So you’ve never heard of a ukulele orchestra before? While it may be a first for the East Lansing area, George Hinchliffe’s Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain has been surprising audiences for decades, perfecting new ways to play popular music.
George Hinchliffe is the leader of this unusual tribe, taking his orchestra to new heights in a hugely successful career that was predicted neither by the public nor even by Hinchliffe himself.
“Once in a while we reflect on it and think that years ago we had a normal job,” Hinchliffe said. “We were students and we had jobs…then we started doing this. It became something that felt normal to us, but was actually unusual compared to a lot of other people. We sort of normalized this strange experience.
The orchestra was only supposed to be a one-off gig, but the audience wanted more. The musicians were almost forced to continue their performances, but were delighted to see such a reaction to their work.
“It’s the public’s fault,” Hinchliffe said. “If people weren’t buying tickets, we wouldn’t be doing it.”
Throughout their 37-year journey in the music industry, the band has gone through many changes. While the musicians of the orchestra have had a profound impact on the music they play, times have also changed their act.
“In the 80s… the public thought it was weird and quirky. Now I think that’s less the case because other people use ukuleles: Taylor Swift uses them and Ed Sheeran,” Hinchliffe said. “I think it’s less weird for a lot of people.”
Hinchliffe’s favorite songs to perform are usually from this era when they started playing like 70s and 80s rock, but the band also started to incorporate all genres into their performances, including pop – which may not not seem to work on their instruments. However, Hinchliffe takes this as a challenge and incorporates it into their international number, understanding that most pop music repertoire is universal and equally exciting for audiences to hear.
Hinchliffe continues to change the music they perform, keeping their act modern and accessible to the public, but always working towards the eccentricity of the orchestra, mixing music and its styles.
“Some people think we’re going to make happy, rowdy music like jazz or old-school country, indeed we do some of those things, and then gradually we change it a bit, so things change and we add a a few ingredients that make it a bit more surprising,” Hinchliffe said.
Hinchliffe favors music that continues to play with the classic form of the orchestral concert format, creating more ways to entertain an audience.
“I like the ones where we twist things around, so everybody’s playing an instrument or some other stuff where there’s a bit of choreography as well as music,” Hinchliffe said.
Hinchliffe hopes audiences will connect with art as much as he does. He has a fundamental memory of a festival his band performed at and where the listeners were mostly African American guests. He worried that audiences would assume the band was making fun of the music of black artists such as Aretha Franklin because of their tongue-in-cheek attitude to the humor of their act. He wanted their pure intentions to come out and was nervous about the reaction. However, the show flowed as well as any.
“The show went in a storm,” Hinchliffe said. “Everyone liked it and they understood that we were serious about the music.”
Although the orchestra seems keen on connecting with an international audience, that hasn’t stopped them in their rise to global recognition. They toured a variety of cities and locations, working their passport around the world, from the North Pole to Tazmania. They played some of their favorite shows in Australia, China, Japan, Estonia, Norway and Canada.
Another memorable moment for the musicians was playing the Queen of England’s 90th birthday party, honoring their country’s royal family.
Hinchliffe is excited to see what variety East Lansing and the Wharton Center can bring to their touring life.
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is ready to bring British humor to Michigan, ready to inspire audiences with the musicians’ punk rock, silly and weird tendencies.
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