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And now, some happy vibes at the 1st Ukulele Festival |


And now, some happy vibes at the 1st Ukulele Festival

DLS Pineda - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Over the long weekend that was, the first Philippine Ukulele Festival took place in the quiet corners of Mall of Asia and of Buddha Bar, Makati. Despite being brushed aside by the punks of Tanduay Rhumfest and snubbed by the laidback crowd of Soul Surf in La Union, the show went on. While there’s no discounting the alluring come-on and raw musical energy of the rockers’ and hipsters’ respective events, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that they missed out on something just as cool.

Being the first-ever ukulele festival in the Philippines, organized through the collaboration of Ukulele Philippines and Ukulele Underground Philippines, it wasn’t surprising that it didn’t receive the same throngs of spectators one would expect to find in concert festivals. Partly to blame are the promotions that barely breached the walls of uke circles. But the magic was there nonetheless, in the celebration of music, not in the number of attendees or commercial success.

As the ukulele players strummed, plucked, and jammed from nightfall to nighttime, bystanders and passers-by drew closer and closer to MOA’s music stage, perhaps amazed that the performers were playing some small, high-pitched “guitar.” Ukulele beginners and virtuosos from here and abroad showed their distinct styles of playing the ukulele, from plain sing-a-long strumming to complex blues plucking to feisty Latino flamenco — it didn’t sound like the Hawaiian ukulele that’s popularly marketed around the world.

And before you knew it, the crowd was a formidable thousand, watching from the ground floor to the mall’s terrace. People stared at the instrument more than the players, smiling wide in fascination. This was a happy coming together of sounds and souls, of sandy beach vibes and the rock solid city.

Child’s plaything

It’s safe to say that the festival itself was a reflection of how most of us saw the instrument. The ukulele is a tiny instrument, seen by most as a child’s plaything, a mini-guitar, or even a decorative ornament brought home as a souvenir from a trip to Hawaii or locally from Cebu and Boracay. Unfortunately, for a lot of Filipinos, the late great IZ Kamakawiwo’ole’s medley of Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World is the only ukulele song we’ve heard played on the airwaves (used as soundtracks to movies and the slow, notorious, slideshow of pictures). Even the instrument’s name itself is something we barely pronounce correctly (it’s oo-koo-lele, not yoo-ka-lele).

But if you were there in the festival, you’d see that there was so much more to the ukulele than meets the eye. “The ukulele scene in the Philippines is new, but it’s also not small,” Kalei Gamiao, one of the virtuosos invited over from Hawaii, noted. One of the songs Kalei played was Paukauila, a tribute to his home that brought the audience to the calm streamside of Paukauila. Though completely instrumental, the song picks up energy like the flow of waters, from dew and raindrops hanging from leaves, to water rushing over rocks, finally coming home in the crash of the waves.

Innocence of the ukulele

Derick Sebastian, another ukulele virtuoso from Hawaii, played side by side with Erin Nakamura, a Japanese guitar player who weaved a solid rhythm section. “He doesn’t let the guitar overtake the innocence of the ukulele,” Derick said, “His guitar playing style really lets the ukulele shine.”

Derick’s ukulele playing brought the house down by introducing a myriad of sounds we never thought possible with the ukulele. For starters, his version of Eric Clapton’s Lay Down Sally took country blues rock outside the realm of the guitar and into the bends, slides and wails of a giddy and playful ukulele.

“It’s an instrument that draws people to itself without the need for promotions,” Derick said, “because if you were to place an emotion to it, it’s really a happy instrument. The innocence of the ukulele is what everyone’s drawn into.” This “innocence” drew from his performance’s superb mix of blues power and the ukulele’s distinct timbre. We saw a different side of the instrument, aside from it just being a cute “mini-guitar.” Their performances delivered emotion and depth, challenging the instrument’s conventional sound. What we finally noticed is that the ukulele is, in fact, an instrument that doesn’t really beg to be heard, but rather an unassuming one that wants nothing else but to share its joys with those who play and listen. “If the guitar is treated like a lover, then the ukulele’s a friend, your best-est closest friend,” Kalei said, “and it will always be there for you, whatever the emotion.”

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Tweet the author @sarhentosilly.

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