‘Ukulele in Denmark? What!? I know, I thought the same thing. It turns out there actually isn’t much ‘ukulele in Denmark (read on), but what’s there is really kicking. I first ran across Tobias Elof on John Yamasato’s Hi*Sessions Youtube channel. His little four song set was uploaded last month and I was captivated. From a land that has been almost completely silent on the ‘ukulele front comes a guy with dreads playing fiddle tunes and polkas in a style similar to James Hill – and doing it brilliantly! I had to know more.
So I found some more videos and read his website, but I still felt a little in the dark. Then I had a great idea (sometimes it takes awhile) – send him a message and ask if he’d be willing to an interview! That way the world and myself could know more about this amazing new ‘ukulele talent. What follows is our correspondence. I’d like to thank Tobias for taking the time to answer my questions and wish him the best on his musical journey.
Brad Bordessa: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to play the ‘ukulele.
Tobias Elof: I started playing the ‘ukulele when I was 8 years old on a free beginner course on Strib school on the Island of Fyn – a very unusual place for that! When my parents got divorced I moved to Copenhagen with my mother and little brother and I continued playing the ‘ukulele, of course. We couldn’t find any teachers, so I started playing the classical guitar in a music school with Per Pålson as teacher (a really good teacher and musician). I learned a lot from him, but never really liked it – I mean I learned some beautiful pieces, but what I enjoyed most was the uke, so the guitar lessons became substitutes for the ‘ukulele.
When I started in high school I discovered James Hill through the great internet. He had just released his first album and I remember the first time I heard his music I thought: “YEAH! That’s how I wanted to play like”.
BB: What is the ‘ukulele scene like in Denmark?
TE: It’s practically non-existent. I don’t know many ‘ukulele players in Denmark and there are two people playing concerts. The other one is Carsten Knudsen, who’s mostly known for his cheezy comedy group “De Nattergale,” but he made a serious ‘ukulele CD and I really like it. I can definitely recommend it.
BB: With such a small ‘ukulele scene in Denmark are you able to support your self on music alone? Or do you have a day job?
TE: In Denmark you get money from the government to study at the university and high school. In that way people can focus on their studies without being stressed by not having money or getting in debt for the next 50 years. Socialism rocks… :)
BB: I heard you spent some time studying with James Hill. How was that and what does one study with a master musician like him?
TE: After high school around 2009 I wrote to him [and asked] if I could take some lessons. He wrote “sure, where do you live” and I wrote “in Denmark”…. and he wrote “okay, then come and visit me.” And then I did… Hehe. He lived in a beautiful wood house near a small forest, a pond and really far away from civilization – and still does.
I stayed about a month in Nova Scotia, mostly with him and Anne. He took me to Chalmers Doane and I met John Kavanagh and Ukulele Mike and many other people. Everything was quite overwhelming and I took as much in as possible.
We had lessons almost every day and I practiced all the time when I was not helping Anne making the most delicious food ever! James taught me a lot of different right hand techniques, arrangements of chord and melody together and his arrangement of Saint Ann’s Reel that he was working on at that time.
Most important for my further musical exploring on the instrument, he taught me Song for Cheri – one of my favourite tunes of his. I think that he had made up his own technique, Cheri Pickin’, derived from the triplet strum – but not sure. The shortest way of explaining that technique is: The triplet strum applied to one string at a time instead of playing all of them all the time. At that point I didn’t know other ways of playing the ‘ukulele, so I thought that this was the way of playing was the standard. When I returned to Denmark and discovered Jake, Troy, and other Hawaiian players, I just couldn’t relate to the music and the slick attitude. Also, they only played in C-tuning and I was playing in D-tuning, which made me confused at that time when I wanted to learn songs.
BB: You are the first musician to ever be working towards a bachelors degree in music with ‘ukulele as your main instrument. What has it been like beating that path? How have you been received by the school and are they able to provide adequate teachers for an accomplished player like yourself?
TE: It’s kind of strange with my education, but what i know is that I applied and got in. I’m on the folk music department which is deeply rooted in the folk music environment in Denmark. Many of the students grew up with traditional music and folk dancing. So that’s the kind of music we play and are taught in. For example: jigs, reels, polkas, scottisches, waltzes, polskas and so on… As an ‘ukulele player in that kind of jam you gotta keep up, ’cause people are playing so damn fast.
Teacher-wise, I’ve had lessons with a fiddle player, an Irish tenorbanjo player, a mandola player, and some lessons with James. I usually say that this was the best of the bad solutions, ’cause it is a fairly good challenge to make something that sounds good on a violin sound good on the ‘ukulele. In the long run it’s also really hard and sometimes not possible, mostly because of tuning. Lately I’ve been in a period where the most important [thing] for me was to develop what sounded good on the ‘ukulele to me.
BB: Your right hand positioning when you pick is very unique – a fairly straight-fingered approach as opposed to the curved-finger classical pluck that most people use. What are the benefits of that style and how did you first discover it?
TE: All my right hand technique I learned through James and watching his videos. I think I developed it a bit, but basically it’s the same – the Cheri Picking. The benefits is that it doesn’t sound crampy/aggressive/flameco-ish when playing fast. I realized that this way of playing fitted the way that people play the Scandinavian and Irish fiddle music. To me, it’s a smooth, flow way of making the music swing. I can enjoy Paco de Lucia and the way he makes the guitar sound, I can also enjoy and understand when people like that on the uke. But to me it doesn’t *swing* and it’s waaay too staccato if you want to play the fiddle music the way that the fiddle players do it.
BB: What is your process for creating arrangements like Jens Frederiksens Polka? There is always something going on, but it never feels busy. How do you get the melody around the chords and still make it feel so natural?
TE: Again I must say Cheri Picking. When you have learned the technique, know all chords, and know how to play a melody, all of the elements melt together and I just play. It’s a bit magical, but not as magical as if “not every one can learn it.” My basic approach to teaching is that everyone who wants to learn, can learn to understand a specific subject (like Cheri Picking). Almost everything can be striped down and cut into pieces to in order to understand – the real question is: do you really want to practice it?
BB: Do you have any plans for recording a solo album in the near future?
TE: Yes, ASAP.
BB: Beyond an album, what are the next steps for expanding your career playing ‘ukulele?
TE: I’ve played a lot of concerts in Denmark, and want to play more, but I also feel the need to travel around with my music.
BB: Well we certainly look forward to seeing more of you! Thanks Tobias for doing this interview.