Words by Victoria Perks (aka VIX)
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Hhmmm… One could be forgiven for thinking the name sounds somewhat smug, or potentially pompous; aimed to entertain the guffawing classes.
As a uke player and lover myself, I was keen to investigate further. Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it, right?
Tonight’s show, ‘WalyWaly on the Ukulele: The Ukes explore the Cecil Sharp Songbook’, is a one-off special commissioned by Town Hall & Symphony Hall Birmingham; selling out in the strum of a ukulele.
Cecil Sharp, a British-born music enthusiast, who extensively traveled England and America in the early 20th century collecting songs, is widely held responsible for the resurgence English folk music and culture. For me, exploring his ‘songbook’ could go either way.
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s (you will forgive me if I refer to them here on in as The Ukes) line-up tonight, consists of six uke players (four male, two female) and a double bass player; with one member confessing they’re not exactly aficionados of folk music. You and me both mate.
Others clearly are, as they take turns singing and announcing song after song, explaining the origins and versions; in – to be fair, a superb introduction to the genre.
Songs such as ‘The Tree In The Wood’ (from the film ‘Wicker Man’) and ‘The Huntsman’s Delight’ were likened, lyrically, to a Napalm Death or Black Sabbath of their time. References to archetypal songs such as ‘Scarborough Fair’ and ‘House of the Rising Sun’ were apparent, as were nods to Fairport Convention, Paul Simon, Chuck Berry and even Frank Zappa.
With The Ukes closing Cecil’s songbook with the show’s title track, ‘WalyWaly (The Water Is Wide)’; covered by contemporaries including Eva Cassidy.
The Ukes’ approach is respectful (far from smug or pretentious), with a light-hearted atmosphere and time for a quick, irreverent joke:
“How many folk singers does it take to change a light bulb? Four; one to change the light bulb and three to complain it’s electric”.
(Ed – Right, that’s in the bag for the Moseley Folk Festival)
At times I did expect Morris dancers to take to the stage, with a hey nonny hey. And apart from a brief fling with ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’, I left feeling a little cheated we didn’t get to see The Ukes’ rendition of ‘Teenage Kicks’, or one of their legendary medleys.
But something tells me people will. And for me, The Ukes prove that the ukulele; though small in stature, ‘tis musically mighty.
For more on the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, visit http://www.ukuleleorchestra.com
For further information about the Town Hall & Symphony Hall, including full event listings, visit www.thsh.co.uk