The Durham Ukulele Orchestra grew out of the Ukulele Jam that still takes place twice a month at High Strung, a Durham shop that specializes in violins and guitars.
Five of the regulars at the jam decided to form their own ukulele band that would blend selections from the great American songbook, classic rock and bit of alternative rock.
The members – Marilee Annereau, Scot Billman, Brian Lewis, Nancy Bierman and Jay Cunningham – range in age from 47 to 62, and all live in Durham.
They get together once a week at Annereau’s house to practice and try out new selections.
“We’ll try anything,” Lewis said. “Some things work and some things don’t. Some things are easy, and some are more difficult.”
One of the more difficult selections to nail was the Beach Boy’s “Good Vibrations” with its layered harmonies. The song is now a favorite of theirs and is one of only three Beach Boys songs the group does.
The orchestra’s members have been quick to add instruments to fill out their sound, including melodica, accordion, trumpet, mandolin and three kinds of basses – an electric, upright and a bass ukulele.
People are surprised when the orchestra shows up to play with all these instruments and its own audio system, Annereau said. But everyone in the group sings, so it’s important to capture their voices well.
The group trades off on lead vocal duties.
A more simple selection for the orchestra is “Fishin’ Hole,” the theme to “The Andy Griffith Show.” But even with that simple tune, the different sizes of ukuleles the group uses and the manner they play the instruments – some strummed and some plucked – creates a richness of sound that belies the tiny instrument’s humble reputation.
“It’s a very communal kind of instrument,” Annereau said, adding that five guitars playing the same song wouldn’t have the same sweet sound that the ukulele does.
Another crowd favorite, especially at weddings, is the Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get it Started.”
“People are like, ‘Oh, you’re not going to play that! Oh. Oh! It sounds good,’ ” Bierman said of the hip-hop hit.
The orchestra has played graduation parties, festivals, bars and more. On Saturday, they played the Eno River Farmers Market in Hillsborough.
“There’s something about the ukulele that just makes people smile,” Annereau said.
An inspiration for the group is Jake Shimabukuro, a Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso who combines a wide range of styles and plays versions of classic rock songs on ukulele.
Another inspiration is the eight-member Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, which has been around since 1985.
Almost everyone in the Durham Ukulele Orchestra has played in other bands.
Annereau notes that the orchestra plays together because of their love for the instrument.
The members all hold day jobs as well. Lewis works as assistant dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law. Cunningham is vice president and information technology director for Harrington Bank.
Annereau still runs the Ukulele Jam on the first and third Mondays of each month from 7 to 9 p.m. at High Strung, 1805 Markham St. Beginners are welcome and it’s not even necessary to have a ukulele.