BY LAURENCE VITTES
In addition to playing the ukulele from his youth, George Hinchliffe has played Hammond Organ in a soul band, electric viola in a free jazz group, electric mandolin in wedding band, and worked briefly with Michael Nyman, Hans Zimmer and Brian Eno. He has produced punched card music for mechanical fairground organs, and constructed unusual instruments. He is also the founder and director of the the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, self-described as “a group of all-singing, all-strumming ukulele players, which believes that all genres of music are available for reinterpretation, as long as they are played on the ukulele.”
Since its founding, Hinchliffe has been touring with the orchestra for 34 years. He promotes their concerts as “funny, virtuosic, twanging, awesome, foot-stomping obituaries of rock-n-roll and melodious light entertainment.”
No wonder that the orchestra has performed and jammed with musical types like HRH Prince Harry, George Harrison, Yusuf Islam, Wheatus, Pee Wee Ellis, and Slim Gaillard. They’ve also played Carnegie Halls in New York City and on the Shetland Islands.
From September 6 through April 2020, the ensemble will play 40 dates in almost as many cities, including Winchester, Stuttgart, Braunschweig, Dublin, Belfast, Gloucester, Leamington Spa, Shanghai, Croydon, High Wycombe, Helsinki, Bath, Cambridge (the Corn Exchange), Birmingham, Leicester, Stockholm (twice), Athens, Tallahassee, Toronto (the Royal Conservatory of Music), and Gilsland, Brampton (the Big House in the Country Ukulele Weekend).
We spoke with founding director George Hinchliffe about the upcoming whirlwind tour, and more.
How many different programs will you be playing?
The Ukulele Orchestra has a range of music available from which it selects to suit the venue or the occasion. Pieces with a regional flavor are often included especially if we’re overseas. Sometimes there will be a special piece for the local area or for the [specific event], for example Burns Night in Scotland, a song by Robert Burns might be included. We have also performed Finnish music, German songs, and Maori songs from New Zealand.
Do all of your ukulele players perform in all of the concerts?
The orchestra consists of ukuleleators playing instruments in various registers: sopranino, soprano, concert, tenor, baritone, and bass. Usually there are eight musicians who each sing, introduce material verbally, and play ukuleles, though sometimes performances take place with seven performers.
What gear do you use on your travels to protect the instruments?
The players normally carry hard cases to protect the instruments. When soft cases have been used for the instruments this had led to the instruments being damaged. When cases are pushed forcibly into overhead lockers during air travel, a ukulele in a soft case can easily be damaged, crushed, or broken. Some of the orchestra have learned through bitter experience to use hard cases.
The orchestra consists of ukuleleators playing instruments in various registers: sopranino, soprano, concert, tenor, baritone, and bass.
What’s the Big House in the Country Ukulele Weekend?
The Big House in the Country is an event in northern England organized by a team who [owns] a ukulele shop, produce a ukulele magazine, and organize events. They have produced events on trains, boats and at various locations. This one consists of several days in a rural location, in a venue with accommodation and a number of ukulele-related events and concerts. The Ukulele Orchestra concert is billed as the headline event and includes a concert and workshop run by the orchestra.
Can you tell us about the Cambridge Corn Exchange?
The Cambridge Corn Exchange is a venue the orchestra has played many times before. It was originally a building for farmers and merchants to trade cereal grains and was a popular location for events throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the first Motor Show in 1898, the London Symphony Orchestra in 1925, and Tea For a Thousand People in 1935. It was later used for boxing, wrestling and roller skating, as an examination hall for students at the University of Cambridge, and of course as a venue for several appearances by the Ukulele Orchestra.
Where else in China will you be performing besides your Shanghai date on October 30?
The Shanghai concert is part of the Orchestra’s Tour of China through several cities and regions. The orchestra normally will include several songs in Mandarin, and songs in English, which are known or are popular in China. The lyrics and titles which constitute the program have to be submitted to the authorities for approval before the tour is arranged.