He plays jazz, blues and Coldplay on the ukulele

Kalei Gamiao first picked up the ukulele at age 13. -- PHOTO: KALEI GAMIAO
Kalei Gamiao first picked up the ukulele at age 13. -- PHOTO: KALEI GAMIAO

Kalei Gamiao plays all genres of music on the instrument, including rock, jazz and the blues

With its small size and four strings, the ukulele is sometimes seen as the lesser and lightweight member of the guitar family.

Nothing could be further from the truth, argues professional Hawaiian ukulele player Kalei Gamiao.

"People don't expect to hear a lot of sound coming from a ukulele because it's really small, they think it's a toy. But you can do so much stuff with it."

Gamiao, 25, who was in Singapore to perform at The Cathay's Ukulele Party last Saturday, has made it a mission to convince sceptics about the versatility of the ukulele.

"You can play happy, sad and even angry music on the ukulele. It's just a matter of finding the emotion and the chord for it," he says as he gave a live demonstration by strumming on his instrument.

The stocky bachelor has an injury to thank for getting him on to the instrument.

At the age of 13, he injured his arm while playing baseball.

"My arm was out of commission for a whole year and my coaches told me, 'you shouldn't play any sports, don't do anything to strain yourself, just focus on healing'," he recalls.

"I was devastated because I had dedicated many years trying to get better at baseball."

Recovery was long and slow, so his parents, after seeing an advertisement for free ukulele lessons, suggested he take them to while away the time.

It was a case of love at first chord, he says.

"When I realised that I could actually play a chord, I was like 'wow, this is something I might want to do' and I just love hearing this one chord," he adds.

"For days and months, I would just play this one chord and that's how my journey with the ukulele started."

His repertoire has since expanded and is vast these days. Besides his original songs, videos of him reinterpreting songs by bands such as Coldplay and One Republic on the ukulele have racked up almost 200,000 views on YouTube.

Gamiao's music traverses various genres, including pop, rock, jazz and the blues and he has released three albums, Contemporary Ukulele (2008), Redefined (2012) and A Merry Ukulele Christmas (2013).

Inspired by well-known Hawaiian ukulele players Jake Shimabukuro and Gordon Mark, Gamiao decided to go professional a few years after he first picked up the instrument.

He says: "It's kind of funny because when people ask me what I do for a living and I tell them I play the ukulele, they just laugh because that's not a typical job."

He uses his music to raise funds for charity organisation Music For Life Foundation, which provides instruments to schools in Hawaii, as well as gives workshops to teach youth how to play the ukulele.

Besides the United States, he has also toured Japan, Taiwan and Thailand.

He says: "I'm very happy to be playing at all these places. Every single audience in every single country that I visit is different, everyone speaks a different language.

"But put a ukulele in front of them and you can see that everyone loves that instrument. To me, no other instrument out there has the power to be able to bring people together."

dinohadi@sph.com.sg