Ukulele Orchestra brings little big sounds to Escondido

Ukulele Orchestra brings little big sounds to Escondido
The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra is performing at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido Feb. 2. Courtesy photo

ESCONDIDO — Ever wonder what a Guns N’ Roses song would sound like if it was played on a ukulele? What about if an orchestra comprised of them performed it?

Wonder no more. On Feb. 2, the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra will do just that and then some.

The orchestra, out of Wellington, New Zealand, is known for covering many popular tunes all on the ukulele, will be performing at the Center for the Arts, Escondido — a much larger venue than where the band came to fruition.

As Andrew Morley-Hall, one of the orchestra members tells the story, it all started in a small café in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, when one morning he walked in and there were four people huddled around a table and having a sort of jam session.

He knew one of the musicians, who then called him over. The result of that conversation was that Morley-Hall should buy a ukulele and join in.

It only took a nano second for him to think about, he explained, and then he went out to buy one.

The next day he had one, was shown how to play a chord, and off they went.

The jam sessions continued on a regular basis, though they weren’t playing to anyone, just to themselves, trying not to disturb the others in the café, explained Morley-Hall.

And then someone in the café put $50 down on the table and said: “You guys are great, buy yourselves a coffee and how about turning around and playing for us?” said Morley-Hall.

And they did, somewhat reluctantly, he said, start playing to the café crowd.

“There was never an intent to start a band,” said Morley-Hall. “It was really just two friends wanting to have a bit of fun.”

That became a regular Thursday morning jam session until it got too big for the café to hold.

That’s when they knew they had something special, and began taking it more serious. The band grew to 12 members and they started to rehearse.

But while they never anticipated it becoming more than just a jam session, neither was it their intent to bring the small instrument into such popularity with fellow Kiwis.

“Since we’ve been playing in Wellington and New Zealand, it (ukuleles) did take off quite quickly, after we got even slightly known,” said Morley-Hall. “Even from the café, I remember the local music shop owner Alastair, he would tell us he went from selling maybe a half a dozen ukuleles in a month to just a crazy amount of ukuleles.”

And it wasn’t that the ukulele was necessarily popular at the time either. But it was through Age (Pryor) the leader of the band that happened to go on holiday and brought one home, Morley-Hall explained.

Bret (Mackenzie), of “Flight of the Conchords” fame, a co-founder of the band, also came across the instrument and they just started playing cover versions of songs in that café.

Born in England, but having grown up in New Zealand, Morley-Hall did have a musical background prior to joining the orchestra, often singing in the school choir and as a young teen, playing the guitar.

He got a degree in Sociology, but said he never found an outlet for it or a career in it. And up until this latest tour, he was still painting houses with his brother, a business they’ve had for the past 10 to 11 years, he said.

“There’s a lot of wooden houses in Wellington, so we get a lot of work,” he said.

But now on tour, Morley-Hall and the rest of the orchestra are giving people a listen to the instrument he calls, “disarming.”

“I think the instrument itself is very disarming,” he said. “It’s so unthreatening, the size of it, the four strings, it’s just a relatively simple instrument to play, to learn. And the sound of it is — I find it beautiful, it’s really lilting and you can actually play a chord without putting any fingers on the fretboard.

“I remember when I heard five or six ukuleles played together, I can’t describe it. I just find it beautiful,” he said.

Tickets range from $25 to $50 and are available online at artcenter.org or by calling (800) 988-4253. Visit ukulele.co.nz for more information.

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