LONDON — If the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain exists partly to subvert expectations, then the first expectation it subverts is that it is going to be very, very bad.
“Relief is one of the major emotions of our audience,” declared Dave Suich, an orchestra member.
But the happy surprise of encountering something completely different from the Tiny Tim-style hamming or banjo-plucking embarrassment of your imagination doesn’t wholly explain the deep love the orchestra inspires, not just in Britain, but also in Europe and as far away as New Zealand and Japan. Previously the private passion of a large but sub rosa group of devotees, the orchestra hit mainstream popularity in August when it performed to a sold-out crowd at the BBC Proms music festival at the Royal Albert Hall here.
“They have grown into a much-loved institution,” The Observer of London wrote. In The Financial Times, Laura Battle praised the orchestra members’ “consummate skill” and said that the “sophisticated sound they make — both percussive and melodic — is at once hilarious and heartfelt.” The Evening Standard said, “The country would plainly be a happier place if more of us played the ukulele.”
Part of the appeal is that the group — eight of them, all singing and playing the ukulele — extracts more than seems humanly possible from so small and so modest an instrument, with its four little strings. Part of it is the members’ deadpan sense of humor, in which they laugh at themselves as much as at the music.
There is also the unexpected delight of their repertory, a genre-bending array stretching from “The Ride of the Valkyries” to the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.,” which they perform as a friendly folk song, infusing even lines like “I am an Antichrist” with a cozy bonhomie. They do a cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which affords Suich an opportunity to release his long ponytail and fling his hair around, a la Kurt Cobain.
Ukuleles are mildly humorous and kind of cute, particularly when deployed by adults dressed in black tie. “The minute that eight people walk onstage with ukes, you’re winning already,” said Will Grove-White, an orchestra member.
Six of the group — Peter Brooke Turner, Kitty Lux, George Hinchliffe and Hester Goodman, in addition to Mssrs. Grove-White and Suich — met recently to discuss its philosophy and raison d’etre. (Missing were Richie Williams, who was not feeling well, and Jonty Bankes, who was out of the country.)
They have been together, more or less, since 1985, and they spoke in a jumble, finishing one another’s sentences and undercutting one another’s remarks like the old friends they are.
“Don’t listen to him, he’s wearing brown shoes,” warned Brooke Turner, as Hinchliffe tried to make a serious, nonukulele-related point about the National Health Service. “In England, that is a sign of untrustworthiness.”
They all generate ideas for new pieces and play around with novel ways of making them work. The idea is often to do things “that are not exactly normal,” Hinchliffe said, to get the ukuleles to produce noises that are nothing like ukulele noises at all.
“It’s good having this somewhat poxy instrument that can’t do much, because there aren’t limitless options, and it forces you to think imaginatively about how to create sounds and rhythms,” Grove-White said.
They use their voices: Whistling in a certain way, for instance, can approximate the sound of a wind instrument in a piece like the theme song from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Striking a ukulele to dampen the strings, and then moving the nonplucking hand up and down lightly can mimic the “wah-wah” sound of an electric guitar pedal in the theme song from “Shaft.” To poke fun of songs full of flamboyantly long notes, the orchestra plays rapid successions of short plucks with their strings.
“With heavy-metal riffs, when you pluck them out on the ukulele, they sound really weedy,” Grove-White said. “It’s a good way to mock pomposity.”
They do that often, and cheerfully. “One of the things that we feel about pop music is that while we’re very fond of it, very affectionate toward it, at the same time we recognize the ludicrousness and pretentiousness of it,” Hinchliffe said. “A lot of songs really are extremely ludicrous. In a way, it’s kind of interesting to observe that you can love something and find it risible at the same time.”
The band had its roots in Hinchliffe’s childhood in “the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire,” as he calls it, when his father brought home a ukulele-banjo, a cousin of the ukulele. “After a while I said to my father, ‘Could we get some strings for it?’ ” he recalled.
In 1985 he bought a ukulele for his friend and fellow musician Kitty Lux. “We were in a doo-wop band together,” Lux said. “It was called, I don’t remember, Something Something and the Acid Drops.”
Suich joined too, and the other members gravitated toward the group over the years, relieved to find like-minded ukulele adherents.
“People love them like puppies,” Suich said.
“They lift depression,” Grove-White said.
“It’s quite an empowering instrument,” Goodman said.
“You can do an entire world tour while carrying only hand luggage,” Hinchliffe said.
They have deliberately not sought record deals and earn most of their money from 150 or so live performances a year and from the albums they sell directly from www.ukuleleorchestra.com, their Web site. Recently they produced “Dreamspiel,” a ukulele opera with lyrics by the American playwright Michelle Carter, and collaborated with the British Film Institute to set snippets of old films to music in a show called “Ukulelescope.”
At the Proms the orchestra performed a cover of Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag,” sung sweetly by Goodman and including an original line: “Come with me Tuesday/Bring your ukulele.” Lux sang a Prom favorite, “Jerusalem,” introducing it as a song “about a nuclear power station in the green, rolling English countryside.”
There was also a cover of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” performed by a suitably insane-sounding Grove-White, ranting nonsensically in something that was not quite French. “I started approximating his lyrics, but you get the feeling he made them up as well,” Grove-White said of the Talking Heads singer, David Byrne.
But the high point may have been when the band invited members of the audience to bring their own ukuleles and join in a group rendition of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” part of their aim to spread the joy of ukuleles among the populace. There were more than 1,000 audience ukuleles, by an official count, and even the obviously unschooled joined in by swaying and waving their ukuleles in the air, like blissed-out teenagers wielding lighters at a rock concert.
And there it was, a critical mass, or as Hinchliffe announced happily from the stage: “a fragment of Beethoven for 1,008 ukuleles.”