George Hinchliffe never thought playing the ukulele would make him feel like a rock star.
But in the 28 years since he founded the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain something happened: The ukulele became cool.
“When I started playing, and when we started the orchestra, it was deeply uncool,” said Hinchliffe, 59, from his office in London. “But now between playing (ukulele) concerts and recording, we don’t have time to do anything else.”
The ukulele, if you haven’t noticed, is a hot item. It has showed up in pop songs like “Hey Soul Sister” by Train and “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz. Jake Shimabukuro has gained a worldwide following for his virtuoso playing, making him something of the Jimi Hendrix of ukulele.
Locally, ukulele groups have been popping up all over Maine, including the Peaks Island Ukulele Ensemble and the Lake Larsson School of Ukulele in Brooksville.
The popularity of the ukulele, based largely on how relatively easy it is to play and how fun it is to hear, has allowed uke practitioners like Hinchliffe to tour the world. He will be at Merrill Auditorium in Portland Friday as part of the eight-piece Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, in a concert presented by Portland Ovations.
People who think the concert will be a combination of Hawaiian folk songs and ditties from Tiny Tim need to think again. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain plays entire film music, themes of old TV shows, pop, classical and lots of other things. They’ve been known to play rockers by Nirvana and Talking Heads and soul by Otis Redding.
Recently they’ve been doing TV and Western film themes, like “Bonanza,” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” Hinchliffe said.
“We all sing, and we all play different parts, different registers. It’s not like every ukulele sounds the same,” Hinchliffe said.
Hinchliffe said he played electric guitar in other bands before forming the orchestra. He said that he and the other musicians in the orchestra were “a bit cynical” about their own experiences in the music business, and where popular music seemed to be headed in 1985.
“There were just things that felt wrong to us about the music business, about the pomposity of it,” said Hinchliffe. “We tried to do something honest and authentic, and not take ourselves too seriously.”
Hinchliffe thinks the simplicity of the ukulele appeals to a lot of people.
“It’s a simple and cheap antidote to synthesizers and expensive instruments,” said Hinchliffe. “You can make music fairly quickly when you’re just starting. On most instruments it takes months before you make a sound that’s palatable. With the ukulele, it doesn’t sound too terrible right away.”
Lake Larsson of Brooksville has played guitar most of her life, but took up ukulele recently because of it’s “cheerful” sound. She started giving lessons at her home and is going to see the Ukulele Orchestra in Portland with a group of 28.
“Once I started playing, I thought, ‘Wow, what a fun instrument,’ ” said Larsson. “A lot of my students are people who never have played an instrument and never thought they could.”
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:[email protected] Twitter: RayRouthier