Friday, July 11, 2003

The Langley Ukulele Ensemble of Langley, British Columbia, under the direction of Peter Luongo, standing, performed for the Rotary Club of Honolulu at the Royal Hawaiian Monarch Room Tuesday.

James is like Jake,
sort of

Canadian James Hill
has own ukulele style

James Hill is being called "the Canadian Jake Shimabukuro." It seems only natural to make that comparison. Both Hill and Shimabukuro and James Hill are in their 20s, with a keen interest in pushing the envelope as ukulele virtuosos.

"From my standpoint, Jake and I have quite different styles, but from a listener's standpoint, I can see where that comparison can come up," Hill explained via phone from British Columbia on Monday.

Strum along

"Ukulele! The Legend Continues"
Hawaii Ballroom, Sheraton Waikiki Hotel
When: 7:30 p.m. today
Tickets: $35 to $45, including two drinks
Call: 931-8383

"I really like what Jake's doing, I respect him as a player, and I think he's got some technique and a great stage presence. I think where he's going now is reaching out to the rock audience ... and where I'm going now is focusing much more on straight up chordal playing."

You'll be able to check out their playing styles for yourself tonight, as Hill and Shimabukuro appear as two of the featured acts in "Ukulele! The Legend Continues" in the Hawaii Ballroom of the Sheraton Waikiki. Also on the bill are Kelly and Kapena DeLima, Herb Ohta Jr., and the Langley Ukulele Ensemble. Paul Luongo, who is the son of the Ensemble's long-time director, Peter Luongo, will be making his official Hawaii debut as a solo artist. (Net proceeds from the show will benefit Rotary Club charities.)

James Hill, left, was a guest soloist with the ensemble.

Like Shimabukuro, Hill has recorded, and his solo debut album, "James Hill: Playing It Like It Isn't ... ," is available on his Web site at His second album, "On The Other Hand," will be released this fall.

Hill says the title of the upcoming album reflects a change in his approach on the stringed instrument.

"I was single-note picking, and now I'm looking at more of a full chordal approach with the instrument. I feel that the way I'm playing now is extremely technical and very virtuosic, but not in a Hawaiian style -- moving in a direction, maybe going back to the Portuguese ancestry of the instrument -- which, for me, is extremely exciting. I think I'm going in a different direction than Jake, but both are exciting."

Last time out, Hill was exploring a repertoire that included jazz, Latin, country and classic melodies, consciously avoiding the standard Hawaiian and hapa-haole selections. "On The Other Hand" will even include several videogame tunes.

"There's such a huge repertoire of them, and there are so many themes that are so familiar to us, especially my generation, but that are influenced at the same time by classical music and folk music. (For) the original Tetris theme, they just took a Russian folk song, and it became associated with these videogames, which are very modern, but pulls from a very old folk music tradition.

"One of the greatest advantages I have as a player is also a double-edged sword. Because I don't live in Hawaii, or Japan, or a center of ukulele playing, I have very little expectations of how I should play ... I feel like I'm very free to explore however I want to play the instrument."

There is, he adds, a practical benefit to including videogame melodies in his repertoire.

"When I go into a place back home and people aren't too familiar with the ukulele, (I'll play them) 'Super Mario Brothers.' I think the humor in that is not lost on anybody and I get real good reactions ... because it's so familiar. That familiarity combined with the unfamiliarity of the ukulele -- I think there's a lot of humor in that juxtaposition."

BUT HILL IS well-known in Langley, British Columbia, the nexus, if you will, of ukulele culture in modern day Canada. He took up the instrument as a 4th-grader as part of his core curriculum studies. After two years of regular classes, he was invited to audition for the district-wide ukulele ensemble as an extracurricular activity.

James Hill jams with the Langley Ukulele ensemble. Hill will be performing tonight at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel.

There were three proficiency levels when Hill first made the cut; after a year at the entry level, he moved up to membership in the Langley Ukulele Ensemble, directed by Peter Luongo. The Ensemble consists of the top uke players in the district and represents the program with annual concerts across Canada and the United States.

Luongo, who has been directing the Ensemble since 1980, has brought the group to Hawaii on an annual basis since 1990. He arrived with this year's roster of "kids," ages 11 to 22, last weekend for a week of sight-seeing and promotional appearances leading up to the big show tonight.

Hill expects this to be his last trip to Hawaii with the Ensemble -- he's now 22 and a graduate of the University of British Columbia -- but will probably sit in with the group tonight.

"I have a lot of friends in the group, and I still enjoy making music with them. However, it gets to a point where there's such an age range that there comes a time to move on, and I think that the time is now for me to move on with my solo career."

Hill lists as his influences, Troy Fernandez of the original Ka'au Crater Boys ("I think the first Fernandez track I tried to emulate was 'Guava Jam'"), Ohta-san, Peter Luongo and the relatively unknown Kimo Hussey, who recorded an album called "Eminent Ukulele."

Hill lucked into acquiring his primary instrument: a custom-made Derek Shimizu G-string ukulele. He'd been saving up to buy one as a replacement for the Canadian-made Doane III that he'd been playing since 1991, but was offered a sponsorship by Shimizu when they met after one of the Ensemble's performances here last summer.

"He really pulled out all the stops and made me an ukulele that can really be an inspiration for me to play," he said. "A lot of the pieces I'm playing now -- and pieces that I'm composing for the new album -- have really been able to sing out because of the instrument that he made. It's really allowed me to make the kind of music I've wanted to make."

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