Philadelphia Ukulele Orchestra brings 1920s to 40th Street

This orchestra takes ukuleles seriously.  Credit: Kathy Baier
This orchestra takes ukuleles seriously.
Credit: Kathy Baier

Now that summer is here, University City District will once again host free, monthly, family-friendly concerts in the great outdoors of West Philly. The 40th Street Summer Series has seen performers such as Sun Ra Arkestra and Brooklyn Qawwali Party. This month the Philadelphia Ukulele Orchestra will be providing the entertainment. We caught up with band founder Chris Malcarney to learn a little more about the orchestra’s rich background — and the members’ made-up names, based on “old timey diseases.”

What’s your position in the band?
Well, I’m the de facto leader, I guess, but I don’t really like leading. I’m the one who asked my friends to get together and be in this band, so I guess I’m the leader.

How long has the band been together?
About four or five years now. We got together in December of… of four or five years ago! [laughs]

And there are 12 of you in the orchestra?
There used to be, but two members moved away. One of them still comes back for gigs, though. So we’re at 11 when we perform.

Are all your pieces covers?
Yes, they’re all covers. It’s mostly things from the 1920s and ’30s. I always loved the music of that time. I played in a rock band for years but I never had the chops to pull off these songs on a guitar. But on a ukulele there are two less strings. One of the members is 83 and he brings us these old songs to play. He knows all that Tin Pan Alley stuff. It’s all so catchy and the chord progressions are great.

Everyone in the band goes by a stage name, yours being Cecil St. Vitas. How did you come up with these?
I made up all the names and backstories for the group. For first names, I went to the Social Security website and looked at the list of most popular names at the turn of the century. Then I tried to think of old timey diseases or just old-fashioned words for last names. I’m not entirely sure why I did it, but I seem to create aliases and made up back stories for most musical endeavors that I’m involved with. It just keeps things interesting I suppose.

If you go

Philadelphia Ukulele Orchestra
Saturday, 6 p.m.
40th and Walnut streets
Free, 215-243-0555
www.universitycity.org
Bring your appetite because there will be plenty of free ice cream from sponsor Ben & Jerry’s.


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