'Orchestra' touring nation to support album tribute to New Zealand songbook, writes Rachel Bache.

There is something delightful about the cheerful sound of four strings tethered to a tiny wooden body. The ukulele's one fun-sized instrument.

"It's got a comedic element which is just always there, an unassuming, disarming character. You can't really take yourself too seriously with it," says Age Pryor of the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra.

Individual ukuleles might be small and quiet but as that band name suggests, there's strength in numbers.

The orchestra has a regular membership of 11 and right now the feel-good band is selling out shows around New Zealand promoting the debut album they've finally released after nine years playing together.

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Titled Be Mine Tonight, the album covers 13 New Zealand songs and one daggy Australian import ('70s hit Howzat by Sherbert).

As well as Th' Dudes on the title track, songs getting the strum-along treatment are Aaradhna's Wake Up, Brooke Fraser's Something in the Water, Lorde's Team and some older Kiwi classics. The oldest song is the lullaby Hine e Hine from the 1910s.

"We knew we wanted to do a collection of New Zealand hits, it was definitely a tribute to the New Zealand songbook," says Pryor.

"Then we've got Lorde from just last year and everything in between," bandmate Gemma Gracewood says. "There's waiata and there's Pakeha rock'n'roll and there's a bit of dirty disco, it was gratifying to know that we'd covered the bases."

It was an exciting challenge for the band to cover such a wide variety of music on one album, each member playing his or her own part, both instrumentally and vocally.

"We try to capture the spirit of the song that we're covering," says Pryor.

And despite its distinctively happy sound the band is up for melancholy songs as well. "If it's sad, we'll go there. The uke can cover all those moods, it's amazing, it does have a sweetness but if you're doing sad, it can be sweetly sad and if you really want to you can make it sound ugly or angry and all of those kinds of things as well, it's got a range."

The tour, which started out in Dunedin last week, hits Auckland at the end of the month, playing two shows at the Civic Wintergarden on November 28 then the New Zealand Ukulele Festival the next day.

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Guest star on the orchestra's tour is actress Amanda Billing, best known for her role as the late Sarah Potts on Shortland Street.

"Amanda has been our secret stealth weapon for us in the past, she's a friend of the band and she's obviously got an amazing voice," says Gracewood.

"We had an inkling that she was going to be available for the second half of this year and so we went, 'let's just snap her up and take her on tour' and luckily she said yes."

Billing also appears on the Be Mine Tonight album, lending her voice to the track, E Ipo.

Among other guests on the recording are Hawaiian player Pi'ikea Clark and Canadian uke star James Hill.

The group have toured with Hill in the past but getting him into the studio proved difficult.

Gracewood: "When it came time to do it, time was running out and we were on a deadline and he was in a hotel room somewhere in Canada.

"So he found the room with the best acoustics, which happened to be the bathroom, and sat on the toilet and recorded his two solos.

"That's the power of technology," adds Pryor. "It's fantastic having him on the album, he's such an amazing musician and really gets where we're coming from."

What can audiences expect from the tour? "Well, they can definitely expect to hear most, if not all of the songs on the album, plus a whole lot of other songs," Gracewood promises. "Favourites that we've been playing for nine years and other new songs that we've discovered recently. It's definitely a show that will leave you humming and happy, but it will also leave you with something that last night's audience didn't get and tomorrow night's audience won't get.

"With 11 creative and crazy grown-ups who are riffing off each others' energy and the energy of the audience, anything could happen."

Who: The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra
What: Debut album Be Mine Tonight
Tour dates:
• Regent on Broadway, Palmerston North, Nov 21
• TSB Showplace, New Plymouth, Nov 22
• Great Lake Centre, Taupo, Nov 23
• MTG Theatre, Napier, Nov 25
• Baycourt Theatre, Tauranga, Nov 27
• Wintergarden, Auckland 7pm (sold out), 10pm, Nov 28
• NZ Ukulele Festival, Nov 29
• Turner Centre, Kerikeri, Nov 30