In the world of ukulele, Bosko and Honey are legends – and they’re heading our way. Mandy Nolan caught up with them about their lives as uke players.
There are two types of people: those who love uke and those who don’t. Those who don’t are rather vocal about it. What do you say to those who see your little four-stringed friend as a public menace? Bosko: Come and see the show! Actually, one of the good things about playing uke has always been that it’s relatively easy to exceed people’s expectations, especially if they have preconceptions about it. While we love playing for ukulele enthusiasts, we also like playing for people who have never really heard the uke treated seriously before. So the lower the expectations the better as far as we’re concerned – it just makes it easier to surprise!
I heard the international ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro say something along these lines in an interview once, and he’s a guy who changed the way a lot of people view the instrument big time… all around the world people who would never have gone near a ukulele before they heard him play While My Guitar Gently Weeps started getting into it as a serious solo instrument. It’s a bit ironic though: now some people expect you to play like Jake!
Honey: We don’t, by the way!
Why do you think such a little instrument like the uke has such big heart? Bosko: Perhaps because it’s little. It’s very easy to develop an intimacy with it because it’s so cute and accessible… easy to pick up, easy to put down and easy to carry around. You tend to have it with you more often than a larger instrument like a guitar so you end up playing it more. You can get pretty obsessed actually! But for us music is really just an excuse to connect with people, and the uke seems to be particularly good at doing that.
Honey: It’s the people and not the uke who can have big hearts.
What’s your approach? Are you a traditionalist when it comes to technique, or do you like to make up your own moves? Bosko: When we first started playing we weren’t even online and didn’t know any other uke players so we had to teach ourselves through trial and error. Then we looked to local guitarists for guidance. I was playing violin at the time with a flamenco guitarist and when I picked up a uke the first thing I tried was to imitate his chops.
Later we formed a band with a very experienced jazz guitarist who basically taught us all the theory and performance skills we needed. It’s only fairly recently that we’ve begun to employ some traditional ukulele techniques like the ‘fan stroke’ triplet and a lighter, less guitarist-like touch. But we basically strive to develop our own way of playing and also look to other stringed instruments and their styles of playing like the Khazakh dombra and the Venezuelan cuatro, for example.
How do you inspire people when you teach them? Bosko: With humour and enthusiasm.
Honey: I also tell them the story that the ukulele is my first instrument. At school in Japan my teacher said I didn’t have any talent so I never tried to learn an instrument since… until Bosko gave me a uke seven years ago!
Are the songs you write on uke, as opposed to guitar, significantly different – meaning do the instruments themselves, rather than the actual melody or lyric, give voice to tone and style of songs? Some songs are definitely born because of the ‘voice’ of the uke, but if we played guitar we’d probably be dealing with similar material and musical influences… we basically treat the uke as a regular instrument.
Another interesting thing is that ukuleles vary hugely in the character of their sound. Different setups – size, number of strings, tunings, woods – there are even dobro ukes and banjo ukes. All these variations can bring out a different approach to your playing. Just playing a different uke can inspire a whole new world of sonic possibilities.
What should we be expecting for your Bangalow appearance? Bosko: Bosko & Honey and UKE are both acts that take a progressive approach to the ukulele. You can expect beautiful music regardless of the fact it’s played on a uke. You will definitely be entertained and have some belly laughs too. There’ll be some experimental stuff and references to just about any genre you can imagine! We’re also working on a song or two together – a regular ukulele rock’n’roll band!
Honey: We’re really looking forward to it!
They are presenting a workshop and a show at the A & I Hall on Wednesday March 21.