The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, Radio 4

Want world peace? Launch the ukes

Nicholas Lezard
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:42

The ukelele marches inexorably on. A year ago, Tom Hodgkinson, editor of the Idler, magazine proposed on Radio 3 that learning and playing the ukelele would soothe the passions to the point where even levels of world peace might be affected.

And last Tuesday, Phill Jupitus presented a programme on Radio 4 about the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (you will notice that they and The IoS favour differing spellings). I once said to my daughter, who was learning the instrument, that "ukulele" is Hawaiian for "terrible noise", but I was joking, and told her so. And, by the way, the process of "learning" the basics of the ukelele takes about two minutes. We heard Phill Jupitus learn four chords in about that time. He asked if he could join the orchestra for any of their performances with these four chords. How many of their songs were that simple? "About 80 per cent of our repertoire," he was told.

This is not true. They play to a very high standard. There are only eight members but with a bit of echo it sounds unusually resonant; like ... well, an orchestra. And they can wring an astonishingly wide range of moods out of the instrument. Their "Jerusalem" was strangely affecting; "Teenage Kicks" taught me something about the song I didn't know before; their version of Chic's "Freak Out" could be considered an improvement on the original; and "Anarchy in the UK" played in the style of Simon and Garfunkel is, in its way, as subversive as the Sex Pistols' version. And, as one member put it, they are, in fact, "a punk band that dabbles in light entertainment".

Defending the number of cover versions they play, one member said, "the Berlin Philharmonic do a lot of cover versions. They do a lot of Beethoven, Mozart ...." Incidentally, may I suggest they add the Kaiser Chiefs' "I Predict a Riot" to their act? My daughter played it on the instrument and it was indeed a riot.

You see, the ukelele floats in a limbo between earnestness and parody. People underestimate it. The orchestra "pretend they're sort of playing at it but there's a sharp professional knowledge," said a commentator.

This was a heavily trailed show and I am suspicious of those, and I am certainly no worshipper of Phill Jupitus, but this programme was flawlessly executed, thought- ful, amusing, and even a little moving. I had underestimated it, as one underestimates a uke.

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