Ukulele Christmas Spirit 2021: Reinvigorated Classics (and Beautiful Nightmares)

This installation of our Ukulele Christmas Spirit 2021 series features songs performed by James Hill, Victor & Penny, Taimane, Andrew Molina, and Kris Fuchimagi. This is part two of our four-part series this year. Check out part 1 here.

James Hill, “Hey, Ho, Nobody Home”

This new recording from the ever-innovative ukulele star James Hill is, as you might expect, quite unexpected.

“Hey, Ho, Nobody Home” is a very old song, also known as “Soul Cake” and “A Soalin,” with origins likely dating back to 16th century England or earlier. It is often sung in round as a Christmas carol, but Hill puts a decidedly modern spin on it in the version he released this week. He keeps the structure of the round, but places the singing atop ukulele, synthesizer and drum machine, all heavily effected.

The vocals are the most striking component here. They’re run through a harmonizer effect to give an ethereal, chorus-like sound. Says Hill in an email to Ukulele, “When I first heard the harmonized voices overlapping to create these amazing, unexpected chords, I was swept away. I instantly thought of Imogen Heap’s ‘Hide and Seek’ and how much that had affected me the first time I heard it.”

As for the ukulele, it plays a minimal, but important, part in the song: “The ukulele plays a supporting role but really helps to ‘ground’ the track so that it still feels warm and organic in spite of the layered vocals and abrasive sound of the drum machine,” says Hill. “The descending ukulele fills are also in round, echoing the round that’s playing out between the voices.”

Hill is not the first to do a take on this song—Peter, Paul and Mary did a version, as did Sting. But Hill adds in an interesting video component that gives yet another layer. “I thought it would be interesting to contrast the traditional melody with very contemporary production and then to contrast the message of the lyrics (‘I have nothing but I will be happy’) with images of wealth and privilege,” he says. “It feels ‘very 2021’ to me, in spite of the footage being from the 1950s and ‘60s and the song being from ages ago.”


Victor & Penny, “Santa Baby”

This track was recorded in 2011, and it stands as a testament to Victor & Penny’s longevity in bringing beautiful music into the world. This duo (recently covered in Ukulele magazine) has a penchant for vintage noir in both their sound and style, and their ukulele and archtop guitar version of this Christmas classic is as charming as any you’ll find from any era. Erin McGrane (Penny) sings and handles rhythm ukulele duties while Jeff Freling (Victor) melts the snow of the season with his hot guitar licks. It’s the perfect 2-minute vacation to a jazz club holiday party.

Taimane, “Sally’s Song” from Nightmare Before Christmas & Andrew Molina, Nightmare Before Christmas theme

Here’s a 2-for-1 Christmas special—Nightmare Before Christmas special, that is. Taimane’s version of the sorrowful “Sally’s Song,” released in October this year, give us her soulful voice and fingerstyle ukulele talents combined with cello, making for a delightfully mournful wintertime ballad. As she opens with “I sense there’s something in the wind,” you can hear the breeze blow through the palm trees behind the duo playing on a porch in a tropical location.

Andrew Molina dons a Santa hat in front of a Christmas tree in this decidedly less sorrowful instrumental ukulele rendition of the theme from Nightmare Before Christmas. His chord-melody version instantly transports you to Halloweentown with Jack Skellington and the rest of his crew. The instrument just sounds so sweet under his fingers, and it would be a treat to hear more from this soundtrack arranged by him for ukulele.

Kris Fuchigami, “What A Wonderful World” & “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”

While it’s not technically a Christmas song, “What a Wonderful World” shows up on many holiday playlists for good reason. Even in this wordless instrumental version performed with loving care by Kris Fuchigami, you can feel the sentiment behind the lyrics celebrating all that is good in the world. It’s been a hard year (or two) for so many, but this uplifting tune is a welcome respite of comfort and gratitude.

Love it or hate it, “The Chipmunk Song” is a Christmas staple. And in this fun ukulele and piano version recorded this year with Fuchigami donning a Santa hat and beard, you don’t have to hear those annoying midrange-y chipmunk voices screeching out their holiday gift desires. Plus, it’s so satisfying when he nails that 3:2 polyrhythm!

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