For over 130 years, the cute little ukulele has ignored and survived all musical fashions and trends, and is more popular today than it’s ever been. The ‘take it anywhere’ size and portability concept and the fact that you can play just about any music style from traditional Hawaiian music to classical, blues, country, jazz, bluegrass, funk, punk and rock along the way, has seen the ukulele outsell all other popular stringed instruments over the last few years.
There is indeed, a huge army of ‘uke’ players out there thrumming away, but very few have managed to actually earn a living as professional players, the exception being Sarah Maisel and Craig Chee based in San Diego, California USA.
Fusion caught up with Sarah and Craig via Skype, whilst they were visiting family in the exotic Hawaii Islands. Our hopes for live pictures of sunny blue skies beamed back to the UK to enlighten dark winter evenings were dismissed, as Craig held his laptop up to the window, “I’m really sorry, but as you can see, it’s actually very stormy here right now.
I grew up here on the islands, and as a youngster I loved everything musical. This included going to the theatre, singing in choirs and even watching films. That was a huge part of my upbringing.
The Ukulele has been firmly established as an integral element of the American music scene for so long with its Portuguese and Hawaiian origins. I actually grew up playing the cello and piano, both were far too big to take to mainland USA when the time came to go to college. I needed something small and light and this is when the ukulele came into my life.”
“I can relate to your story Craig,” says Sarah, “I didn’t have a ukulele as a child. I actually started playing classical violin when I was six years old, I took all the lessons and played in orchestras up until I was about 17. Then I realised that I didn’t have the drive to be a professional violinist, so I dropped all musical ties whilst I pursued a career in costume making in the theatre for six years. I actually have a degree in pattern making.
By chance I went to a pizza place where there were about 40 ukulele players performing along with hula hula dancers, it was the coolest, most awesome thing I’d ever witnessed, a real life changing moment. Until then, I knew very little about a ukulele, I actually contacted the band leader called Frank Leong for lessons in 2006, and haven’t looked back, it’s such a beautiful and happy sounding instrument, like the people who surround it.
Both Craig and Sarah agree that starting out playing cello and violin certainly helped to adapt to the ukulele.
“Yes, definitely”, says Craig, “Our early years with stringed instruments were certainly beneficial within finger strength, string applications and techniques.”
Sarah and Craig have both garnered a reputation as two of the finest players in the world, renowned for their innovative directions with the ukulele. Sarah herself has been hailed the ‘Queen of Jazz Ukulele’ by international music critics, whilst Craig is extremely popular with a goal to combine more main stream and pop orientated sounds, making sure that people realise they’re still listening to a ukulele.
“My inspirations amongst others are Herb Ota Jr, Bryan Tolentino, Jake Shimabukuro and Troy Fernandez”, states Craig. “Jake and Troy were my teachers as well, and even though they both have the Hawaiian Island background, they are doing things with the ukulele that are sonically incredible. They’re able to make it sound unique and not just like a small guitar, which is where I’m at right now.
One thing we’ve noticed, a lot of the younger generation who are picking up the ukulele for the first time, don’t have that immediate connection to the Portuguese and Hawaiian roots of the instrument or that style of playing, but they are creating music in a variety of styles, like R&B for instance. I find it incredibly exciting to see how they are taking the ukulele to different levels.”
“We are actually working with a group called Guitars In The Classroom”, continues Sarah, “This entails visiting schools where we perform for the kids to inspire them. When Craig lived in Oregon, he tried to be involved with every youth club and school in the area, to give back as much as we could. I feel this is incredibly important as there are far too many cut backs in music programs in schools these days. We were both lucky at our school, my violin was part of my school program and they supplied violins, if they didn’t I may not have got into music at all.”
As world class players, both Sarah and Craig have given serious thought as to which model of ukulele would bring out the best in their creative skills as writers and musicians.
“We both play tenor ukuleles”, explains Sarah. “We have had to experiment with strings especially with the 17in scale baritone tuning, using high D, low B, G and E. GHS strings have been incredibly helpful, and we’ve discussed different string sizes, you just can’t put ordinary baritone strings on a tenor ukulele, they’d be all floppy, so it’s been great to have a string company work with us to develop our own custom string range.”
“The past two years we’ve been playing models built by Michael DaSilva who has the DaSilva Ukulele Company”, says Craig. “He’s built us some incredible models from the best exotic tonewoods. Mike is not only an amazing luthier, he’s also a sound-geek and loves to explain how his designs project the sounds and all the different tonal options from the woods. We are also having models custom built by Kanile’a Ukuleles another incredible maker who’s attention to detail within the construction and playability is stunning.”
Sarah and Craig are now an item as they say, and looking forward to a September wedding.
“Yes, exciting times”, says Sarah. “I first met Craig in 2012, when we were getting billed as separate artists at the same festivals. Like most events, other ukulele players on the bill are invited to guest in their set which I did many times with Craig. The audiences loved how our styles mixed when playing live, and how we shared harmonies and lead and rhythm playing, so we have endeavoured to ensure both are showcased to the full. Since then we have recorded and produced our own album called ‘Say When’ which we launched at the Ukulele Festival of Great Britain in 2014.
It all seems a long way from my first recording. I teamed up with a producer called Tim Coffman in 2009 and he asked me to record a song for a compilation album, it went really well, and I thought ok, that’s one of my life’s goals achieved. Then behold, in January 2010 he asked me to record my own album.
I actually said no at first, as I hadn’t been playing that long after the six year gap when I cut all my musical ties. I asked my friends and they said I was insane. So I called Tim up and worked together to record and produce my first album, ‘Have Uke Will Travel’ which was really well received. I’ve recorded two more albums, ‘In the Moment’ in 2011 and ‘With Love’ which was released in 2012.”
“I’ve released a couple of albums now”, explains Craig, ‘The Craig Chee Ban’ and ‘Life In The Key Of Chee’. I find writing really easy, I love writing with Sarah, her jazz influence brings a new feel to our music. Sometimes I feel I’ve taken her away from the 1930’s and 40’s feel that she loves and brought her into the 21st Century”.
“Yes, that’s true!” laughs Sarah.
Now with several well-received albums under their belts, both artists are expected to announce some surprises when the new recording is launched at the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival in May 2015 #GNUF.
“Ah yes,” gushes Craig with enthusiasm. “Our fans have had a sneak peek at our new musical direction that hints towards pop and jazz fusion, this will be announced and heard at the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival 2015 in May in the United Kingdom.”
Talking of Fusion.
“We both adore the Fusion Ukulele gig bags, they’re gorgeous, they really have been a game-changer for us,” remarks Craig. “Apart from the incredible design that not only protects these vulnerable instruments, there are so many extras that have been really thought out, especially the pockets and compartments for all those everyday extras.
“That’s right,” says Sarah, “They make my in-town gigs so much easier, and I can take everything I need in one case.
We have been very fortunate that we have turned something exciting into a full professional job, we are touring most of the time all over the world now, it would be easier to say where we haven’t been, and have met so many wonderful people. I have to say that so far, I really haven’t met a jerk yet who plays the ukulele. It’s such a social instrument within a community that’s full of happy kind people.”
What would we say to anyone who is thinking about a ukulele?
“It’s so inexpensive to start and it’s so much fun, go ahead and do it, do it!”
Interview by Lars Mullen.
Visit Craig & Sarah's website: