James Hill's ukulele epiphany

Last updated 05:00 29/11/2013
Fairfax NZ

Professional ukelele musician, James Hill, shows us that the ukelele isn't just a toy.

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James Hill likes to challenge people's preconceptions.

The Canadian ukulele virtuoso is in New Zealand to play to an audience of 12,000 at the New Zealand Ukulele Festival in Auckland this weekend.

While the ukulele is often ridiculed as a children's play-thing, Hill has earned a worldwide reputation for taking the instrument to a new level, with his version of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean clocking up more than 800,000 views on YouTube.

"I've never been a really lucky person, but the whole ukulele thing is the first time in my life that I have been the right guy at the right time with the right skills," he says.

He has performed on every continent apart from Antarctica and Africa and couldn't be happier.

"It's like winning in the lottery, it has been a great ride."

Like most ukulele fans he stated playing the four-string-instrument in school.

"It was just what everybody did, just another class in school we had for two years and from there I never stopped," he says.

In his performance, often accompanied by cellist Anne Janelle, he uses chopsticks and thimbles to create sounds most wouldn't expect.

"I have been playing now for 26 years and you do have to keep finding new ways to keep it interesting," he says.

"I always try to find the end of the rope. I always think the ukulele can only go so deep and just out curiosity I just keep going, and it keeps surprising me."

Although he says that he is almost immune to people discrediting the ukulele as a children's toy, he also likes the idea that people don't expect very much.

"That just plays right into my hands and I always enjoy changing people's perceptions," he says.

"I feel a little bit marginalised by people's perceptions of the ukulele. But on the other hand I don't want to give up that preconception as it gives you an awful lot to work with on stage when you bring somebody from Point A, where they didn't think much of it, to Point B where they kind of had a ukulele epiphany.

"That's fun to do. I don't mind the perceptions."

The New Zealand Ukulele Festival, the biggest of its kind in Australasia, takes place this Saturday at Trusts Arena in Auckland.

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