Penn Live Arts Blog

5Q with three uke superstars

Posted May 1, 2023

On May 7, we are excited to welcome George Hinchliffe's Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain to perform in Philadelphia for the very first time. These much-loved uke superstars are masters of the unexpected, re-imagining a menagerie of rock, pop, jazz, blues and classical, and anything else they think is ripe for the picking. Ahead of the show, we connected with not one, but three of these musicians to learn a bit more about them and their music.


1) What first got you into music?
There was always music in my life. I have an Irish mother and my dad’s side was Italian. The Irish side had fantastic rhythm. My Grandad would show me intricate table tapping patterns using his arms, hands and fingers. My mother and her sisters would dance jigs and reels together in their small front room, and I’d watch them beating out the music with their feet. The Italian side would break into sentimental songs at family get-togethers.

I saw from early on that music came from people rather than from whether one happened to have a piano at home. Music isn’t the special preserve of a select few, it’s for everyone. If you don’t have a drum kit, use the table. For me, music has always been about feeling and instinct rather than formality. I’m a self-taught musician and don’t read dots. It means I work in a different way. It’s OK to be different.

2) What role does the musician have in today’s world?
Music is the great universal language. A musician’s job is to provoke, disrupt, soothe, awaken, entertain, excite, delight, disturb, highlight, and enhance the experience of being human.

3) What inspires you to create music?
I could say 'the highs and lows of life’ like heartbreak or great beauty, but if I’m being honest, it’s probably a deadline. I’m a terrible procrastinator and in the past, any music I’ve written has happened because I needed to meet a deadline for a show. So, maybe I work best under extreme pressure, or at least with adrenaline coursing through my body.

The other way music comes to me is if I cut myself off from the world and am left to my own devices in a room with some things I can pluck, play or hit. If I free myself from any pressure to make something specific, the sheer act of noodling around playfully without thinking about it usually gives me a starting point for original material. Of course, most of it stays on my computer or phone or wherever I recorded it, because, like I said, I’m a procrastinator and rarely finish things… Thankfully I’m also one of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and we all work very productively together to make the sorts of shows people seem to like.

4) What projects are you working on currently?
During the unknown expanse of The Pandemic, I had time on my hands and got interested in collecting spoken audio and creating field recordings and soundscapes on portable recording equipment. The Arts Council of England gave me some money to experiment with learning about this stuff and it allowed me to dip my toe into this audio digital world. I’m currently kicking a few ideas around in my head about which areas of life I’d like to examine next, in this way. I love spoken audio, real life conversations, actual speech, with all its own rhythms and mistakes. That’s a kind of music, for me. I will probably take a bit of recording kit away on tour with me, so I’m prepared when inspiration strikes.

5) Name a few artists you love that everyone should check out.

  • Bobby McFerrin - For sheer vocal gymnastics and a demonstration that without instruments everything is more than possible.
  • SOAK - Found this artist several years ago when they were newly launched at a young age. I’m really drawn to Bridie’s unusual vocal and the simple spacious guitar on their album, Before We Forgot How To Dream.
  • Anna & Elizabeth - Simple Appalachian-style harmonies and finger-picking guitar and banjo. Clean, simple and powerful.
  • Penguin Cafe Orchestra - My old favourites. Rhythmically intoxicating eccentric world music inspired Greats, in my opinion.
  • Caroline Polachek - I like a bit of synth pop, especially from a woman who writes and produces her own. I like Caroline’s vibe. “Bunny is A Rider” is all clicks and bass. Nice.


1) What first got you into music?
Listening to Tchaikovsky as a child - great melodies!

2) Talk about your background.
Diplomatic brat (my dad worked abroad, so I travelled a lot as a kid). Here I am in the latter part of my life - travelling round again, but this time playing music!

3) Who are your biggest influences?
Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong

4) What projects are you working on currently?
Eight years ago, I created the world’s first airborne theatre company off the back of the frenetic touring of the UOGB (60 flights a year) - the Airline Toilets Theatre Company. I still make films within this highly restrictive and demanding medium (see online).

5) Name a few artists you love that everyone should check out.
Jon Baptiste. Nitin Sawhney.


1) What first got you into music?
Music was a big part of my upbringing. It feels as if my life has always had a soundtrack. As a small child, we’d listen to album after album on long car journeys, and the radio would be playing in the kitchen constantly. For me, it’s impossible to separate music from general existence.

2) What is your earliest memory of hearing music?
While I can’t remember my first time ever hearing music, I do remember my first time witnessing a live performance - it was a concert by an Eagles tribute band.

3) How would you describe the music that you typically create?
Toe-tapping. Surprising. Irreverent. Amusing.

4) Who are your biggest influences?
As a group, we all have our own tastes, perspectives and influences - from folk to punk to jazz - which may combine and come to the fore in our song choices, or in the ways in which we play with genre and subvert audience expectations (performing The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” as a sea shanty, for example). I think we also influence one another in many ways. We want to make each other laugh and do one another proud.

5) Name a few artists you love that everyone should check out.
Talking Heads, The Smiths, Billie Eilish, St. Vincent

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