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Home » Member Profiles » Abe Lagrimas, Jr.

Abe Lagrimas, Jr.


Firmly Rooted in the Aloha Spirit

Growing up in Hawaii isn’t all sun, surf, and palm trees. Okay, well, maybe it is. But for a budding musician, that can present its own challenges.

“Like any other kid learning an instrument, video games and television are a distraction,” says Abe Lagrimas, Jr., a jazz drummer, vibraphonist, and ukulele player in Local 677 (Honolulu, HI). “Here, you can add the beach to that list. It was a bit easier for me since I started playing so young, after my dad bought me a drum set at the age of 4.”

Lagrimas, the youngest of three boys, was born in Guam to Filipino parents. His father, a professional musician in his own right, joined the US Navy, and the family made their way across the Pacific Ocean, eventually landing at Pearl Harbor, where his dad was stationed.

“Dad played flute, sax, and a bit of drums,” says Lagrimas.
“My brothers and I grew up playing music together—my oldest brother took up bass and guitar, my middle brother chose guitar, and I played drums. Growing up, we formed a garage band. We mostly listened to ’80s rock and metal bands like Metallica and Poison.”

Creeping in stealthily behind the dedication to heavy metal rock was Hawaiian music. “I didn’t realize it then, but even though my brothers and I were stuck on metal music, we’d also hear Hawaiian music on the radio and television. It was always around us, especially in places like Waikiki. So, of course, it influenced me musically.”

Aloha Spirit

For most tourists visiting Hawaii, aloha simply means hello or goodbye. But the actual spirit of aloha goes beyond anything you can find in a dictionary. In Hawaiian culture, aloha is love, respect, compassion, and fellowship. People who have lived in Hawaii take that internal aloha spirit with them no matter where they are.

For Lagrimas, that spirit stuck with him when he left the islands to study at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. “My eldest brother went to Berklee,” says Lagrimas. “He’s six years older. As he was preparing for college, we would get all these materials from Berklee in the mail. I remember looking through it all in middle school, so I was already exposed to the Berklee name and reputation.”

In his sophomore year of high school, Lagrimas went to Berklee for a summer program—Aspire: Five-Week Music Performance Intensive—and fell in love with the school. “It was a great trial run, and Berklee wound up being the only college I applied to,” he says. He graduated in 2005 with a degree in music education.

His years at Berklee made Lagrimas miss the islands and that aloha spirit. That homesickness led him to co-found a group called Waitiki, an ensemble specializing in mid-century exotica music from the ’50s and ’60s. “We played classic exotica music, but also wrote and composed new material in the spirit and style of the lounge exotica scene,” he says.

The group led to another ubiquitous Hawaiian connection, the ukulele. “I was hanging out with my buddy Randy Wong,” Lagrimas recalls. “He was also from Hawaii and studying at New England Conservatory as a classical bassist. He’s pretty much responsible for starting my ukulele career.” Wong, a Waitiki co-founder and current Local 677 member, as well as president and CEO of the Hawaii Youth Symphony, had a ukulele lying in the corner of his place that he rarely picked up. “One day, I was messing around with it, and we discovered that the sound of the ukulele goes really well with the upright bass.”

Mostly, though, he says he stuck with ukulele because he missed home. “It was a connection to the islands. I missed the food and the culture, and it was tough dealing with those blistering cold Boston winters. The ukulele brought Hawaii to me, instead of me having to travel back home. For a student, that’s much more cost-effective,” he laughs.

Aloha Career Spirit

The ukulele sparked Lagrimas’s interest in listening to and learning more about Hawaiian music, in order to better understand its history and progression. “A lot of that also came from meeting other Hawaiian transplants and reconnecting with the culture,” he says. “I got involved in Hawaiian-themed events and concerts on the college circuit. I was surprised by how many established Hawaii clubs there were in colleges up and down the East Coast. So, I learned jazz at Berklee, but I also learned a lot about Hawaiian music.”

That influence subtly became pervasive in Lagrimas’ own compositions, where you can clearly hear elements of contemporary Hawaiian music. “It impacted my musical sound, how I interpret or hear melodies, and how I improvise,” he says. “Also, as a vibraphonist, I understand better now how it played a huge role in Hawaiian music in the 1950s.”

For Lagrimas, his performance career has been as important as his dedication to music education. He regularly participates as both a performer and clinician in ukulele festivals, weekend-long events where ukulele players and students gather to take part in performances, classes, and workshops covering many different topics of playing techniques and styles, with breakout groups and ensembles.

“I feel like the participants at these festivals aren’t just the happiest group of people, but also diehard devotees to the ukulele,” he says. This year’s festivals include weekend events in Port Townsend, Washington, and Lansing, Michigan.

Confidence in his own abilities—specifically as a drummer—is something Lagrimas says didn’t come easily. “Growing up in Hawaii, because we’re so isolated, I didn’t really know what was out there,” he recalls. “Back then, very few mainland or national acts came to the islands to perform. I was playing music professionally with my brothers and other locals, great musicians, but I still felt limited and wondered if I was good enough to keep up with people on the mainland.”

Lagrimas took the reins and applied to summer camps. “At my first one,” he recounts, “I won the grand prize in a competition through Modern Drummer magazine, a one-month chance to study in New York City.” He was 14. The following year came the Berklee five-week program, and then a weeklong residency at Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center.

“But I was still comparing myself to everyone else,” he says. “Even though I was extremely grateful to participate in these great programs, I was still unsure if I had what it would take to truly make it in this business.”

Finally, in 2012, taking part in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition (now run through the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz), Lagrimas says he came to terms with realizing he was, in fact, pretty good at it. “I understood that, while I was still the same kid from Hawaii, I now had the self-confidence to take on any musical situation.”

Aloha AAPI Spirit

Confidence as a ukulele artist, on the other hand, grew when he found people increasingly wanting him to headline their ukulele festivals. “I had sort of been wondering if I should stick with drumming or continue with ukulele, and that decided it for me, especially when I started playing internationally. I became comfortable with saying I was a professional ukulele player,” he says.

Lagrimas chuckles at this, pointing out that the ukulele was something he initially picked up just for fun. “I began gigging, writing my own songs, and recording, but until then, I never felt like I was a true ukulele player.” He adds that he wanted to do the instrument justice, particularly since it was seen for many years as a novelty outside of Hawaii.

Cementing his bona fides on the instrument, Lagrimas produced the first-ever ukulele curriculum for instrumental music programs in schools, Ukulele Ensemble, Beginning Ukulele, Level 1. He continued in that vein with his latest book, Jazz Ukulele: Comping, Soloing, Chord Melodies.

Lagrimas moved back to Hawaii permanently in the summer of 2022 with his wife. “Having spent most of my professional career, 15 years, in Los Angeles, I missed my family,” he says. “They were a big part of going back. In high school, I couldn’t wait to leave and go to Berklee. And I was away ever since.”

He never forgot his roots, however. His career has featured a commitment to Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) music projects. From 2003-2011, he was a member of the Korean jazz group Prelude, which toured extensively throughout the US and South Korea. From 2008-2014, he served as a board member for JazzPhil-USA, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization fostering advancement within the Filipino jazz community. And in 2015, he served as music director for Kayamanan Ng Lahi, a nonprofit Filipino folk and dance arts organization. That year, he performed with the organization in the Merrie Monarch Festival, an annual event held in Hilo, Hawaii, promoting the preservation of Hawaiian culture and the art of hula.

Lagrimas has also joined multiple tours throughout the US with Japanese-American taiko (Japanese percussion) master Kenny Endo, a fellow Local 677 member. These tours meld the traditions of Japanese taiko drumming with the contemporary styles of jazz, funk, and rock.

Lagrimas is currently engaged in working with lōkahi: The Ukulele Collective, which has a mission to establish ukulele music programs throughout Hawaii to ensure that every student, regardless of location or circumstances, has access to high-quality music education.

Aloha Union Spirit

Local 677 Secretary-Treasurer Robert Shinoda says Lagrimas was the featured member in the local’s latest newsletter and has also played at the local’s performance hall, Studio 909. “Many of these well-attended performances are Music Performance Trust Fund [MPTF] sponsored,” Shinoda points out, adding that MPTF has greatly benefited local members and the Honolulu community at large.

AFM membership is also something Lagrimas will continue. “When I started playing professionally back in high school, many of the shows were at the union hall,” says Lagrimas. “It was such a big part of my upbringing. To come home and continue this as a professional means a great deal to me. I want to support it and be part of helping it continue for as long as possible.”

“When I played at the local as a kid, it was just a gig,” he says. “Much later in my career, I see the importance of being affiliated with the union and the community it creates and brings together. Regulars at these performances tell their friends, and word of mouth brings more people in. It’s unlike anything I’ve felt anywhere else I’ve lived. Hawaii has a tight-knit community in general, and we need to keep this special relationship between patrons and musicians going because we need each other.”

Since he has moved back home, living 10 minutes from the union hall also gives Lagrimas easy access to facilities whenever he needs. “I teach there, hold rehearsals, and even had my wedding reception there. It’s all about the community. Growing up in Hawaii, the local union musicians I worked with were my role models, teachers, and mentors. They still are to this day. As an active AFM member, I want to be a role model, teacher, and mentor for the next generation of Hawaiian musicians.”

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