Ukulele orchestra turns Kiwi classics into album

Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra recently played the Huia Festival in Wairarapa, and are about to release ...
PIERS FULLER/FAIRFAX NZ

Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra recently played the Huia Festival in Wairarapa, and are about to release their debut album.

Fourteen Kiwi classics have been given a ukulele makeover in a forthcoming album Be Mine Tonight.

The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra's first full album is all about song arrangement and performance rather than elaborate production.

The familiar New Zealand songs feel less constrained by the limited instrument than freed by it, stripped back to their essence.

The CD features well-known, much-loved New Zealand songs from the last century.

They include the title track, Aaradhna's Wake Up, Herbs' Long Ago, Prince Tui Teka's E Ipo and Ray Columbus and the Invaders' Till We Kissed.

Band member Gemma Gracewood said reducing songs to the basics was part of what the band did.

"We essentially play covers of other people's songs - we have an opportunity to dig into what makes them work," she said.

Neil Finn used to play his songs on a ukulele as a test, she said.

"What you're looking at is the pure essence of the song, once you've stripped it back to four strings," she said.

Gracewood has been with the band since its first rehearsal.

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Her neighbour, Bret McKenzie, knew she played the ukulele.

"One day Bret knocked on my door and said: 'band practice'.

"I had never played or sung in public before."

The band's first performance was just a week later in what is now the Library Bar in Courtenay Place and Gracewood was terrified.

Nine years later she is still there and enjoying the ride.

The band is not strictly a ukulele orchestra in that it features other instruments, including the double bass, melodica and harmonica, but what sounds like a steel guitar on the title track, Be Mine Tonight, is in fact a steel ukulele.

The also use a six-string ukulele.

Gracewood said the band got together in February to select songs and had two four-day recording sessions.

Age Pryor did the rest in his home studio.

With such a big, diverse group the negotiations over songs could easily have taken longer than the recordings themselves but nobody had time for that, she said.

"We have a finely tuned consensus process. The music is the most important thing."

Stephen Jessup said some song proposals were weeded out because they didn't work well with a ukulele ensemble band and others had already been covered to death.

The album features some prominent guests.

Noted Canadian ukulele player James Hill emailed in his contributions to Wake Up and Today is Gonna Be Mine.

Amanda Billing sang E Ipo.

"Amanda is an old friend of the band," Jessup said.

She had featured less prominently on the band's previous EP - whistling.

The band approached Lisa Tomlins for Long Ago.

"We were looking for somebody to make it a bit more exciting, someone who was a well-known singer to make it a bit more interesting and fun," he said.

- Be Mine Tonight will be available from record shops or to download from iTunes on November 7.

 - Hutt News

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