Festival fav’s The Wellington International Ukelele Orchestra are about to embark on a national tour in support of their debut, all Kiwi sing-along-able CD “Be Mine Tonight” which is due for release on iTunes and in stores on November 7th. The band has already been on the road and are just back for a quick home visit before heading back out again. Taking a breather their recent excursion to China and Japan founding musician Age Pryor found a few moments to chat over the blower from his digs in Auckland. Auckland, Age. Really? Not Wellington? “Ah, yes. I relocated up here about 6 years ago to teach music at Unitec part time.” But he’s still a Welly at heart, he assures me.
A few years ago Age led a number of projects including the Woolshed sessions, recorded on Jane Campion’s Nelson farm and two solo albums. These days his main focus is the ‘Uke’s’ (as he calls them), with whom he plays and co manages with fellow musician Gemma Gracewood. “It’s incredible,” he remarks, “that the band is still together. As such it’s scattered to the four winds these days. Some are back in Wellington. I’m in Auckland. Gemma’s based in New York and there’s another in Singapore.” Truly international locals!
The band’s reputation has built up over the years based on a live show of madcap hilarity and spontaneous audience participation. But behind the hijinks is a finely-tuned musical group who’ve have truly cemented their place on New Zealand’s entertainment scene. Their unique sound – a choir of gorgeous voices set to magnificent ukulele riffs and licks – is now in hot demand worldwide and they’ve long been the darlings of festivals and special events with tickets for their shows snapped up almost before they go on sale. The band’s original line up has changed little over the years and includes session musicians, a member of twinset and occasionally Brett Mckenzie.
The last time I talked to Age must have been over 9 years ago, when the Uke’s first was playing bars and Summer City gigs. Right from the start the aim of the band was to be interactive. Age relays tales of playing in morning cafe’s and sending people off to their day happy and cheery having sung and boogied away to the Uke’s interpretations of well-known songs, reinterpreted for the ukulele. “The sign of a good song is that it can be played on a uke. Like a school choir doing Beatle songs because their so easy to arrange. Ukes have become the ‘new recorder’ – simple, interactive and easy to get into. I read that we are in the Uke’s third age. The first was the 1920’s, then the 40’s and 50’s when Pacific music was the rage. And now there are a new generation of performers.” Uke music is everywhere – from the immensely popular Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain to the avant-punk of Amanda Palmer and the skilled quirkiness of James Hill, a favourite at the last International Festival of the Arts. Hill also features on the new album. James does a brilliant little solo on Aadarana’s “wake Up”. “He recorded it in a hotel bathroom for us, when he was on tour, jammed into a tiny space.” Other guests on this all Kiwi repertoire include Amanda Billing (the recently deceased Dr Potts from Shorty Street). “Amanda’s got a great voice, she does choir work too. She’s been in shows like Cabernet. She’ll be touring with us. We got her to do vocals on “E Ipo” (an old Prince Tui Teka number).” Although in hot demand by the likes of Fat Freddy’s Drop and Neil Finn, of late, star vocalist Lisa Tomlins also found a moment to work o the project, with an old Aotearoa track: “Long Ago”. That one also includes Hawaiian uke specialist Pi’ikea Clark. Age tells me that Pi’ikea is schooled in traditional Hawaiian music, “from the ones who were the keeper of the knowledge. He is a really fine player and we really learned a lot from him traditional playing.”
Recently the Uke’s have toured Asia, opening them up to a whole new audience base. “We found China very challenging, especially the language. I don’t speak Mandarin. They don’t speak English and even relying on gestures was hard because they do theirs different to us. But we learned a lot. Chinese audiences are very polite,” Ages says. Relying on a translator to convey their frivolous banter provided some extra complexities, too. There were moments of blank-faced embarrassment. “Japan was different as we mainly did festivals and community events. And English is not a problem. Also the Japanese are less inhibited once they understand what you are doing. They know about New Zealand. So that helped.” So, how will Kiwi audiences react in the coming month when the Uke’s arrive in their local halls and theatres? One thing you can rely on – plenty of fun and hilarity. “Be prepared to sing your lungs out – From Lorde to Sherbert, you’ll know all the songs!”
The Be Mine Tonight Album Release Tour:
8 Nov – Glenroy Auditorium, Dunedin
9 Nov – Stadium Southland, Invercargill
10 Nov – Alexandra Memorial Theatre
11 Nov – Lake Wanaka Centre
13 Nov – Ashburton Trust Event Centre
14 Nov – Roy Stokes Hall, Christchurch – JUST ADDED!
15 Nov – Roy Stokes Hall, Christchurch
21 Nov – Regent on Broadway, Palmerston North
22 Nov – TSB Showplace, New Plymouth
23 Nov – Great Lake Centre, Taupo
25 Nov – MTG Theatre, Napier
27 Nov – Baycourt Theatre, Tauranga
28 Nov – Wintergarden, Auckland 7pm SHOW SOLD OUT! 10pm show still available.
29 Nov – NZ Ukulele Festival
30 Nov – Turner Centre, Kerikeri
5 & 6 Dec – James Cabaret, Wellington
All ticket info can be found at http://www.ukulele.co.nz/tour.html.