Turning the uke into an axe

THE MASTER AND HIS LITTLE AXE: James Hill in Singapore
THE MASTER AND HIS LITTLE AXE: James Hill in Singapore

If you still think the ukulele is rather a toy than a proper instrument you surely have never seen James Hill play.

The Canadian musician's version of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean has clocked up more than half a million views on YouTube and he's long earned the reputation as one of the best uke players in the world.

But he's not considering himself evangelical when it comes to the small four-string instrument. "If people are thinking it's a children's instrument, I wouldn't try to change their mind.

"But if they have an open mind and they're willing to challenge their own ideas they really can enjoy the surprise of discovering what the ukulele can do," Hill says.

Like so many others, Hill made his first contact with the ukulele in school.

"I can't say that it really jumped out at me at first. It came on slowly and surely but the thing that really kept me playing was the friends I was making by playing music," he remembers.

"I think it's as close to an universal instrument as I know. It's an instrument that travels, and it's an instrument that is enjoyed by people all over the world. It's very international and unintimidating. It's a very welcoming instrument, which involves people from all over the world across cultures and language barriers. It's truly a people's instrument," he sums up his love for the ukulele.

Hill always works on expanding his repertoire, and although he has just released the album Man With a Love Song with original material, it is quite often his cover versions that introduce a broader audience to his skills.

When we talk on the phone he is practising an arrangement of a Jimi Hendrix piece. "I've always shed away from playing any Hendrix on the ukulele with some exceptions. I've always been a bit intimidated - that's definitely on my list and I don't know yet how it'll go - it's an experiment so far."

This month Hill is teaming up with The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra for a 10-date-tour through New Zealand.

Hill's parents are from New Zealand and his sister lives now in Hamilton, so it was an obvious choice for the musician - along with classical trained cellist Anne Janelle - to join up with this country's finest ukulele troupe.

"We're going to do a bit of our show and they are going to do a bit of their show but we will make sure that we have some surprises in there as well and combine our powers," Hill promises.

The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra and the amazing James Hill New Zealand Tour kicks off on Friday in Auckland and finishes in Oamaru on March 10. Find out more about the tour here.