So, you've never heard of a ukulele orchestra before? While this may be a first for the East Lansing area, George Hinchliffe's Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain has been surprising audiences for decades, honing new ways to play popular music.
George Hinchliffe is the leader of this unusual tribe, carrying his orchestra to new heights over an extremely successful career that was not predicted by the public or even Hinchliffe himself.
“Occasionally we reflect on it and think that years ago we had normal work," Hinchliffe said. "We were students and we had jobs … and then we started doing this. It's become something that feels normal to us, but actually is unusual compared to a lot of other people. We have kind of normalized this strange experience.”
The orchestra was only supposed to be a one-off gig, but audiences wanted more. The musicians were all but forced to continue their performances, but were excited to see such a reaction to their work.
“It's the fault of the audience," Hinchliffe said. "If people didn’t buy tickets, we wouldn’t be doing it.”
Throughout their 37 year journey in the music industry, the group has went through a lot of changes. While the musicians in the orchestra have had a profound impact on the music they play, times have also changed their act.
“Back in the ‘80s … audiences thought it was strange and eccentric. Now, I think it's less so because other people use ukuleles: Taylor Swift uses them and Ed Sheeran," Hinchliffe said. "I think it's less strange to a lot of people.”
Hinchliffe's favorite songs to perform are usually from this era when they first started performing such as '70s and '80s rock, but the group also has started to bring in all genres into their performances, including pop -- which may not seem to work on their instruments. However, Hinchliffe takes that as a challenge and incorporates it into their act internationally, understanding that most pop music repertoire is universal and equally exciting for audiences to hear.
Hinchliffe continues to change the music that they perform, keeping their act modern and relatable to audiences, but still working towards the eccentricity of the orchestra, mixing music and its stylings.
“Some people think we are going to be doing happy, toe-tapping music like old fashioned jazz or country, we do indeed do some of those things, and then gradually we tweak it a little bit, so things get changed and we add a few ingredients that make it a bit more surprising,” Hinchliffe said.
Hinchliffe holds his favor to 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, so we have everybody playing one instrument or some other gimmick where there’s a bit of choreography as well as music in it,” Hinchliffe said.
Hinchliffe hopes that audiences connect with the art as much as he does. He has a core memory of one festival that his group performed at where the listener demographic was mostly African American guests. He was nervous that the audience would assume that the band was making fun of music by black artists such as Aretha Franklin because of their tongue-in-cheek attitude when it comes to the humor of their act. He wanted their pure intentions to come across and was nervous for the reaction. However, the show flowed just as well as any other.
“The show went down in a storm," Hinchliffe said. "Everybody liked it and they got the fact that we were serious about the music.”
While the orchestra seems to worry about connecting with international audiences, it has not stopped them on their rise to worldwide recognition. They have toured to a variety of cities and venues: working their passport around the world from the North Pole to Tazmania. They have 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 the royal family of their country.
Hinchliffe is excited to see what variety East Lansing and the Wharton Center can bring to their tour life.
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is ready to bring British humor to Michigan, ready to inspire the audience with punk rock, silly, and strange tendencies of the musicians.
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