DORTMUND, Germany — At 5:30 p.m. backstage at a concert hall here a few weeks ago, a security guard delivers a small brown bag from a chocolate shop in Paris. Devouring the contents is not a folk-rock pixie and her gang of bearded sidemen but eight mostly middle-aged ukulele players. Still, they are rock stars of a certain kind.
In 2 1/2 hours, 1,500 Germans of all ages and social classes will lose their minds when the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain takes the stage.
It’s not just the Germans. On Sunday, the Ukulele Orchestra plays the first of six shows in California as part of an 11-date tour of the western United States. Not bad for something that started as a joke nearly 30 years ago.
PHOTOS: Arts and culture in pictures by The Times
“At the time when we started, we were all doing other things musically,” says George Hinchliffe, the band’s spokesman. His South Yorkshire lilt has been flattened somewhat by years in London, but the pragmatism and subtly wicked humor typical of Northern England remain.
“I’d been in a soul band backing aging Motown artists visiting England. Everyone had different histories,” he says.
“The ukulele was an outsider instrument in the ’80s and we thought playing was just going to be amusement for us. We put a poster up and lots of people came and then a couple weeks later we did another gig and then we were on BBC Radio 1 within a month of starting. Not long after that we were on live television.”
Knowing a good thing when he saw it, Hinchliffe suggested the group use its fee from the television appearance to make an album. A Japanese television station licensed the material and that was that.
The ukulele is often thought of as a novelty instrument. There is comedy to be mined from its size, it doesn’t sustain well and is limited harmonically to simple chords. Performers either have to dazzle with super quick playing (the “Wizard of String” Roy Smeck) or some sort of trick (Tiny Tim), both strategies the Ukulele Orchestra is not especially interested in.
Having eight players solves the texture problem and gives the band a hugely deep well of skill and personality to draw from.
Said Hinchliffe, “If Peter sings a song, it becomes this over-the-top Mario Lanza thing. If Dave sings it, it is a sort of proto-punk thing and if Kitty sings it, the song is a dark Bertold Brecht/Hans Eisler kind of thing.
The Ukulele Orchestra does some original material, but most of its numbers are covers. One of its most often requested re-interpretations is Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” and the theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” both of which are retired from the regular rotation. Finding the right balance between the old stuff and new material is something all bands struggle with, but having eight members who each have an equal say can be complicated.
“It’s a sort of benign fascism enforcing the spirit of communism,” says Hinchliffe with a laugh. “Kitty and I are the owners of the brand since we were founder members, but because we’ve been together for such a long time and we’re all friends, it’s rare for someone to come up with a stupid idea. When [a stupid idea] does [appear], it’s usually mine.”
Group ukulele playing is now an international phenomenon, something the Ukulele Orchestra is at least partially responsible for. The group has grown so popular in Germany, there is even an impostor group that tours the country aping the Ukulele Orchestra as much as it can without being sued.
“The term ukulele orchestra was a bit of an oxymoron like a Sahara Sub-Aqua Club [when the band started], says Hinchliffe, “but it’s really exploded. It’s great.”
After the concert, the groupies gathered — mostly middle-aged men with ukes waiting to be autographed. The band sat around the table, carrot juice, beer and Jube Jubes at the ready. Despite all the time they spend together, the musicians genuinely enjoy each others’ company. After a couple hours of storytelling and belly laughs, the band slopes off to its hotel. Another day of plucking awaits.
BONUS: Ukulele Primer – all you need to know and whole lot more than you don’t – with videos.
First published in the Los Angeles Times