Plucked in Their Prime

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Cecil Sharp House in London's leafy Regent's Park is nobody's idea of a fashionable venue. The Spartan headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society is home to such curiosities as tabor-drum workshops and Morris-dancing classes.

Not a place, then, where one would expect to encounter Anna Wintour, the editor of American Vogue, especially not at the height of London Fashion Week. Yet Wintour, along with New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art's top brass, had an assignation there with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. So entertaining was the performance that Wintour was even seen to remove her signature sunglasses. Indeed, the band is now penciled in to play a Vogue-sponsored benefit at the Met later this year.

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And who could blame her for succumbing to the strummings of the stringed septet? Just to say the word ukulele forces a smile. The name is almost certainly Hawaiian—it allegedly comes from the islanders' word for "jumping flea," bestowed after a 19th century Portuguese sailor impressed locals with his instrument's capabilities. Marilyn Monroe ran wild with one in Some Like It Hot, British Prime Minister Tony Blair took one on his last summer vacation, and in 1946, British entertainer George Formby incensed South African apartheid architect Daniel Malan by refusing to play his uke for whites-only audiences. However, although the instrument has long been revered in countries such as Germany, Finland and Japan, in Britain it has been considered to be rather silly. It has taken the pluck of the willfully eccentric, 21-year-old Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain to move the four-stringed dynamo toward mainstream recognition.

From humble beginnings in a room above a London pub, the Ukulele Orchestra is today a regular at British festivals such as Glastonbury and the Hay Festival of Literature. All consummate singers and strummers, they perform their own compositions, as well as covers of popular songs that emerge freshly minted: Ms. Dynamite's Dy-Na-Mi-Tee sounds less like rap and more like Prohibition-era honky-tonk, and Kate Bush's tremulous Wuthering Heights, sung stoically by orchestra leader George Hinchcliffe, is a strange brew indeed. Even better are the medleys, which might fuse up to seven songs, including a Handel air, Frank Sinatra's Fly Me to the Moon and Hotel California by the Eagles.

These are zealots and they're out to convert you to the worship of the ukelele. Ask why one of the lineup, Jonty Bankes, appears to be playing a bass guitar, and Hinchcliffe explodes: "How many strings does a bass guitar have? Four. A guitar has six. So, who is to say that what is labeled a bass guitar isn't a bass ukulele? Bill Wyman, Paul McCartney, it's time you admitted what you truly are." So next time you mime to a track, bass cranked up high, remember—it's air ukelele you're playing.