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Q&A: Aireene Espiritu

September 6, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

As a warm-up to her free in-store concert on Thursday, September 8 at 4pm, singer/songwriter Aireene Espiritu took time to answer a handful of questions, providing a glimpse into her musical universe where an ukulele and the blues go hand in hand.

How do you describe your music to someone who has never heard it?
It’s a mash of folk/country/blues, sometimes gospel, stories of ghosts and the living’s day to day, backed by tenor ukulele and deep, down to earth vocals.

The connection between roots music and the ukulele is an interesting one. Can you talk a bit about your interest in the two?
I grew up listening to my family singing Filipino folk songs at every gathering. We’d all sit in the living room, my Uncle Butch and Uncle Jap with guitars at hand, and my mom and aunts would sing-along to songs about life in the province, hopes for our country, love lost and serenades. They sang the same songs every time (and still do!) and it never got old. So when I came across Alan Lomax and his field recordings, I was naturally curious about the songs from the different regions of America and the world, how the lyrics came about, and who sang them. I guess being born in a different country, I search for things that one identifies with “home” and where we came from – our roots.

My Uncle Jap first taught me how to play guitar when I was nine years old, playing songs using just one string, the high E. As I got older I never quite got better at playing, mainly because my guitar had a wide neck and my small fingers never got fully comfortable on the fretboard. I wrote songs here and there for fun, but eventually gave it up out of frustration and decided to just sing backup for bands and also joined a gospel choir, the Glide Ensemble, in San Francisco.

I got my first ukulele in 2003, after watching the movie, The Jerk. It was the scene where Steve Martin picks up his ukulele and plays “Tonight You Belong To Me” to Bernadette Peters that got me hooked. The narrow fretboard was friendly to my fingers and soon after I started writing songs again. It wasn’t until I got my Martin 1950s tenor ukulele, two years later, that I felt I finally found my instrumental voice. I was also inspired by ukulele musicians such Bill Tapia, James Hill, and ukulele communities I’ve discovered online who’ve shown me how the uke can be played in various genres.

You’ve mentioned Etta James, Nina Simone and Robert Johnson as a few of your biggest influences. Can you talk about the way that these legends have inspired and influenced your music?
Etta James, Nina Simone and Robert Johnson have voicings that hit your core, even if you spoke a different language and didn’t understand the words, you felt their message. Robert Johnson’s style of delta blues on his guitar has the same effect. It’s the way they wail, the drawn out notes to linger the emotion, the pain of the blues, the low dark notes to paint a picture. Soon enough you find yourself in that same picture, along for the ride. They taught me how to sing a song, not just to sing the right notes in the right rhythm, but to convey the message, so you feel how I feel, cry with me, laugh with me.

There’s a lot of interest in the ukulele these days. What do you attribute that to and where do you see it going?
I remember three moments, happening around the same time, when I felt like “the secret is going to come out soon” about the ukulele. First was when I heard Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the TV show,“ER” (maybe 2003/2004?). So beautiful. You heard that song everywhere, on commercials, movies, etc. Shortly after, Jake Shimabukuro’s YouTube video “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, was passed around everyone’s inboxes, labeling him the next Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele. And third, was when Joe Brown closed out the Concert for George with “I’ll See You in My Dreams” on his soprano ukulele. Soon I noticed guitar stores stocking up on their ukulele inventory, and it seemed more and more ukulele background music can be heard in TV commercials. The San Francisco Chronicle released an article in 2007 about the resurgence of the ukulele, and I think it’s just going to pick up even more steam with Eddie Vedder’s ukulele album released this year.

In the past couple of months, I can tell you that a good number of people of all ages have told me they just bought a ukulele, their first instrument, and how it felt good to be able to sing their favorite songs while accompanying themselves. The ukulele is such an un-intimidating instrument, and it’s really hard to make it sound bad. One can pick up a ukulele and learn to play a song within 15 minutes! And because it’s that easy and so compact, having a ukulele around can potentially be as common as that remote control by your couch. After all, who doesn’t want to play an instrument and be able to express oneself through song?

You list your hometown as “here, there and everywhere.” Can you give us a little background on yourself and how you came to be a musician?
I was born in the Philippines and moved to Dumont, NJ when I was 10 years old. It wasn’t easy for me, adjusting to our new home, the confusion of living in the third culture, the old country, the new country and its coexistence in this place where, at the time, there were only about two Filipino families that lived in the area, and no one in my 5th grade class even knew that my country existed. Though I made friends and had my cousins and my brother to play with, I still felt lonely. Music kept me company. I remember the first song I fell in love with. I found this cassette tape in my aunt’s basement. Pressed play and didn’t even bother with the rest of the tape, put the first song on repeat play, and listened for hours, every time unraveling the different layers of piano playing. It was Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” Truthfully, in my memories of living in Dumont, NJ, for some reason that’s the only song I remember listening to! Sounds cheesy, but I actually teared up when I heard the song played live on guitar by John Williams years later in my 20s. It felt like an old best friend paid me a visit. Someday, I’ll be more disciplined and finally finish learning that song on my uke, haha.

Anyway, since then I always relied on music to keep me company, but I didn’t play out until my last year in college, in 1993. I was studying at a cafe, what used to be The Owl & Monkey in San Francisco. It happened to be the same night as their open mics. There were singer/songwriters with amazing voices, and there were those who didn’t care how they sounded, what mattered was singing their hearts out, no matter who, if anyone, was listening. I was really touched by that. It inspired me to pick up a guitar again, and play the open mics on Mondays. It felt good singing out, to let it all out. It wasn’t long after that I came across Alan Lomax’s The Land Where The Blues Began, more inspiration for the expression of emotion through song.

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  1. Loreto Quevedo Dimaandal
    September 8, 2011 at 12:12 am

    Thanks a lot for the history, for the wonderful tradition and time together
    filled with lots of food, stories, laughters, and music with our family and friends even strangers, from the Philippines all the way to New York and New Jersey,
    on to California and Nevada and elsewhere.

    Good luck and mabuhay ka (long live), Aireene!

    Maraming salamat (thank you very much)!

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