French transplant and Mui Wo resident Jimmy Denis is on a mission to extend the ukulele’s unlikely renaissance to Hong Kong – one pluck at a time. Elizabeth Kerr reports.
It’s an underdog instrument,” says Mui Wo resident Jimmy Denis of the belittled four-string ukulele. True. Say ‘ukulele’ and the first thing most people envision is the anti-psychedelia of Tiny Tim and his tulips or the easy-listening camp of Don Ho. Like the instrument itself, Jimmy is a breath of fresh air sitting in the city’s temple to big business, IFC. Jimmy is comfortable and confident in his funky folding shades, hair styled into a very Hong Kong front ducktail. He’s a ukulele-wielding Johnny Cash, dressed in black except for colourful sneakers. And his eyebrows are impeccable.
Born in France’s northeast Champagne-Ardenne region to an Italian-Argentinean mum and French-Gypsy dad, Jimmy’s life in creativity was sparked by his parents’ shared careers in the arts festival industry. Armed with a formal education in drama – a happy accident stemming from a sprained knee that demanded low-key studies – Jimmy worked in Paris for eight years before heeding the siren call of Asia.
Jimmy landed in Hong Kong, like many non-natives, after tooling around the region, finally dropping in to see a friend. “People from all over the world live here. You can approach anyone and it was a very easy connection, an easy way for me to share with people,” Jimmy says. “I was seduced by the contrast of life – the big city hub and the islands on the side.”
Indeed, Jimmy’s first trip to Hong Kong took him to Mui Wo with his hammock and guitar, where he slept on the beach for a week. Nine years later, Jimmy still lives in Mui Wo, unwilling to give up the nature, the water, the water buffaloes and the relaxed pace of life. What else would you expect from a kid who grew up on the festival circuit?
Jimmy, 37, loves music, and he loves to create, but he loves educating just as much. “I came to Asia to discover more, yes. But I graduated from university in drama, as an actor and director, and my intention was to teach drama. I wanted to come, learn, adapt, share,” he says. Point out that Hong Kong’s nickname may as well be ‘cultural wasteland’ and he sees a silver lining. “That may be a gap that’s an opportunity for me to fill. Because there is culture here. There is heart. There is creativity,” he argues. “I’m not a fatalist.”
Music may be a tertiary career trajectory but it was almost a given. Exposed to music titans like BB King (who he ran into at seven years old) and Eric Clapton through his parents’ work, Jimmy was teaching himself guitar by the age of 13. But how does one go from blues legend King and legendary rock god Clapton to the ukulele – the 19th century Portuguese machete derivative that counts Clash frontman Joe Strummer as an enthusiast?
“It starts kind of sad, but it gets better. I swear it has a happy ending. It starts at the hospital here in Hong Kong,” says Jimmy with typical effusiveness. He first picked up the ukulele in 2011 during a threemonth stay in hospital getting treated for pneumonia and surgeries for a pneumothorax – basically a collapsed lung.
“My friends brought me a soprano ukulele. I was amazed I could play in that state. It’s so light. It’s a very easy instrument to learn and I just started to play and compose some tunes,” he recalls. “It was a joyful moment in that situation. I vowed to compose music and make an album with this instrument.” And make an album he did. Ukulele Circus was a Kickstarter project, an album of ukulele ditties written, recorded, engineered and produced in Hong Kong’s Studio 101.
Ukulele Creative Method
Listening to Jimmy evangelise about the ukulele is contagious; he makes you see its beauty by sheer force of personality. The distinct sound, warm resonance and crystalline short ‘C’ note are among the technical elements of its charm. “But like any instrument, it’s full of musical richness,” Jimmy enthuses. “It’s a very complex instrument if you want it to be.” Jimmy also argues its compact size and relatively low cost make the ukulele ideal for young musicians in space-constrained Hong Kong. Ultimately, it is the acoustic, handcrafted nature of the ukulele that is winning over new fans.
Despite the album, Jimmy’s real pride and joy are the workshops he runs – the Ukulele Creative Method (UCM) – that teach participantsto play and compose their own songs in a matter of hours. “It’s not for anyone to become a performer. It’s to understand the process and share creativity,” he says. So far, learners have included everyone from students to high-powered executives (ironically Jimmy’s girlfriend works in finance) looking for a way to transcend social barriers and express themselves.
A show in Taiwan may be on the horizon, and perhaps even a gig at the Hong Kong Ukulele Festival (yes, that’s a thing) were it to return. But for now, Jimmy’s too busy with the UCM to have much time to perform live; he’s also in talks with various schools around the world about touring the course.
“I decided to ‘full-time-it’ let’s say… to show off that I never went to school and that anybody can do it themselves too,” he finishes with a surety that is uniquely artistic. “You define yourself.”
Image: Andrew Spires
Ukulele Creative Method, www.jimmydenis.com