AJ’s in tune with the uke

The Warrandyte Diary, November 2013

Sweet music: AJ strums a tune for a loyal fan
Sweet music: AJ strums a tune for a loyal fan

Some of the Diary’s readers may not know that Warrandyte is home to one of Australia’s top ukulele players.

AJ Leonard has lived in Warrandyte for 10 years and is even regarded as one of the best ukulele players in the world and is highly respected in Hawaii, considered the home of the instrument.

The multi-instrumentalist first learnt to play the Ukulele in the 1970s, when his dad’s friend decided to teach him the difference between playing a ukulele and a guitar.

Yet it wasn’t until he travelled to Hawaii and bought a new ukulele in 2006 that it became more than just a hobby. It became his passion and and he has since decided to learn more about the ukulele’s fascinating history and the culture that comes with it.

“Every instrument creates its own unique sound and feeling and generally the ukulele has that ability to relax people. There’s a certain soothing quality to it,” AJ told the Diary.

“I have listened to a lot of great players and I really appreciate what they do and we all sound different, just like we all have different personalities. It’s amazing how many possibilities there are.”

While he insists playing a ukulele is different to playing a guitar, with the strumming on a ukulele tending to be a bit more ornate, he says he does use some guitar techniques when playing songs on the ukulele.

Since becoming enchanted by the instrument, the AJ has released several albums in the past few years with the ukulele, including his Australian-made Australian Songbook with David Billings, which includes music he grew up with from the 1960s and ’70s. His most recent album is the classically inspired 12 Seasons, containing instrumental music written in every key.

His partner, Jenny, is also a musician. She plays the cello and together they have played around the world at festivals and events from New York and North Carolina to Australia and Hawaii.

AJ says his interest in Hawaiian and Polynesian music goes back to when he was a child travelling to Washington DC with his family for his dad’s work. On the way to the United States the ship docked at Hawaii and he had a look around the island.

“I don’t have much memory of it but I think that was when I got my first taste of the culture. I think it it’s kind of like a seed was planted and it was 30 years later that I went back,” AJ said.

The existence of the instrument today is all thanks to three Portuguese cabinet makers that immigrated to Hawaii to work in the sugarcane fields in the late 19th Century.

They opened up a shop in Honolulu, selling furniture along with ukuleles. The small instrument very quickly assimilated into Hawaiian culture, with members of the Hawaiian royal family even picking it up and ukulele lessons in most schools now a mandatory subject.

Today, AJ says he is still learning more about the instrument’s history, and reads up on it whenever he has the time.

“It has taken me a while to realise that rise of the ukulele in modern culture is really linked to the rise of technology. In the old days you had to go to a venue or hall and hear an orchestra or chamber group perform. That’s how you heard music. There were no iPods, cassette players, cd players or anything like that,” he said.

“I never thought at the time when I was playing it in the ’70s that I could go so far with it as it was a fairly discreet and obscure instrument. However, things have changed a lot in the last 10 years or so with the Internet and Youtube, so I’m lucky that I decided to take it up professionally when I did because it’s really only in the last 10 years or so that the instrument has taken off again.”

Now AJ passes onto his students the same skills and techniques that his father’s friend passed onto him all those years ago – and he’s confident that the ukulele will continue to grow in popularity in Australia.

He has just returned from his fourth trip to Hawaii, where he taught workshops for a four-day ukulele retreat. His future plans include recording more albums and continuing with teaching people how to play the ukulele in Australia and overseas.

“The plan is to basically keep doing what I’m doing but try and travel a bit more. I have always done music but I haven’t always been happy or satisfied with the direction I was heading in. At the moment I’m quite happy with where I am and I feel like I have to spread the word about the ukulele!”

Categories: entertainment, newsTags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Brianna Piazza

Journalist and travel writer.


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