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The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain: uke for unklassifiable?

Anthony Shaw By

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The music-hall tradition has deep roots in popular British culture, traceable back to the fill-in acts of mediaeval Shakespearean theater. Minstrels and musicians would entertain the audience while the scenery was changed. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain(UOofGB) solemnly attired in black jackets and ties holds the stage uninterrupted for a whole evening, without any interruptions from distracting actors, playing with reverence music which members have culled from their own musical heritages (ranging from mediaeval madrigals to 1970s London punk anthems) though presented in a style that is more music-hall than musicologist.

If jazz is to comprise a body of work where performers of many varied styles all create an art essentially through interdependence on their colleagues' live musical skills, the UOofGB deserve to be included. Their two sets in the Espoo Cultural Center, just outside Helsinki Finland on Thursday April 14, included compositions from a truly eclectic range of composers, from Stockhausen to the Velvet Underground, but all presented in a style unique to themselves—to a band comprising 6 ukuleles and a bass(guitar or overgrown uke depending how you see it). Combining all members' vocal expertise with their obvious proficiency on their shared instrument (albeit with 5 different tunings among them) the Orchestra presents a well-honed show 'guaranteed to appeal to dysfunctional families of all ages'. The rolling refocusing of performer, tempo and style culminate at one point in 5 members joining each other around one uke, though the strength of the show is their polished vocals behind the synchronised strumming.
The band has indeed a twenty year pedigree, having its origins in a project duo of two art students in Leeds, northern England. The adoption of two more original members, Kitty Lux and David Suich, and relocation in London were the commencement of a career under the guidance of ex-art student George Hinchcliffe that has taken them to all corners of the globe and all levels of social occasion. Their ability to reach across social, musical and linguistic barriers is surely a key to their continued success, shown by mass audiences in Japan and as the audience in Espoo attested.
The presentation to an enthusiastically responsive table of the audience of an old English newspaper, a used train ticket and a coin symbolised their use of well-selected mundanity to break barriers musical or cultural. Even if in Finland prejudice against their instrument is insignificant compared to that in their homeland (they blame George Formby's window-cleaning serenades of the 1930s for its continued state of ridicule), on stage George Hinchcliffe and the highly disciplined team around him work deftly to unite the appeal of Sibelius and the Stones in a 90 minute rout of whimsy, fun and respect. The chaos of my anarchic dressing room 'group interview', where seven disputing opinions and interjections regularly met any direct question, only underlined how, by integrating such a diversely inclined mass of personalities and musics, the UOofGB is truly something great and from Britain!

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