BY GREG OLWELL | FROM THE SUMMER 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Known to many as Ukulelezaza, the stage name he’s used for over a decade, Dutch ukulele player Remco Houtman-Janssen personifies much of what makes the ukulele such a delightful instrument. There are his laid-back—and very funny—stage performances, which feature his dazzling arrangements of classic Hawaiian tunes and originals that make you want to know how to play those great strums and fingerpicked parts; his love of vintage instruments; and his passion for learning and sharing ideas and techniques.
As Ukulelezaza, Houtman-Janssen is a popular clinician and performer across Europe and, increasingly, at festivals and camps in the U.S., like last year’s Midwest Uke & Harmonica Camp, where he entertained the crowd with lessons and performances.
Remco, who lives with his family in Ghent, Belgium, originally hails from Rotterdam, The Netherlands, where he was born 46 years ago. He was raised in a home full of music, where his mother played ukulele and sang in jazz and Hawaiian bands. Like many players in the European scene, banjo-ukulele strumming English superstar George Formby was a major influence on Remco and his family. Around the time that his mother started a chapter of the George Formby Society in Rotterdam with a friend in the ’80s, Remco began playing and soon started a band with his sisters. It lasted until he was about 12 years old when, like many people of that age, he dropped his childhood interests as his teen years arrived. “I lost interest in the ukulele altogether. I became a teenager and it was not cool,” he says.
About ten years later, he picked up a banjo-ukulele that he had been given for his 11th birthday and quickly had a big change of heart. “I strummed it and thought, ‘Wait a minute, this is actually pretty cool,’ and then I looked up some Formby videos we had at home—this was the mid-’90s, so there was no internet—and I made a compilation of all the songs from his movies. I watched them over and over so I could learn his technique.”
His passion for playing ukulele reignited, Remco began attending Formby Society conventions in England, where he met like-minded players including Andy Eastwood and Peter Moss. Inspired by them, he expanded to the wooden ukulele and began developing his own style, which calls heavily on the music of the 1920s and 1930s and in particular the music of hot Hawaiian steel guitarist Sol Hoopii. “What I’ve learned from that old music is very important to my style of playing,” he says. “It has a very laid-back style. I like to think my playing is relaxed and down-to-earth, and that comes partially from listening to beautiful old Hawaiian music, like Sol Hoopii—who is my number one musical hero.”
To capture that feel and sound, Remco had to learn some of the old strums that at this point have gone so far past old that they sound new again. “Most of the stuff I play comes from the old days: the triplet, the fan stroke, the split-stroke like George Formby did, rolls, all kinds of stuff that is typical for the music of the 1930s,” he says. But real artists are never content to simply relearn what has already been done and present it as something new, they have to take the music someplace new and create something uniquely their own. For Zaza, it’s writing songs (see the music for “Downhill” on page 31 of this issue) and sometimes developing new strums with fancy names. “Recently, I invented a strum I call the ‘peacock,’ which is a super-flashy magical strum that is impossible to describe. You have to see it to believe it, and when you see it, you don’t believe it,” he laughs.
As he built his repertoire and began to get acknowledged for his considerable playing talents, Zaza started to get gigs teaching and performing across Europe, then in other uke-crazed countries, including Japan and the U.S. He has also self-published four handsomely illustrated books of his arrangements of old tunes. “I was maybe a little bit vain when I did the first one, because I wanted to do a book with pictures of my beautiful ukuleles, but I didn’t have that many, so it wasn’t really worth a book,” he says. “So, I thought I should add some of the arrangements of songs I have been playing for years and then put in some nice pictures and articles about my ukuleles.” He’s currently working on the fifth book in the series and hopes to have something ready soon—Books 1 and 3 are sold out, but Books 2 and 4 are available through his Etsy store.
Like many players, collecting ukuleles is a big part of Zaza’s life, and he has a special affection for Martin Style 3 sopranos, which have been his main instruments since he began playing again as an adult. While most of today’s players choose tenor or concert-size ukes and consider sopranos too small to navigate comfortably, or that they are for children, Remco plays soprano ukes almost exclusively. “I really only play the soprano,” he says. “I have one concert and one tenor from the 1930s—a Lyon & Healy that was advertised as being tuned like what we now call baritone, so I have it tuned D G B E and it has a nice deep sound. I love it, but you can’t beat a soprano. I think tenors sound like bad sopranos.” Ouch.
He clarifies the personal appeal of the earliest member of the ukulele family, saying, “Sopranos feel easy on my hands, they have the most compact, powerful sound, and are so easy to hold, play, and take along. It’s the original and it’s the size I grew up with. For me, it’s soprano all the way—it’s the ultimate ukulele.”
If you look at Remco’s YouTube videos, it might seem like he has a vast collection—vintage Martins, a rare Knutsen harp ukulele, and National resonator ukes—but the reality is that his current quiver is a bit more modest than social media might make it appear, for reasons that are probably relatable to most ukulele players. He’s very curious about other instruments and likes to try out new playthings. “I’ve always been buying and selling ukuleles, because I’ve always wanted to try something else, something different,” he says, “but because I don’t have very much money, I’m forced to sell—so many, many ukes have come and gone. I don’t have most of the ukes you can see in my videos and in my books anymore.” He estimates that maybe 50 Martins have passed through his hands and that “about 30 of them are Style 3 Martins, which are my favorite. Many banjo-ukes as well. If I had the money, I would keep them all and have a little museum.”
He also feels that playing vintage instruments helps him be more connected to the vintage music he likes to play and have a built-in history that carries the past with them into the present. “They come from the time when they played the music that I like and that I play myself. Maybe if I was playing music from the ’80s I would play a more modern instrument, but for the 1920s jazz and Hawaiian stuff I play, it just makes sense that I play vintage ukuleles. They look great and sound fantastic.”
With this revolving door of ukes coming and going, he relies on two vintage Martin Style 3 sopranos: one from the ’40s and another from the ’50s, his main instrument. “It’s super versatile. It’s a more stripped-down version of the Style 3—it doesn’t have the inlay at the bottom and doesn’t have the stripe on the neck, just dots,” he says. Things changed last year, however, when he received a modern Wunderkammer uke from English maker Liam Kirby that was based on Remco’s early 1900s Leonardo Nunes. “His ukuleles look vintage, feel vintage, sound vintage—they are fantastic and it has more or less replaced my Style 3 as my main player. It is loud, warm, and deep, and easy to play.”
As a popular player and instructor in Europe, Remco has a finger on some of the finest players and events around the continent. Which players are inspiring him today? “I think Chris Uff of the Ukulele Uff Trio from Liverpool is the best ukulele player in the world in the style he plays, which is like what I play. In Germany, there is A Muckrakers Cabaret with Charlotte Pelgen of the Bad Mouse Orchestra and Jake Smithies from Dead Man’s Uke. What Jake and Charlotte do together is mix old music and new songs, and you have no idea that you’re listening to songs that Charlotte wrote because they blend so well.”
When it comes to festivals, he is quick to call out one as his favorite: “The Czech Ukulele Festival, which is held at a brewery in a little village outside of Prague the last weekend of July. The vibe is so relaxed and the organization is spot-on. The artists are always great and it’s the Czech Republic—so everything is cheap.” Paris also has a scene like no other, according to Remco. “There are a lot of young people playing wonderful music—and the funny thing is that most uke players in Paris seem to have vintage Martin sopranos.”
Ukulelezaza’s Tips for Making Your Concert or Tenor Uke Sound Better
“Here’s a little advice for people who have multiple instruments. Like I said, to me, tenors sound like a bad soprano, but once you tune them down a little bit, they come alive. The same is true for concerts. I tune them down to Bb [F Bb D G] and suddenly they have a bigger, much fuller sound and
finally you can make use of the bigger body. If you have more than one concert, try to tune one of them down to Bb. With tenors, I like to tune down to A; you don’t have the higher string tension anymore and I’ve never been a fan of high string-tension.”
String tension and gauge are also an important feature for Remco. “One reason that the Wunderkammer soprano uke almost replaced my Martin Style 3 is that I was not very pleased with the Martin’s sound anymore. I was always using Worth clear medium strings, which I think are great strings for vintage Martin ukes in general, but they were quite thin and there was some buzzing on the frets and I thought maybe it was the uke. But then I put on some heavier gauge D’Addario black nylon strings and it came back to life.”