Livermore's Bankhead to host New Zealand ukulele band
By Lou Fancher
The ukulele has come a long way.
Ever since immigrants from Madeira, a Portuguese archipelago, brought the tiny four-stringed instrument to Hawaii in the 19th century, the guitar-banjo crossbreed-in-miniature has been a traveler. Reaching mainland United States in the 1920s, millions were sold nationwide; Tiny Tim kicked off a 1968 revival with the hit song "Tiptoe Through the Tulips;" and rock stars including Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and others have strummed their fare share of tunes on it. In 2015 and this year, "uke" star Jake Shimabukuro's YouTube videos regularly pull upward of 10 million views.
So it's no surprise that the Jan. 28 visit of the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra at the Bankhead Theater is a long-distance affair requiring trunks and travel. The New Zealand band packs an array of ukuleles and other instruments, sure, but band members also pound the boards in outrageous outfits while wielding anything not nailed down in high-energy, improvised high jinks.
Even an interview with longtime band member Andy Morley-Hall involves a journey. "I've just come down off the scaffolding," he says. "I'm a house painter by profession."
Musician Morely-Hall is also an avid street photographer who's been chronicling the band's history since it's origins in 2005. Award-winning Aussie musicians Age Pryo (Fly My Pretties, the Woolshed Sessions) and Bret McKenzie (of Flight of the Conchords) began the orchestra in a cafe that Morley-Hall says was "not bigger than most people's kitchens."
The band's evolution mirrored ape-to-man Darwinian drawings. "We sat with our eyes glued on books, reading the music. Then we started getting asked to play at parties. We went from sitting surrounded by stuff -- microphones, music stands -- to standing, free to move around."
In the early days, half of the band had never been near a microphone; today, Morley-Hall says it's standard to have high-tech microphonic gear embedded in his ukulele. He dreams of having "those mics we can wear on our faces so we can really move around."
The music the eight or so members play has evolved in similar fashion, "growing up" from when they'd strum the same chords and sing the same line of a song. "We realized we had harmonies, we learned to pick a song apart and take the ingredients like those on a chef's shelf and put them together with our own take on a song."
Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center Executive Director Scott Kenison says the orchestra's "quirkiness" and "international flair" attracted their attention. "Great musicians do well at the Bankhead, and if you add to that a bit of circus and spectacle, then even better. I don't think you can listen to a ukulele and not smile."
The two 45-minute setlists for the approximately two-hour show in Livermore (the orchestra will also appear at Freight and Salvage in Berkeley two days beforehand) is likely to include recognizable tunes by Britney Spears, George Benson and New Zealand pop artists featured on their 2014 album, "Be Mine Tonight," which topped the New Zealand indie music chart. Other possibilities include ukulele versions of songs by Justin Timberlake, Dolly Parton and Cyndi Lauper. The band's entire repertoire includes about 50 songs; close to 20 are chosen for a performance based on what the band "feels" the audience will enjoy.
"You can imagine eight people bringing their musical tastes to a gathering," Morley-Hall says, about song selection. A song's popularity is considered, but also great backing vocals, spectacular or intricate ukulele solos and singalongs rate highly. Traditional songs of the Maori people, indigenous to New Zealand, are played with authenticity, like precious time travel to a simpler time, a more peaceful, slower pace of life.
"One minute we'll play an old Hawaiian song, the next a Britney Spears like 'Hit Me Baby One More Time.' It keeps the audience on their toes," Morley-Hall says.
The tendency to splice poignant moments with humor keeps the show fun, he says, but behind the comedy there's serious business. The orchestra's ukes cover the gamut: Beltona concert-size ukes, Kapono koa wood sopranos. reconstructed instruments, ukes made from recycled wood and even an electric uke.
"We occasionally let 'em rip," he says. Morley-Hall's current favorite is one he picked up on tour in a small shop in New York City. "It's a Gretsch, just $100, but it's just stunning."
Accessibility makes the instruments a draw for "a mixed bag of people with no demographic that feels it can't be involved," he says. Packing two cameras and planning to shoot videos during the tour, Morley-Hall says his favorite part is "meeting folks in the foyer" after the show.
The universal popularity of the instrument is easily understood. Small, inexpensive, portable and easily learned, Morely-Hall says people love the ukulele because "you can sound like a rock star in one hour."