The ukulele has long been the musical world’s punchline, but thanks to bands like Mumford and Sons the instrument is going through a kind of renaissance. The Ukulele Project, a four-piece band of teenagers, is now spearheading this revival with a show described as the “freshest act at this year’s Fringe”.
“We’ve all been friends for a very long time and we all discovered that we were all secretly playing the ukulele,” band member Oli told The Hour. “So we decided to come clean about it and we tried playing some songs together and it sounded amazing, and we just have really good chemistry together and we love it.”
The band play an eclectic variety of hits, from Elvis to Debussy, Queen to Lady Gaga, but insist that they be recognisable. By taking old and new tunes and reinventing them with the signature sound of the “uke” they are on the way to reviving its popularity in the same way that Israel Kamakawiwo'ole’s medley of Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World rejuvenated it in the 90s.
Now seems the perfect time for the band as well. In recent years the ukulele’s popularity has increased, thanks in part to Greg Hawkes, former keyboardist of The Cars, who released an album of Beatles tracks, performed on the ukulele, in 2001.
“A lot of bands have started using them,” explains Oli. “And we were really influenced by a band called Beirut and also by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.”
The ukulele used to be far more popular than it is today. Invented in Hawaii in the 19th century, it became particularly popular in the United States as an icon of the Jazz Age, popular with the Tin Pan Alley writers of the early 20th century.
Although the popularity of the instrument declined considerably, a number of musicians have kept it alive, including Elvis Costello, Zooey Deschanel, George Formby, John Lennon, Buster Keaton, Sir Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift, Eddie Vedder and Elvis.
Thanks to young artists like the Ukulele Project, the guitar’s baby brother looks set to take centre stage once more in the 21st century.
The band are playing at the Edinburgh Fringe’s Belly Dancer venue, 12.45pm, every day until August 29.