BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE SUMMER 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Big Island ukulele sensation Kris Fuchigami was not one of those kids who was seemingly born to play music and spent every waking hour of his youth practicing an instrument. To the contrary, he says by phone from his home in Hilo, Hawaii, “My mom had tried to teach me piano but I had zero interest in it, so that only lasted a few months. To be honest, before I was 13 years old, I didn’t have any interest in music at all. Like, my brother would turn on the radio and I just didn’t want to hear it. Then, all of a sudden, it all changed for me.
“My mother, who is from Japan, would go visit her family there every couple of years and she’d take two of our four siblings each time; we’d take turns going,” he continues. “That summer when I was 13 , I was the one who stayed home, with nothing much to do, and one day I was looking through a closet and I found my brother’s old beat-up Walmart ukulele, which had never really interested me at all, and I started plucking away at it. I had no idea what I was doing. But I remembered my music teacher talking about a guy named Jake Shimabukuro. I had no idea who he was at the time, so I went on the internet and I went to his website—there was no YouTube at the time—and found all this crazy rock stuff I’d never heard on the ukulele before. So I bought his latest CD [the 2002 album Sunday Morning] and I immediately gravitated to this rock song he did called ‘Toastmaker’s Revenge.’ I grabbed my ukulele and tried to mimic what he was doing, and I found that I could find the voicings pretty easily, and by the end of that day I had learned that entire song on the ukulele. So that was the start for me.”
So, that’s the fun uke origin story. From there, he immediately becomes the conquering hero who goes on to untold riches, records albums, and gets nominated for Na Hoku Hanohano awards, and eventually wins one, right? Um, not quite—except for the albums and the Hokus. Fuchigami’s road to success turned out to be a lot rockier than he expected it to be after that borderline-miraculous first day. And he freely admits that a lot of the struggles he faced early on were self-inflicted.
“After I learned that first song on ukulele, my head got swollen. I thought, ‘I am the greatest ukulele player alive!’” he says with a laugh. “It drove me to practice even more, and with every song I learned, because it came easily to me, my head got bigger.” He played on his own for about a year, then went to his first ukulele teacher—“a guitar teacher who played ukulele a little bit, but it wasn’t like learning the basics of ukulele or anything like that. It was me going to him and asking him to transcribe these insanely fast songs, and then I’d go home and practice. Then, I thought, ‘I’ve got to enter a ukulele contest!’ So I went to my first contest, and I was backstage with everyone, looking at them, and thinking. ‘You guys have no chance.’ I went onstage and played a mind-blowingly fast song, and I ended up coming in second, so my head didn’t get any smaller after that.
“A few months later there was another contest on the Kona side of the island, and we went there and I had the same mindset about the other players. I played another super-fast song… and ended up tying for last place with a six-year-old girl who sang and danced hula at the same time she was playing ukulele. At that point, I decided contests weren’t for me. ‘They’re just rigged!’” He laughs again.
“This was around the age I was entering high school, and when I entered ukulele class I was thinking, ‘I could teach this class!’ I didn’t do any of the homework because I thought it was too easy, and I ended up barely passing! So I went to band class, thinking, ‘Well, that’s the real music.’ I thought I could floor people with my musical skills, but then they put sheet music in front of me, and it looked like gibberish. So I dropped that class and went to ensemble. I had a hard time there, too. I ended up dropping both classes and took up weight training instead. After I graduated high school, I still thought I was going to be this mega ukulele star, but that didn’t happen, and I went straight into working at a warehouse. It was very humbling. I think I needed that. All these things that are rubbing mud in your face are probably needed to humble you and change you into who you should be, to receive the blessings that you desire.”
Along the way, he did “go backwards,” as he puts it, and started to learn about music theory, sight-reading, and a lot of the basics he’d skipped over in his rush to become the next Jake. “I also learned a bunch of Hawaiian songs to grasp the roots of the instrument,” he says. By the age of 19, Fuchigami was taking on ukulele students of his own (eventually numbering between 20 and 30), and as he points out, “Even if they come in advanced, we start from the bottom, because I know how it feels to learn all this advanced stuff and have no clue what you’re doing.”
Fuchigami says his own maturation as a musician has helped him establish his own sound and identity as a player and composer of instrumental pieces. “When I was 15 or 16,” he comments, “I found myself not being able to break away from just being a copycat, and it took a long time of branching out and listening to other people—like Herb Ohta, Jr. and all these other players—and even then I was struggling to find my own sound. It really wasn’t until I broke away from ukulele music and started listening to people like Frank Sinatra and Carlos Santana—all these different sounds—that I was able to break away from sounding like Jake or any of the other ukulele players. It also helped my songwriting, because to me, at the beginning, I thought that making an instrumental song just consisted of putting a bunch of licks together for four minutes, calling it a song, and slapping a title on it. But after listening to all these artists outside the ukulele realm, you realize that songs have an intro, verse, chorus, bridge, and that helps you understand what a ‘correct’ song sounds like.
“When I first started writing on the ukulele, it was using basic chords and just strumming and figuring out the melody. But as I’ve progressed, I’ve started trying to use different chord voicings, and my ear is getting better with time, so I’m able to use different chords I’ve never used before. I also have different life experiences to draw from. Nowadays, I base all my songs on life experiences. You can put as many notes as you want together, but if you don’t have a heart feeling behind each song and each note that you’re playing, the song feels kind of empty.”
Despite his beginnings as a flashy speed king, if you go onto YouTube to watch some of his performances, you’re just as likely to encounter easy-listening covers of pop tunes from past eras, such as Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” (which appeared on Fuchigami’s first album, Untouchable, in 2010), Elvis’ “Love Me Tender,” Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why,” and Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “The Girl from Ipanema.” Many of his own original songs lean toward the softer side, too, including “Moemoea,” a lovely, lilting number inspired by a trip to Tahiti—it earned Fuchigami his first Hoku nomination (2016)—and the single for which he won the coveted Hoku in 2019 for Instrumental Composition of the Year, “Life Is.”
In between, he put out his acclaimed and stylistically diverse second album, More Than This, which was nominated in 2018 in the Ukulele Album of the Year category. It showed his growth as a writer and player, and skillfully blended his uke balladry and occasional pyrotechnics with a host of other musicians—guitarists, bassists, a drummer, cellist, and his primary instrumental foil for the past 13 years, his piano-playing mother, Keiko, who also appears in nearly all of his videos.
“We started playing together when I was about 18, in 2008,” he says of his mom. “I like the combination of ukulele and piano. The ear can only take so much high frequency, and the low-end of the piano helps balance out the overall sound and makes it more comfortable to listen to.” Any mother-son clashes? “When we’re coming up with arrangements, we might battle it out a little bit on whose chord might sound better, but for the most part it’s all pretty calm and enjoyable,” he says with a chuckle.
Asked about the ukes he’s played since that first $10 Walmart model, he says, “About six months down the line, my brother’s friend gave me a Duke Kahanamoku, and I played that for a while. I was always begging my dad to buy me a good ukulele and he kept turning me down, saying, ‘I want you to prove to me that this isn’t going to be a fad.’ So that drove me to learn more and more songs. Then, after six or eight months, I actually got grounded from the ukulele because I had horrible grades in middle school because I spent so much of my time practicing that I neglected all of my homework. All my time went into playing the ukulele.
“After that [grounding] was over, we went to the music store and I ended up getting a black Ovation Applause ukulele. It looked kind of like an electric guitar and it had a fiberglass back. I had that for a year, and then there was this ukulele contest: I lost the contest, and as we were walking away, the strap of my case broke and the back of the ukulele shattered! That led to my dad buying me my first Kamaka. A few years later, we started looking more at the custom side, so I’ve been strictly Kamaka since I was about 15.” His favored axe these days is a custom Kamaka tenor.
Like so many players who have come up since Jake Shimabukuro shook up the uke world with his deft use of electronic effects on top his already dazzling technique, Fuchigami liberally employs everything from reverb to looping on his recordings and in performances. It even seeps into his songwriting: “Some songs you write them and then you start to think about what effects might enhance them. But some of my other songs start off with an effect that I like and then I build a song around that.”
As for his electronics setup, “I had the Line 6 HD500 for a long time,” he says, “and then a few years ago I upgraded to a Helix; same company—it just has a bigger span of effects that you can use. I’m always looking for different sounds, so I love having my pedalboard around. And if I’m not using distortion or some other effect, I’m always using reverb on the ukulele.”
Needless to say, the pandemic has had a large impact on his ukulele life; fortunately, all along he has kept his full-time job in the warehouse for a big grocery store in Hilo. “I work the job from early morning to mid-afternoon,” he says, “and then I teach ukulele after that. When that’s done, I have a few hours where I’m practicing or doing emails for the management of my career. I’ve also been doing a lot of [song] writing—at the computer recording demos and trying to piece a new album together. We were thinking of trying to release it this year, but we might hold off to see how it goes [with the pandemic].”
One thing that has survived through this difficult time, however, is the Kris Fuchigami Ukulele Contest, now coming into its ninth year. The 2020 edition was held online, of course, “and it was a pretty good success because it wasn’t just a competition in Hilo; it was worldwide, so we had a ton of people sending in entries and it was fun to see all the different styles and where they came from.” Winners in the different divisions won Kamaka, Enya, or Leolani ukuleles, and who knows—maybe one of those winners will go on to become the next Kris Fuchigami. That would no doubt make him very, very happy.