BY BLAIR JACKSON | PHOTOS BY LILA LEE | FROM THE WINTER 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Not to be confused with a certain similarly named, mega-popular Irish band that makes anthemic stadium rock, has sold 170 million albums, and won 22 Grammy Awards, U3 is a modest American ukulele-based trio that just put out its first album, has never performed a gig under their tongue-in-cheek moniker, and can still walk outside their homes and not be mobbed by fans. It’s an unfair comparison, of course, and the fact is U3 could almost be considered a “supergroup” in the uke world, as it brings together three of the instrument’s most talented and personable practitioners: Cynthia Lin, Lenny San Jose (Ukulenny), and Abe Lagrimas, Jr.
All three are well-known on the ukulele festival circuit as teachers and performers. Cynthia and Lenny are bona fide uke stars on YouTube, with Cynthia attracting close to 400,000 subscribers to her channel, Lenny more than 75,000. And Abe, in addition to being an ukulele virtuoso, is also an accomplished composer, recording artist, pianist, and percussionist (from drums to vibraphone), widely admired for his serious jazz chops. To borrow another term from the rock lexicon, they’re a “power trio”!
And their debut album, In Waves, is a delight. It’s a mix of two solid Cynthia Lin originals—the breezy jazz-pop number “Aquamarine,” plus a moving jazz-blues ballad, “Sanctuary”—and a great and varied batch of cover tunes: Dennis Kamakahi’s Sons of Hawaii classic “Wahine ‘Ilikea”; Antônio Carlos Jobim’s much-recorded late 1967 bossa nova number, “Wave”; the Police/Sting’s ska-infused “Message in a Bottle”; the ’50s torch ballad “Cry Me a River,” first popularized by Julie London; the Ka’au Crater Boys’ Islands favorite “You Don’t Write”; a fantastic workout on the Guns N’ Roses smash “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” complete with a reggae breakdown; and, perhaps most intriguing of all, the Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 hit “Mas Que Nada”—sung by Cynthia in Japanese (as the legendary Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto did on a 1969 album), and artfully arranged by Abe to include the theme for a cheesy Japanese android superhero TV series called Kikaida, which has been popular in Hawaii for the past 45 years.
Throughout the album, Cynthia handles the lead vocals and rhythm uke—a Romero Creations STC Tiny Tenor; Abe lays down uke ornamentation, and many splendid solos on his Ko’olau custom tenor—as well as adding drums, vibes, and more; and Lenny plays a sturdy Kala U-Bass (including a solo on “Cry Me River”) and a Kala Custom Elite tenor uke on one track, “Sanctuary.” The album was recorded in L.A. at the home studio of engineer Glenn Suravech (who had recorded and mixed Abe’s 2018 album, Abe Lagrimas, Jr.), over a period of almost a year, as the busy schedules of the three allowed. Every few months, “we’d book three days per session,” Cynthia says, “rehearse for one and record for two.”
The connection between Cynthia and Lenny goes back the furthest. “It’s funny, because for both Cynthia and Abe, I was really a superfan before becoming friends and bandmates,” Lenny says. “I met Cynthia at a Bay Area artist showcase known as RAMA, and really loved her style and guitar-playing—yes, she played the big ‘six-string ukulele’ [i.e., guitar] at the time! She was performing solo and I, being a multi-instrumentalist, thought it would be cool to collaborate.”
Cynthia adds, “Lenny was the first person to make a YouTube uke cover for one of my original songs, ‘Skipping in NYC’ [a charming acoustic guitar song from Lin’s 2007 Doppelganger EP]. This was back in 2010! He’s one of the most versatile performers on the planet and I can always count on Lenny to lift my spirits and to keep the crowd energy high in any performance situation. Together, we’ve led the SF Uke Jam community for seven years, and we created the SF Uke-tober Fest and SF Summer Uke Fest. We’ve been playing music together for ten years, and he’s like family to me.
“I was with Lenny when I met Abe at the Palm Springs Uke Fest in 2017, which was the first uke fest I ever attended,” she continues. “The three of us hit it off immediately. The second night we met, I jokingly said that we were a new band. Three years later, we have our first album.” Though Lenny claims that he and Cynthia “heckled Abe at his workshops” in Palm Springs, “we three made fast friends at that fest, which really marked the beginning of U3.”
“That’s where we hit it off and started working together,” Abe agrees. “Since then, we’ve performed together at the Mighty Day Uke Fest in Michigan, the L.A. International Ukulele Festival, all of the SF-based ukulele events, and Cynthia Lin shows in L.A., SF, and Seattle. Cynthia and I also toured China in the fall of 2018, sponsored by Ohana Ukuleles.”
What’s the magic ingredient of their union? “Chemistry, both musically and personally,” Abe offers. “Musically, we each have very different strengths, so when we come together, it’s as if we’re forming an ukulele supergroup.”
Says Lenny, “We did our first official performance at the L.A. Ukulele Festival in 2017. It was really impromptu, but it opened our eyes to the possibility that we’d make a good group with our different skills, styles, and love of performing. We mostly just enjoyed hanging out and figured it’d be good to also play music together while we did that. U3 was mostly born of our friendship and silly antics as a trio.”
Of the three, Cynthia has enjoyed the longest career in music, and her road to ukulele stardom was a circuitous one. She grew up in Chicago, the daughter of parents who love music and dancing—“even in their retirement they are avid line dancers,” she says. “My mother used to choreograph Chinese cultural dances for me to perform when I was young. My brother and sister also love music, and we all took piano lessons together as kids. I took piano lessons from age six to 16, but I was not a very good piano student. I enjoyed playing and performing at recitals more than I liked practicing. I also played violin for a year, before my family moved to New Jersey and I switched to a school that didn’t offer orchestra.”
Though she appreciated her exposure to classical music—especially Chopin—she says her “first love was the voice. I loved pop radio—Whitney Houston, Prince, the Cure. My parents played classics like The Beatles and the Platters. My first CD was Pearl Jam’s Ten.
“In many ways, though, I’m a dancer first. From ballet to modern to jazz to hip-hop, most of my school years involved performing dance.”
Out of high school, Lin attended Princeton University where she earned a B.A. in economics. “I like to say that Princeton is the best undergraduate education you can get, but when it comes to being an artist, education doesn’t matter as much as passion or sheer will,” she notes.
And it was during her college years she started to turn in a different musical direction:
“I asked for a guitar for my high school graduation gift, and in college I started writing songs, inspired by the Indigo Girls, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor—mostly folk singers in the singer-songwriter tradition. I also listened to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole Trio, and learned some jazz chords. My piano background gave me some foundational music theory, but the fretboard and keyboard are such different beasts. I think I found the guitar a bit easier to write on because I could just memorize chord shapes. And all you need are ‘three chords and the truth,’” as the famous country music maxim says.
Out of college, “I fell in love with the craft of writing songs, and the challenge of performing them solo to capture a room. I lived the troubadour life, touring and playing 75 shows a year, constantly writing, making records so that I would have something to sell at shows. I played a lot of college shows, and I played a lot of empty cafes. I embraced the DIY approach, because I’d heard so many stories of talented acts who signed with labels and lost control of their music. I did all my own booking, driving, promotion, and selling merch. It wasn’t glamorous at all, but it was important to me that I practiced my craft as a form of survival.” Along the way, she recorded the EP Blue and Borderlined (2005), and after moving to New York City, her Doppelganger EP, and an ambitious album called Microscope (2010). With each release, she also learned more about the technical side of recording and production—skills that have served her well since.
In 2010, after three years in New York, she and her partner moved to San Francisco, and it was there that her love affair with the ukulele began. “The real reason I bought my first ukulele was I had an unfortunate experience flying with my guitar,” she recalls. “I came home from a tour and bought a Hula brand laminate mahogany tenor from a guy on Craigslist for $100. Eventually, Edgar Dang at Aloha Warehouse in Japantown in San Francisco persuaded me to upgrade to a cedar-top Pono tenor. I loved how easy it was to travel with the uke, and I would take it along to shows as a second instrument, and eventually it became my main instrument.
“Ukulenny was one of the first musicians I met in the Bay Area, but neither of us were really connected to the Bay Area uke scene. We kind of created our own Bay Area uke scene—one that was more jam-oriented and played more popular songs. Edgar also helped connect me with other Bay Area uke lovers. The uke world is definitely different from the singer-songwriter world—it’s much happier!”
I asked her if she found her considerable fingerpicking guitar skills were transferable to the uke. “It’s interesting—I played the uke like a guitar player in the beginning,” she says, “but I couldn’t directly transfer my guitar songs over to uke. I needed to approach them in a new way after several years of getting to know the uke as its own instrument.
“Writing songs on the uke is very different from writing on the guitar,” she adds. “As a songwriter, it’s a refreshing change. Often, the tone and timbre of the specific instrument you’re playing helps you find the song, and ukes have a bouncy lightness that is hard to achieve on guitar. The limitation of having only four strings and two octaves means that I have to do more with rhythm and inversions. I find that jazz chords on the uke are easier and more fun to play, which fits well with my jazzy style.”
Once she was firmly established in the San Francisco uke scene, Cynthia branched out into teaching, both in person and online, where her warmth and appeal immediately began to attract huge numbers of subscribers to her YouTube channel. She comments, “I believe my popularity on YouTube comes from the fact that I deliver a strong vocal performance in my videos, I look like I’m from Hawaii, I have experience on-camera—I studied acting after college—and I have experience teaching and performing to large groups of people. I teach with the belief that everyone can learn to play if you break down the steps small enough and you teach people to be patient with themselves. My model of teaching comes from the way I’ve taught myself guitar, songwriting, and ukulele.”
From 2011 to 2017, too, she fronted a loose, eclectic nine-piece group called the Blue Moon All-Stars, with Lenny as the bandleader, playing a cross-section of pop, jazz, and blues tunes, and recording one album, Midnight Echoes. Since then, Lin says she’s been focused more on her solo career, and sure enough, her first release after Blue Moon was a lovely, bare bones, solo uke-and-voice album of covers called Ukulele Days, released in 2018, on which she covered everything from three Beatles tunes to Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” to Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.”
With her ever-increasing visibility and popularity in the uke world, it’s no surprise that a major instrument maker, Long Beach, California-based Ohana Music, would tap her to help create a signature line. “I had taught hundreds of beginners to play the uke, and I was eager to design a uke that I could recommend as a high-quality starter instrument for beginners to grow with,” she says. “I believe beginners should start with a concert size, and then I chose the laminate mahogany wood, the binding, the tuners, the flower inlay, and I specified that it come with upgraded Worth brown fluorocarbon strings, which are easier for beginners to play, and sound lovely on mahogany. This design works for me, because I’m a singer, and I prefer a warmer tone that’s not too bright.”
The biggest change in Cynthia’s life in recent times—aside from the U3 album project—is she and her partner moved from San Francisco to Honolulu in 2019. “We love San Francisco, but we both truly felt the call of the Islands. I love being immersed in the culture of aloha and in the sounds of new and old Hawaii. Being here, surrounded by mountains, ocean, and aloha, is definitely influencing the songs I’m writing now.”
Any final message to the many young (and older) uke players she has inspired—words that might have soothed her when she was struggling?
“My mantra is to follow your passion. If you truly listen to your heart and nurture your soul, you will succeed. I also try to remember to stay present and go with the flow. Embrace the process, and enjoy the journey.”
Ukulenny: Born to Play (and Teach)
“I’ve been considered by many of my peers to be a music addict,” San Diego-raised Lenny San Jose comments from his current digs in Oakland. “I was totally enamored with all instruments and always excited to spontaneously make music. It’s been one of my goals to learn how to play as many instruments as possible.” So far, he’s mastered 12, including piano, various reeds and horns, bass, the 14-string Philippine bandurria—and, of course, the uke. He’s also an excellent singer who has performed in many choral groups through the years. At UC Berkeley he earned a B.A. in Music and also played alto sax in the Cal Marching Band. Then he moved on to Cal State East Bay, where he earned his teaching credential, specializing in music education, which led to a five-year stint teaching in East Bay public schools.
“Near the end of my college run,” he says, “I got a $20 Rogue ukulele for Christmas, and I played it into the ground. Once I started listening closely to Jake Shimabukuro, it changed the game for me. I latched on to his renditions of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and made it my goal to play like Jake. I bought my first ‘professional’ ukulele, a Kala Archtop Tenor, and my life was changed.” Years later he would become a Kala artist: “Their sponsorship has allowed me to grow as a teacher, leading various workshops for the NAMM Foundation, spearheading the Kala website’s Learn to Play program, and representing the brand at road shows,” he says.
Jake wasn’t Lenny’s only inspiration as he was diving deeper into uke. “I remember buying the CD Legends of Ukulele 2: Hawaiian Masters and listening to it on repeat, exposing me to great artists like Brittni Paiva, Bryan Tolentino, Troy Fernandez, Kelly Boy DeLima, Dino Guzman, and Abe Lagrimas, Jr. I also joined the Royal Hawaiian Ukulele Band, who met in Berkeley on Monday nights, and they really turned me on to the kanikapila side of the ukulele. I also took a trip to Hawaii and met Kimo Hussey at the Ukulele Guild of Hawaii Festival. He later became a huge inspiration to me just by his effortless and relaxed playing style and his deep knowledge and appreciation for ukulele building.
“A music teacher at heart, the ukulele really encapsulated everything that I was looking for in a teaching and performing experience. I did a few simple YouTube tutorials in 2011 that eventually started gaining views and followers. After hitting 10,000 subscribers—a feat that at the time I didn’t even imagine was possible—I realized that I had real potential in making the ukulele my career.
“In 2013 I taught at my first festival, the Wine Country Ukulele Fest in St. Helena, California, and I met Craig Chee and Sarah Maisel--before they were a thing! They have been huge inspirations and mentors to me in navigating the festival world. From day one they’ve offered their support and advice, and continue to pave the way for many of us ukulele players to be a part of the global ukulele community.”
As for future of U3, Lenny says, “This is definitely the beginning of something that we want to keep going as long as possible. It’s too much fun working together, and it just makes sense to keep creating music, especially with this first project in the books. With the current state of the pandemic, it’s hard to say when the next album will be in the works but I’m definitely looking forward to it.”
Abe Lagrimas, Jr: All That Jazz
Born in Guam to a Navy sailor (and semi-pro saxophonist), Abe Lagrimas, Jr. grew up mostly in Hawaii. He started playing drums at the age of four, and as a youth played in a family band with his two older brothers. By middle school he was a good enough drummer to play in the school jazz ensemble, and at 13 he won an international drum competition sponsored by Modern Drummer magazine and the Drummer’s Collective school in New York, earning a scholarship to a four-week program. Later he attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he specialized in Music Education, while honing his percussion (vibraphone was his other specialty) and other skills.
The ukulele came into Abe’s life during his years in Boston. “I played the guitar as a kid, but not the ukulele,” he says from his home in L.A. “I grew up playing a lot of heavy metal. That, combined with my jazz and bebop foundation, probably explains why I tend to play a lot of notes! I pretty much taught myself how to play ukulele. Since I was at music school, I already understood how chords were built and the basic function of harmony. I just needed to learn where to place my fingers on the fretboard. My right-hand technique was something I had to develop, but still, I just did what felt natural to me.
“My ukulele education consisted of a generic chord book, Ka’au Crater Boys CDs, some Lyle Ritz, and a Joe Pass solo guitar album. I should also mention that I owe my ukulele career to my good friend Randy Wong, a friend from my high school days. We were both going to school in Boston at the same time—Randy was at the New England Conservatory. He was nice enough to let me borrow his Kamaka tenor.”
Abe says that from the outset, he approached the uke as a jazz instrument, and, given his interest in teaching, it was natural that he would write his seminal book, Jazz Ukulele—Comping, Soloing, Chord Melody.
All through his pro career, he has led a sort of double-life musically—percussionist and uke virtuoso. “Pre-COVID, 95 percent of my performances in L.A. were jazz drumming gigs. Most of the music I listen to is jazz. If I have uke fans, that’s a bonus. Some of my friends at Berklee would jokingly make fun of me whenever they’d see me carrying an ukulele. I think this is what helped me to define myself as an ukulele player and what direction I wanted to take the instrument. Today, I’m proud that my jazz musician friends all over the world know about my ukulele playing, and some of them have extended some pretty neat opportunities to me.”
A prolific recording artist, he’s cut—to name just three—a cool all-uke instrumental EP of Michael Jackson songs (Black or White, 2010), a jazzy “duo” album with himself called Ukulele Vibes (2016), and 2018’s Abe Lagrimas, Jr. with other jazz players, on which he plays both uke and percussion. “What’s important to me,” he concludes, “is that whatever I put out there is always something I truly believe in. I believe in honing and developing an original voice while striving for the highest level of music to the best of my ability—and sharing that with the world.”