A worldwide phenomenon, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is an original musical ensemble featuring only ukuleles—of various sizes and registers—and accompanied by just the natural voices of the performers. Playing for members of the British Royal Family, to the Houses of Parliament in London, to millions of international television and online viewers, they’ve sold out twice at Carnegie Hall in New York, The Royal Albert Hall in London, and Sydney Opera House in Australia; have played at Glastonbury to The Electric Proms; and much more.
Founded by George Hinchliffe and Kitty Lux, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is best known for playing versions of famous rock songs and film themes, sometimes changing these to subvert the expectations of the audience. Sometimes a rock song will be changed into a jazz idiom, or sometimes several songs which are known from different genres are combined in one “soup of contrasts.”
When The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain began in 1985, the public opinion was that an orchestra consisting entirely of ukuleles in different sizes was a strange concept. This was something that attracted the founders. The Orchestra members at that time had experience of many kinds of music and yet had become tired of the conventions of the music business world as well as the conventions of performance and genre stereotyping that were prevalent at that time. The idea was to make something fresh and entertaining, both modern and old-fashioned, in a different style that deviated from the current performance fashion. People liked the result.
Today, after many years, the Orchestra finds that wherever they go, people are now playing ukuleles, often in groups. Many of these enthusiasts tell the Orchestra that they were inspired to play the instrument after seeing and hearing this, the original Ukulele Orchestra.
The Orchestra has recorded and released records, CDs, and DVDs on its own independent label and with CBS, Sony, Discethnique, Longman, Volume, Tachyon, and The Ministry of Sound, as well as appeared on Jools Holland’s Hootenany.
Original compositions and songs by the Orchestra have been used on television, on film, and in radio plays, as well as in performance by other musicians. They have collaborated with the British Film Institute in providing music for silent films and also musically with Madness, Robbie Williams, Ant & Dec, Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), Stefan Raab, Rainer Hersch, and a full symphony orchestra performing at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Beatle George Harrison was a well-known fan who established contact and played with the Orchestra.
In addition to performing at theatres and concert halls, the Orchestra has also packed the crowds in at rock festivals such as Glastonbury, The Big Chill, WOMAD, The Electric Picnic, and before 170,000 people in Hyde Park, as well as played in seven cathedrals in England and Wales. The group has been commissioned to write commemorative concerts, such as The Cecil Sharp 100 Year Memorial Concert in 2012 and The 100 Year World War One Memorial Concert in 2014 for Birmingham Town Hall.
The arrangements of the music are specially made, often by the Director and Founder Hinchliffe, or by other members of the group. The focus is to bring out the spirit of the music, to be faithful to the musical notes, while actually changing the style or genre of the music by the mere fact of playing it on ukuleles. Audiences have reported that the music of the orchestra is variously moving, funny, stomping, thought-provoking, surprising, or inducing the audience by sheer infectious spirit to “tap their toes” along with the beat.
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain has been featured on CNN and CBS and invited by the British Broadcasting Corporation to play live on air for BBC Radio 3 (the classical music channel) as well as for BBC Radio 1 (the rock, electronic dance music, and youth music channel) and live on other BBC channels many times.