Ukulele Orchestra returns

Last updated 13:57 31/01/2013
Mohua Sun
UNASSUMING FUN: Founding member Age Pryor performs with the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra

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Neudorf is the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra's second home, and they're back this weekend writes Naomi Arnold .

There must be very few concerts where you can expect to find children, teenagers, their parents, and grandparents grooving happily together, but you're pretty much guaranteed it at an evening hosted by the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra.

"One of our biggest early shows was at the Botanical Gardens in Wellington and we had thousands of people there," says founder Age Pryor. "There were teenagers dancing up the front, mums and kids and elderly people - the whole shebang."

Cool enough for the teens, yet mainstream enough for everyone else, he says. "It's always been amazing for us how broad the appeal is."

The global adoration of the ukulele has become well-entrenched over the last decade or so, a movement spearheaded here by the WIUO. There are the songs, of course - covers of pop and rock, including Africa, Afternoon Delight, and Hey Ya - but there's also the WIUO's trademark wit and banter, plus the sheer visual pleasure in watching a dozen people on stage furiously strumming a mini instrument.

Pryor attributes the small, cheery instrument's popularity to its instantly disarming qualities. "It makes people smile immediately, there's no inhibitions around it, it's very simple. It's like a toy, but you can do so much with it; it has a very joyful sound."

See for yourself at their two shows at Neudorf Vineyards this weekend. It'll be a special show for Pryor, who used to live in the region. "It feels like another hometown to play in for me, and probably for the rest of the band as well," he says. "Audiences are always really supportive. We've done Neudorf shows heaps of times now. For the band it feels like family, like a second home."

It began, as so much does, with two guys and a cafe. "The whole thing started after a trip I had to Fiji, and I saw a lot of music over there that I found really inspiring," Pryor says. "It was very community-based and social, and just playing for the love of playing."

Back home he fell into conversation with Bret McKenzie. Both in the serious business of trying to make a living as musicians, they decided they needed a covers group that was just for fun.

Joined by McKenzie's neighbour Gemma Gracewood, they started playing at Wellington's Deluxe Cafe in 2005, where they'd have a morning coffee and play from sheets they'd downloaded off the internet, plinking away at songs by The White Stripes, Bill Withers, Leonard Cohen and Bon Jovi.

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"It was fun and really unassuming and we were just doing it for ourselves," he says. "None of us knew what it was going to turn into."

The band's beginnings coincided with a worldwide ukulele boom that saw the humble instrument enjoying a renewed surge in popularity.

"In New Zealand it really felt like we were part of a wave, helping spread the enjoyment of the ukulele," Pryor says.

Word spread, and some fans began queuing at the cafe before 7am to get a spot to listen, the crush sending the cafe's service grinding to a halt.

The band then began playing in bars around Wellington, eventually morphing into its current incarnation: Pryor, McKenzie, Gracewood, Andy Morley-Hall, Bek Coogan, Carmel Russell, Daniel Yeabsley, Francis Salole, Megan Hosking, Nigel Collins, Sam Auger, and Stephen Jessup.

As the Sunday Star-Times once wrote, resistance is futile - and Pryor says there's no stopping them any time soon.

"It feels like it's going as strong as it ever was, so I'd say at least 10 years; I wouldn't be surprised if we're still together in 15 or 20. It's such a valuable thing to know that you can go along and be cheered up."

  • Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra, Neudorf Vineyards, Friday, February 1 and Saturday, February 2, 6pm. Tickets from Everyman, $45 + booking fee. All ages (one under-12 per ticket-holding adult). Strictly no BYO. Rain or shine.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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