By Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen
From the Summer 2016 issue of Ukulele
When Luke Kaumatule walks around the Stanford University campus, he turns heads. It’s hard to miss the 6-foot, 7-inch, 278-pound defensive linebacker with dark, curly hair—he’s a playmaker on the football field for the Cardinals, which ended the 2015 season ranked third in the country, the team’s highest finish since 1940. But it’s when Kaumatule takes out his ukulele that people stop and take notice.
“What’s funny is that people out here, they see me playing and they are amazed. But at home, my family is like, ‘Shut upalready,’” Kaumatule says, laughing. “Everyone plays—it’s a hobby.”
The 22-year-old Honolulu native has been playing football most of his life, but just started playing ukulele in high school. For the highly-touted football recruit, the ukulele became an escape, a way to relieve stress. After a school day packed with classes and practices, he and his younger brother, Canton—now a defensive lineman with the University of Oregon—would sit outside and jam.
With Luke playing their favorites, Canton would freestyle, adding verses and rapping lyrics about the different things going on in their lives.
“We were constantly grinding in school,” Kaumatule says. “There was a mindset to train, to study, and when we played ukulele, it was a way to get away and be free.”
The first song Kaumatule learned how to play was a Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain.”
He comes from a large, musical family—he’s one of nine brothers and sisters, and has countless cousins—but at first thought his fingers were too big to play ukulele (the average ukulele is, after all, about .24 percent of his body size). Canton stepped in to teach him, starting with the basics. Gradually, Kaumatule got better, and added different chords and strumming patterns until he could play the Bob Marley song five different ways.
“My brother used to get annoyed with me. I only wanted to play the same song, and he’d be like ‘Come on man, you’ve been playing the same song for five hours,’” Kaumatule recalls.
He eventually expanded his repertoire, and can now play a wide variety of songs—mostly reggae—as well as a much-requested version of Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA.”
When he arrived at Stanford, he brought his ukulele to the locker room, and would lead jam sessions with his teammates. Players on the football team would bring in their own lines for songs and add their own harmonies, and after one session of Stanford summer football camp, a group of 15 or 16 guys joined Kaumatule as he played.
So it’s not surprising that when the Stanford team buses returned in January after the Cardinal’s 45-16 Rose Bowl victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes, Luke went straight to where he had stashed his ukulele—in the near empty locker room, he picked it up and started playing.
Two of the team’s safeties walked in, sat down, and joined Kaumatule. Lost in the music and the moment, the three held an impromptu 30-minute jam session.
“The ukulele is the number one tool for getting away,” says Luke, explaining why he plays.
“If you’re feeling down or feeling stressed, pick up the ukulele.”
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Ukulele magazine.