Life as a Professional Ukulele Player: A Conversation with Jonty Bankes

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Last week, WHRB Classical Producer Amy Zhou spoke with Jonty Bankes, bass ukulele player of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, prior to their Celebrity Series of Boston performance at Jordan Hall. Founded in 1985, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain has since performed in many venues worldwide including New York’s Carnegie Hall, Sydney’s Sydney Opera House, London’s Royal Albert Hall, as well as playing for the Queen in a private concert for her 90th birthday. With thousands of sold-out shows, several recorded studio albums, live albums, and DVDs of a variety of musical genres, they are back in Boston tonight to perform as part of the Boston Celebrity Series. We spoke to Jonty Bankes about his involvement in the Orchestra as well as the future of the Ukulele Orchestra. Read ahead to view the transcript, or listen to the full interview above.

Zhou: The ukulele is such an undervalued instrument. It’s not often used to perform, and there’s not that much repertoire specifically for the ukulele. I’m sure many listeners are wondering. What exactly is a ukulele orchestra, and how did this ensemble come to be?

Bankes: This is quite a complex question. It all started in 1985 in Leeds University, when a couple of the group had a crazy idea to form an ensemble with the most unlikely instrument they could possibly find. Of course, in 1985, the ukulele wasn’t at all popular. It’s much more popular now, thanks to Youtube and the like. However, at the time it was considered a real outsider instrument. As you correctly say, there were absolutely no pieces written specifically for ukulele, unless you go to Hawaii, but we decided to be a little bit subversive and start playing punk songs on the ukulele, which seems quite a punk rock idea at the time, and it just developed from there. Now we play not only punk rock, but also Prokofiev.

Zhou: As you mentioned briefly, because of Youtube and platforms like that, there’s much more popularity around performing on the ukulele. I noticed that a video of the Ukulele Orchestra titled ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ has more than 14 million views on Youtube. That’s a very impressive number. In the 1980s, when the orchestra first began, the internet would not have been as widely used as it is today. How has the widespread use of the internet shaped or affected the ukulele orchestra?

Bankes: It really has, especially Youtube. The internet has really been our friend and almost like a marketing tool for us. People all around the globe have seen us, which was never really previously possible. It has enabled us to travel around the globe, taking our own quirky orchestra to such diverse places as China, Japan, and the Outback of Australia. I remember we played once to a group of farmers right in the middle of the Outback of Australia, and they’d never seen anything like it at all. We were only invited to Australia because somebody had seen us on Youtube playing in Albert Hall. The internet has been a fabulous thing for us.

Zhou: The Ukulele Orchestra is undeniably popular. The last time you came to Boston, Jordan Hall completely sold out, right?

Bankes: Correct, and as I stand on the stage of Jordan Hall right now, looking at the magnificent hall with the huge organ and the beautiful architecture here, we have again sold out tonight.

Zhou: The Ukulele Orchestra is such a popular ensemble, even the Queen wanted to hear you perform at her birthday. What do you think makes the ukulele orchestra so appealing to so many audiences?

Bankes: Well, I think firstly, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Let’s face it, we can’t when it’s the ukulele, can you. It’s an unthreateningly instrument and we play popular tunes. This combination is a pretty winning formula.

Zhou: Mr. Bankes, you’ve been a part of the Ukulele Orchestra for more than 20 years now! What inspired you to be a musician and what prompted you to join the ukulele orchestra?

Bankes: I come from a musical family. My father was a conductor. I’m the bass ukulele player in the orchestra, and both my brothers are also professional bass players. There were always instruments around. That’s why I became a musician. I joined the orchestra 27 years ago, because their bass player left and one of my very good friends, Dave, was in the orchestra and said, “Hey Jonty! We need a bass player for this quirky project that I’ve got, are you interested?” I went along, and it was all good fun. It wasn’t many gigs a year, but it brought a lot of enjoyment and so I stuck around. Then it snowballed into something bigger.

Zhou: What’s your favourite part of being in the ukulele orchestra?

Bankes: Well, there are many favourite incidents. But I think the favourite part of being in this is that we’ve all been together for 27 years at least, and we’ve all become a family. There’s the occasional little squabble, but like any family, we’ll just make it up five minutes later. It’s like having a little team, travelling to these weird and wonderful places, sometimes in averse conditions, sometimes in fabulously luxurious conditions. We’re in it together, and that really is the best of it. However, of course, being able to perform for her Majesty on her 90th birthday was an unbelievable honour and as was some of the other venerable places you mentioned. We’ve also done some crazy things, like performed with dancing llamas, all sorts of crazy things. It’s been one very lucky, happy life really.

Zhou: As a group of musicians, this orchestra covers vast music genres. What is the reason for this vast variety of music genre? As a group, how do you pick what to play and sing?

Bankes: Because everybody sings, everyone’s got a slightly different voice and a slightly different musical background, and of course, we’ve got many, many influences. I used to be a studio bass player before the orchestra became full time, and I used to love particularly soul, blues, funk, and rock. But there are other people that come from the classical world and they bring that to the band. Because we’re awfully diplomatic, we get to have a go at everything. Of course, I think one of the reasons of our success is that we can play many different genres and if as an audience member, you don’t like one particular piece we’re playing right now, you might like the next one, because it’s going to be completely different song sung by a different singer.

Zhou: As you mentioned earlier, you feel very lucky to be able to participate and share music with so many audiences around the world. For the younger generation, for all aspiring musicians, whether ukulele players or not, what advice do you have to give them if they aspire to be someone like you?

Bankes: Practice, and practice, of course is the obvious answer. But I think one of the things the ukulele orchestra has really brought out is that don’t think of going on stage and trying to be just celebrating yourself. Play for the audience, and not for yourself. Think about what the audience would like. If the audience wants something toe-tapping, then you give them something toe-tapping. Don’t be hedonistic on stage, it’s all about giving to the people who have actually paid money at the box office to come and sit there to watch you. That’s who you’re performing for, not yourself.

Zhou: With the amazing popularity of the Ukulele Orchestra, it doesn’t seem like the ensemble will be slowing down any time soon. As a listener, as a fan, as someone interested in the future of the Ukulele Orchestra, what are some future projects or directions that we can expect to see?

Bankes: We just spent a week rehearsing, we all lived together in a rented house for a week. We got a completely new program together, and I think that’s the way forward is that every year, that’s what we are going to be doing, to continue to work on newer and more interesting material. Of course, there’s a few old favourites that people always like us to do, like as you mentioned, “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” I think people will be disappointed if we don’t do that, but the thing is, we constantly try to change and there are plans for more DVDs and more both live and recorded albums. Well, who knows what we’re going to do in the future, somebody may have a bright idea. But we are very busy touring, so we just concentrate on the music these days and try to get new music together.


Amy Zhou '21 is a Producer for WHRB Classical.