Music: Ben Ahn Rocks the Ukulele

February 18, 2014

No matter what style, intensity, or lyrical content, each song by ukulele player Ben Ahn at the Go!Ohana show hosted by RAMA left me feeling lighter, happier, and more grateful for each ever-expanding moment. 

Once I was able to interview Ahn after his performance, I finally figured out the driving force behind his joyful influence: the element of surprise.  

First, there is the understated and down-to-earth way Ahn carries himself. He is not exceedingly stylish nor does he make any bold fashion statement. His basic uniform (I’ve met him twice as well as watched many videos) of blue jeans, a button-up shirt with rolled sleeves, and hiking boots complement his low-maintenance shaved head. He looks more like the boy-next-door on his way to walk his Labrador retriever rather than a cool musician about to rip the stage.

But as soon as Ahn takes ukulele in hand, a masculine elegance flows from his demeanor. For starters, he is very well-spoken, and very gracious. Although he headlined the performance, he took the time to compliment the opening musicians and explain subtleties in their musicianship (referring to one singer’s performance, he gave a brief lesson on the difficulty of shifting musical keys). He generously thanked his hosts and his audience. He shared stories that had inspired his songs.

And when he sings, his low-key manner gives way to a powerful onrush. His huge, deep voice swallows the entire room, reaches the farthest depths of his audience’s attention and pulls at their very gut (or at least this is what I experienced). His expressions and movements demonstrate his passion for his music, as if he is directing every cell in his body to produce the most moving music possible.

“Being a recording musician is different than being a live entertainer. I’m probably much more naturally inclined to entertain in that I love engaging people. I feed off live energy,” Ahn explains. “And when I’m playing there are just as many times when my eyes are closed and I’m 100% feeling it, but between songs when I open my eyes, [I ask myself] does it look like people are engaging with the music, should I keep this vibe up or should I try to switch things up? I would say that that makes the bulk of what I’m thinking [as I perform],” he says.  

Although Ahn is always conscious of his audience and their response, Ahn will try any cover or song on his ukulele at any given moment, in any style he wants, no matter how unlikely and unexpected the result (never thought “Drift Away,” that nostalgia-filled anthem about old time '70s rock and roll, would work well with a very un-'70s instrument like a ukulele, but through Ahn’s deft arrangement, it really does).

Ahn’s bio on his website states that he “specializes in diversity,” and indeed, his versatility in flipping and criss-crossing genres is perhaps his most surprising ability. “The beauty for me of peforming live is that the song changes every time, so I can go through all the experimentation I want. I don’t ever have to set anything in stone and say ‘this is exactly how I want it to be.’”

A native of Kaua’i, Ahn began playing the ukulele when he was 13, and he composed his first song in the seventh grade. Soon enough he was hooked, and at his current age of 33, has now been performing professionally for over 15 years. In 2014, he plans to start work on his next recorded album.

A recent transplant to California, Ahn’s most recent song is “Up the Escalator.” Borne out of musings during his train rides from home to his marketing day job in San Francisco, his lyrics provide insight into developments in Ahn’s career:

And it shows in the darkness of the Bay Bridge shadow

And the echoes of the Metro down below,

I’m not home anymore.

In the city it’s hard to find my way

In the city I’m smaller than I used to be

The city lights are bright at night and at times it’s hard to sleep

Gotta find a way to make this city home for me.

Like the idea of transition that underlies “Up the Escalator,” Ahn too seems on the verge of widespread recognition and success. With all his charisma, talent, and optimism, one thing is clear -- Ahn is ready. 

To watch more of Ahn's performances and hear his music, click here.

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Abigail Licad

Books Editor

Abigail Licad is one big FOB and damn proud of it. She grew up in the Philippines and immigrated to San Leandro, CA at age 13.  She has a BA from University of California, Berkeley and a master's degree in literature from Oxford University. Her poetry and book reviews have appeared in Calyx, Borderlands, The Critical Flame, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. She is Hyphen's Books Editor.

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