BY NICOLAS GRIZZLE | FROM THE SPRING 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
He dazzled audiences by playing his stringed instrument with his teeth, behind his head, one-handed, and while doing calisthenics normally reserved for an aerobics class rather than a music stage. All the while, he managed to give a musical performance that would consistently stay in time and hit the right notes. It was all in a day’s work for the great Tongan ukulele player Sione Aleki (1945–2009).
The name that first comes to mind when thinking of the “Jimi Hendrix of ukulele” is usually Jake Shimabukuro—and rightfully so, as anyone who’s ever heard or seen him perform can attest. But it’s evident watching video of Aleki’s energetic performances, as well as witnessing his impressive and seemingly effortless skill on his instrument, that he was a bona-fide rock star in his own right, even if the mainstream press and record sales didn’t catch on to his greatness.
Aleki’s showmanship was marked by his penchant for unusual playing styles, some of which conjure up images of Hendrix freaking out unsuspecting audiences with his similar techniques. While Hendrix reportedly started his toothy technique sometime around 1962, Aleki was doing it even earlier than that as a young child in a remote Tongan village.
The story was detailed in an interview with Aleki in the New Zealand Herald in June 2000: “Mr. Aleki said he had never heard of Jimi Hendrix before he began similar stage moves of playing the ukulele behind his head while lying on the ground, and with his teeth—which left him with a cut lip at his first attempt in the late 1950s. ‘When I heard that story of Jimi Hendrix playing with his teeth, I thought I better find something to be a little bit different. Finally, I think there is no other way than to teach my feet how to make music.’” Yes, Aleki also played with his feet. More on that later.
“Jimi Hendrix is one of the most famous guitarists ever,” says Aleki’s brother, Afa Johansson, speaking by phone from his home in New Zealand. “But we didn’t have any TV or anything back in those days.”
Afa’s wife, Samoa, adds: “There was probably just one radio in the whole village. So back in Sione Aleki’s day, they had never heard of Jimi Hendrix until [Aleki] went to Hawaii and people started comparing him. But he did all of this back when he was just a little child, never hearing who Jimi Hendrix was.”
So, if it wasn’t Hendrix, where did the inspiration for these rock star maneuvers come from? “I think what happened when he started to play music was a lot of the locals started telling stories,” says Johansson, the youngest of 11 siblings (Sione was the oldest). “So, I think it was just a myth that these guys started repeating and he started taking it on himself, saying, ‘OK, if someone can play behind their head I’m going to try to do the same. If someone’s going to use their teeth to play the uke I’m going to do the same.’ It was like kids challenging each other. The truth is there was nobody else really doing it.”
Aleki’s story of how he began playing ukulele will sound familiar to many. “It was way back in 1938,” he says in a 2011 documentary titled Bill Sevesi’s Dream. “I was living in a house with a Samoan sister-in-law of mine, and that was the first time I heard a ukulele because she had one. I was fascinated by the sound, so she taught me the ukulele.”
He received his first ukulele at age six—it was handmade from a discarded corned beef tin with a stick through it, and hair from a horse’s tail made into strings. His uncle noted the boy’s interest and soon brought him a real instrument from New Zealand. And just like that, a career as a virtuoso was born.
Aleki was mostly blind throughout his life and wasn’t able to attend school as a boy, so he occupied his time by learning music, teaching himself ukulele, steel guitar, guitar, piano, accordion, and several other instruments. He told the New Zealand Herald in 2000, “I don’t want to sound religious, but in my opinion God gave [the ukulele] to me because he realized I’m not good for anything. I can’t play ball. I can’t go to school.” His brother Afa says he was the only one in the family to play any musical instruments, and that includes Aleki’s four children.
Coming to New Zealand
Aleki was “discovered” as a teenager by steel guitar and ukulele player Bill Sevesi, who had been leading bands since the 1940s and has been referred to by New Zealanders as the “Godfather of Pacific Music.” In Bill Sevesi’s Dream, which was produced for New Zealand television, he tells the story of meeting Aleki, whom he later asked to join his group Bill Sevesi and His Islanders.
“After 32 years in New Zealand, I decided to go back to Tonga and have a look where I was born,” he says. “That was 1965.” He had heard of a “wonderful ukulele player” living south of Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga. “I was amazed at his technique. I’d never seen anybody play a ukulele like him, you know? Moving his hand around his body, around the back of his neck, with his teeth, and with his feet sometimes. I said, ‘Sione, you’re the best I’ve ever seen in the world! How about coming to New Zealand and one day perhaps I can help you. There’s a few little rough spots in there, perhaps we could clean it all up and maybe compose some songs.’ So, the time came, and Sione came to New Zealand.”
Aleki had the technique and the ear, and Sevesi helped him develop other areas of his musicianship, like timing. He told Papua New Guinea Today in a 2015 interview, “I just told him that whenever he played, he has to count 1-2-3-4 or whatever time the music was assigned with, and he did it.”
Sione’s talent and musicality are as evident on record as they are on video. He is credited on a handful of albums with Bill Sevesi and His Islanders, and released one full-length album of his own—the 1972 LP Pacific Ukulele—on New Zealand’s Hibiscus record label. The album cover shows Aleki sporting a luscious head of dark hair and very-1970s sideburns playing a Kamaka ukulele with his teeth.
The album’s liner notes denote it was recorded at the South Pacific Festival of Arts in Suva, Fiji. Given the cover art and the fact that it was recorded live, it seems fitting to imagine that his teeth did, in fact, play a part in the recording of his only solo album. What can be heard for certain is impressively fast strumming and fingerpicking, energetically pushing the music forward but not rushing the time. Another facet of Aleki’s playing can be heard on the record as well: percussive slaps in perfect time, especially on his powerful and deftly fast rendition of “12th Street Rag.”
But alas, the South Pacific didn’t have the music industry cachet of the United States in the 1960s and ’70s. Couple this with the fact that the second wave of ukulele popularity was on the decline by the mid-1970s, and it was an uphill climb toward mainstream popularity that Aleki could never quite achieve. Even today, the ukulele virtuoso is better known in his native Tonga and neighboring New Zealand than in the United States.
Leaving a Legacy
There are precious few videos online of Aleki performing, always with gusto, demonstrating his mind-boggling showmanship. In one, recorded at a festival in 2007 when Aleki was in his later years, he plays with his teeth, behind his back, one-handed, and behind his head while rocking on his back and rolling around the stage, as the band plays on behind him. He plays using the two-finger method, using only his thumb and index finger, and never seems to stop moving, whether it’s via his trademark moves or just dancing in place.
“Of course, the image that sticks out in my head is him playing uke with his bare feet,” says ukulele superstar James Hill, who played with Aleki at a festival in New Zealand in 2007. “Anybody can sort of kick the strings, that’s no big deal. But when I saw him, he took his shoes off, and his toes started grabbing at the strings and started getting in the frets, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is more serious than I thought.’”
Hill, who is also known for some impressive ukulele tricks himself, adds, “You could see that he was a pro and knew what the people needed to see, and he was willing to give it to them. And I really admired that.”
Aleki was quite well known in Tonga and New Zealand in his day. He would stay with Afa and Samoa when he traveled to New Zealand, and Samoa says word spread quickly when he was in town. In addition to news crews calling for interviews and local politicians wanting to drop by and shake hands, local children were interested in meeting him.
“Some days we would come home from work and there would be cars parked in front of our house, and they just asked their parents if they could bring them over to Sione’s house to take photos with him. That’s how popular he was,” says Samoa. “But at the same time, he was a very humble man.”
Aleki’s career was cut short in December 2009 when, just a couple weeks after the filming of his interview for Bill Sevesi’s Dream, Aleki passed away after collapsing onstage while performing in his native homeland of Tonga.
Had he lived to perform for a few more years, it’s not hard to imagine him going viral on YouTube, which was still in its infancy at the time. The video-sharing platform thrives on the “wow factor,” and Aleki had that in spades. But for now, we can only imagine what could have been had he received the global attention befitting of the rock star he truly was.