Ukulele Orchestra stops in Austin

Elena Keltner

Since the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain formed 28 years ago, it has been working to make the ukulele an instrument that belongs in more places than just Hawaiian beaches.

“When we started, there was so few people playing that people who played the ukulele seemed to come together rather like the planets going around the sun,” Ukulele Orchestra member Peter Brooke Turner said. 

The orchestra formed in 1985 and continued growing in size throughout the early ’90s. Now, the orchestra tours around the world, performing original songs and covers for both first-time listeners and long-time followers. This weekend, the group is bringing its orchestra of different-sized ukuleles to Austin.

Orchestra member Dave Suich was initially driven to the ukulele because the instrument allowed him to do a world tour with merely hand luggage, and it was convenient for a variety of people.

“It’s something you can actually give to a 4-year-old and they can hold it and have a go, whereas a full-sized guitar is the size of a house to a small person,” Suich said.  

The ukulele might seem a logical choice for a fun instrument to play now, but that was not the case when the Ukulele Orchestra formed.

“Now, you can go buy a half-decent ukulele for about $40 in any shop, whereas 28 years ago, you could either buy a ‘useless toy’ or an expensive one,” Suich said.

Response to the ukulele has been positive since the orchestra’s creation. There are now other ukulele groups throughout the world, and those who come to watch the orchestra’s performance often know how to play the instrument. Audience members who bring a ukulele to the orchestra’s upcoming performances in Austin will be able to join in on playing Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” 

“We aim to show people that a concert of music is a fun thing,” Turner said. “We play all sorts of music, and everyone in the band has a special talent of some sort.”

Audiences can expect to hear a variety of genres at a Ukulele Orchestra concert. No other instruments are used — it’s only the ukuleles and the voices of the performers. 

Turner said the tight bond among the orchestra members is largely responsible for the group’s continued success.

“They always say that when families sing together, they all have something special because they’re all related, but we’ve known each other for 28 years now,” Turner said. “Because we know each other so well, then we can anticipate what we are going to play. That’s what makes it special for us.”