From the Winter 2016 issue of Ukulele | BY PAT MORAN
“Rule number one—if you know the words, sing along.” From the darkened stage in Charlotte, North Carolina, Age Pryor intones the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra’s “rules of audience engagement.”
“Rule number two—if you don’t know the words, sing along.” The lights come up on the Orchestra’s eight members, a colorful riot of mismatched patterns, zippy patter, and silly stage business. A loud moo resounds as band member Andy Morley-Hall pulls a cowbell from a glowing briefcase. He keeps time under Stephen Jessup’s slurring, rubbery National resonator ukulele on a blistering rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.” On the bluegrass standard “Quail and Dumplings,” Francis Salole’s percussive clawhammer playing on banjolele percolates under swirling three-part harmonies by Pryor, Bek Coogan, and Deanne Krieg.
For ten years, the Orchestra has been playing ukulele covers of artists, including Dolly Parton, the Cars, and fellow New Zealander Lorde. “We pull (songs) apart and put them back together” with all-ukulele arrangements, Morley-Hall says by phone a few days before the Charlotte show. The Orchestra “provides a living room atmosphere onstage,” he adds, “but when the joking stops, (the playing) is tight and on the money.”
As Pryor says, “We love to show the versatility of an instrument that many consider a toy.”
THE ORCHESTRA TAKES FLIGHT
The first time Morley-Hall heard a bunch of ukuleles playing together, it sent shivers up his spine. It was the morning he walked into Wellington’s Deluxe Café for his daily coffee and saw Pryor and future Flight of the Conchords co-founder Bret McKenzie at a corner table jamming. On a previous trip to Fiji, Pryor had become enraptured with local ukulele players. “Listening to their joyful, heartfelt performances reminded me of the initial impulse I felt as a kid, when I started playing guitar,” Pryor says. When Pryor returned to Wellington, he and McKenzie “agreed to make ukulele music for fun.” It was “a very friendly sound” in the café, Morley-Hall recalls, “Like it wanted to wrap its arms around you.”
Morley-Hall’s friend Salole was playing with Pryor and McKenzie, and he invited Morley-Hall to join the session. Morley-Hall, who had never played a ukulele before, rushed out and bought a $50 Kala at nearby Alistair’s music. “I came back and said, ‘Show me how to play a few chords.’”
As people gathered to hear the group’s weekly jams, café regular Megan Hosking, who was dating Salole, was among them. “I wanted to join the fun, but I didn’t own or play a uke,” says Hosking, who is now married to Salole. “After Francis brought me a pale blue Mahalo for my birthday and showed me some chord shapes, I started sitting in.” The impromptu music party drew a crowd at Deluxe, but it soon outgrew the tiny café. McKenzie departed for Conchords fame, but membership swelled as the Orchestra became a proper band, booking gigs at theaters and festivals.
In the course of a decade, the Orchestra has toured New Zealand, Australia, China, Japan, and the United States. They’ve also helped raise the profile of their chosen instrument in their homeland by building on New Zealand’s rich ukulele tradition.
“Our repertoire has always included classic hits from the US and the UK,” Pryor says, “but we decided to do an album of New Zealand songs because it feels good to shine the spotlight on our part of the world.” Released in 2014, the Orchestra’s first full-length album, Be Mine Tonight, is devoted to ukulele versions of Kiwi tunes, including Te Rangi Pai’s 1907 lullaby “Hine e Hine” (the “Goodnight Kiwi Song”) and “Today Is Gonna Be Mine” from Dunedin rocker David Kilgore (founder of cult 1980s New Wave band the Clean).
“There has always been a place in New Zealand music for ukulele,” Hosking says. “‘Blue Smoke,’ which we lovingly covered, features ukulele and was the very first pop song to top the national charts,” back in 1949. Hosking also credits the Big Muffin Serious Band, whose combination of theatrics and satirical lyrics have enthralled Kiwi audiences since 1983, for “blazing the ukulele trail.”
A towering influence on the Orchestra and other New Zealand musicians is Bill Sevesi. In 2011, occasional Orchestra member Gemma Gracewood hosted Bill Sevesi’s Dream, a Kiwi television documentary on the 92-year-old Polynesian steel-guitar master. The titular dream is Sevisi’s wish to place ukuleles in the hands of schoolchildren across the country. The documentary had a beneficial effect, says Hosking: With help from the Auckland-based Ukulele Festival, over 2,800 of the instruments are now in schools. “That’s a big win.”
“The [ukulele] scene has definitely grown during the time we’ve been together,” Pryor says. “We’re happy to have contributed to awareness of the instrument,” in part through the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra’s Winter Workshops.
“We’d sign up 60 or 70 people, and over six weekends we’d teach them ukulele basics—chords and strumming,” Morley-Hall says. “At the end of it, we’d get them onstage in groups, playing songs and performing. We wanted to spread the beauty and magic of the instrument.”
Though they had to stop offering the workshops three years ago due to the Orchestra’s increasingly crowded touring schedule, the band encourages audiences at their shows to pick up “the charming, disarming, easy-to-play instrument,” he says. “Even without putting your fingers on the fretboard, you can play a chord—an A minor 7th. You just need to put one finger on one string to play a C, and off you go!”
At gigs, Pryor often asks if audience members play ukulele, and each year the show of hands increases. Morley-Hall is gratified to see more children learning to play. The instrument is “the perfect gateway to music,” he says. “It’s cool to be part of that.”
This article originally appeared the Winter 2016 issue of Ukulele magazine.