Published on 20 Feb 2009

Learning to love the ukulele

“Six ukuleles?” I asked, “one’s bad enough.”

“Try it,” my friend said, “you won’t be disappointed.”

So I did. Say ukulele to me before and I’d have said George Formby and smoky old pubs browned with nicotine. Not any more I won’t.

Sure enough there were six of them – large men and a woman, armed with tiny ukuleles, a guy with an electric base and another with a guitar.

And that was the line up at the Cecil Sharpe House in north London last night for the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

It proved to be wall-to-wall, total entertainment.

From rich humour, to slow nostalgia. From Rock Around the Clock to the Dambusters the music was as eclectic as the sounds that the Ukulele can muster singly or collectively.

The texture is as round as a 12 string guitar and the contrasts one instrument makes with another amaze.

Some play percussively, others tonally. The result is genuinely orchestral, and you can’t quite divine how on earth they do it.

David Bowie is so taken with their rendition of Life on Mars that he’s put a link on his website.

Sumptuously rendered, for each player has as good a voice as his or her instrument, Life on Mars emerges pure from two verses and then takes on layers of other songs that run concurrently – My Way, For Once in My Life, Some Day I’ll Fly Away that harmonise perfectly with Bowie’s theme.

Pinball Wizard contrastingly triggers fits of laughter across the hall.

There must have been three or four hundred people in the hall last night, of all ages, from five to over 70.

And just as I thought we’d escaped George Formby, the final encore was I’m Leaning on a Lamppost. But George would have rolled, if not rocked in his grave.

His trademark song rocked yer socks off, made you laugh, made you cry all in an exotic eight minute romp.

Heaven knows into what genre their music fits, but anarchic, intensely musical, and completely original – the orchestra appears to be a cult.

Tweets by @jonsnowC4

6 reader comments

  1. John says:

    They’re all ukuleles.

  2. Britt says:

    Why don’t you take it up, Jon?

  3. Jeffrey Lam says:

    I’m so glad to hear that you’ve encountered the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain! They were on Jools Holland two or three years back, and I saw them at a festival a couple of years ago too. I agree about their humour. Did they play the “Shaft” theme tune? And they must have played “Smells Like Teen Spirit”! Everyone, you must check them out!

  4. Richard Coomber says:


    Thanks for that. I’d never heard of them. They are great – I’ve just wasted more than an hour watching other clips of them on youtube!

  5. sue heeley says:

    i need some help in buying a ukulele, my son who is sixteen wants to learn how to play but i havent a clue what to buy. can anyone help


  6. Semi Acoustic Dan says:

    Great post! I am a big fan of the Ukulele and hope to one day learn. I saw this group a few years ago on TV and they were really entertaining!

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