ST Sessions: Hawaii's Kalei Gamiao surprises with rock, jazz and blues on the ukulele

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

Professional Hawaiian ukulele player Kalei Gamiao, 25, argued as he explained in ST Sessions' episode 5: “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.”

He said: “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.”

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 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.

Gamiao, who was in Singapore in November 2014 to perform at The Cathay’s Ukulele Party for the public, 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 said as he gave a live demonstration for ST Sessions by strumming on his instrument.

At Ukulele Movement, a Singapore store dedicated to the small instrument along 178, Race Course Road, he wowed the crew as he became the first foreign artiste to be featured by The Straits Times' ST Sessions in the first season, after four previous Singapore acts were filmed.

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.

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.

“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 added.

“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).

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

He said: “I’m very happy to be playing at all these places. Every single audience in every single country 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

Watch more and connect with Kalei Gamiao:

Website: http://kaleigamiao.com

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/KaleiGamiao/videos

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Kalei-Gamiao/46640309322

Twitter: https://twitter.com/kaleigamiao

MySpace: https://myspace.com/kaleigamiao/music/songs

iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/kalei-gamiao/id389712172

ST Sessions official backline equipment provider: Ebenex

Full list of ST Sessions acts in Season One

List of ST Sessions acts in ongoing Season Two