Bassey belter of ‘Thunderball’, complete with impossibly long held final note.

What to say about the music?  Where to begin?  ‘Be-bop-a-lula’ and ‘Anarchy’ received wildly inappropriate treatments.  In one ‘homage to plagiarism’, an apparently original (and very beautiful) song turned out to be also, and simultaneously, ‘My Way’, ‘Born Free’ and at least two other numbers.  Highlight for many of us was ‘Leaning on a Lamp-post’, from ‘George Formby’s stint with his balalaika orchestra’, in relentlessly minor key with appropriately cavernous Red Army Chorus voices and zippy balalaika sounds. 

Towards the end of the set, ‘George’ responded to a request for ‘Wild Thing’ by saying that he was too hoarse and perhaps they could do ‘Tame Thing’ instead – which turned out to be ‘Je t’aime moi non plus’ (complete with heavy breathing) as you have never heard it before.  Hilarious.  (‘T’aime’… Geddit…?)

And they had another show at 9.30!

Impossible to describe – you have to be there.  So BE there!  If you get a chance to hear them, don’t miss it.  It will be unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before.

(I meant to ask them why the novelist Malcolm Lowry called his ukulele a ‘taropatch’ – but thanks to Google I know now:  It’s a four-course eight-string Hawaiian ‘slack-key guitar’, precursor of the ukulele.)

Lots of info on the Orchestra’s website.  And lots of clips on YouTube.



(and I’d always thought it was spelled ‘ukelele’…)


picture stolen from — thanks!

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One Comment on “The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain”

  1. Clover Says:

    I can’t believe it! I’ve always spelled it “ukelele” too. Geezo!!! But aren’t they amazing!?

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