To my ears and soul this is the greatest `ukulele album ever made. Creative, emotional and technically challenging, in under thirty minutes Eddie Kamae expresses all the musical voices possible on the `ukulele. The song choice is inventive and daring and while the recording is raw and unembellished, the complex musicality is diverse in scope and execution. When I first discovered this album it was like I heard the `ukulele for the first time. I felt like some alien species had found the instrument and began playing it in ways that were previously incomprehensible to mere human ears. At that moment I decided everything I had known and thought about the `ukulele meant nothing, that no one had tapped into its true voice. It was if the last 40 years of `ukulele playing never existed, its history started and ended in this one climax of genius.
Is this an exaggeration? Am I blindly over emphasizing a moment in an individual’s creative spirit. I doubt it. All you need to do is take a listen to what is being played on this great album of music and I think you will agree. This is the heart of the `ukulele. This is the `ukulele in its purest form. One man, one `ukulele, one microphone, one take. Here is what you will hear:
The first track is an old Neapolitan song made famous by luminaries such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Luciano Pavarotti. “Come Back to Sorrento” is an emotional praise song to the Prime Minister of Italy during his stay in Sorrento in the early 1900s. Here Kamae uses a rapid tremolo to evoke the longing of this feeling. The heavy striking of the strings produces a melody that is a statement of purpose and a direct pronunciation of one’s intention. Much like the Prime Minister, the listener is asked not to leave this place and to stay in the moment of the performance. Any decision to depart would be met by the pleading notes of the `ukulele to return to this beautiful place that has been created.
The second track “Star Eyes” uses a similar technique, but here the tremolo is reduced to a light brushing of the strings to evoke the sensation of a dreamy ballad. The popular jazz standard is completely at home within the confines of the sublime `ukulele. The melody floats through the air, light and soft as an alto saxophone. Not rushed and properly relaxed, it is a striking contrast to the first track. The technique required to create this tonality is refined and here delicately presented with a strong understanding of the instrument’s capabilities. In addition, the tremolo brushes are not limited to the melody but the chords as well. We can hear the complex intervals required to reference the flatted fifths, major sevenths and sharped ninths present in the song. Not easy on any instrument, let alone one with four strings, but Kamae’s understanding of chord structure and voicing allows the subtle elaborations to exist with this limitation.
The next track jumps out of the speaker. It is striking, brash and dissonant. The chords are firmly struck and interrupted with intricate melody lines that create a vivid array of light and dark tones. Here the `ukulele finds its flamboyant side with the Mexican tune “Grenada.” Confident and daring, the instrument boldly states that it has arrived and no one can hold it back from it taking its seat at the table of instruments capable of virtuosic expression. The listener is now forced to accept that it is in the presence of greatness. Prejudices and contempt are thrown out the window as any attempt at dismissal is met with the bold flourishes. Here the musical trilogy of praise, longing and exaltation takes root and all bets are off. Everything from here is icing on the cake, the sword humbly drawn, the fight all but over.
Next an exposition of rhythm is in order and the tune “Tropical” fits the bill. Like an island scene filled with complex colors and smells yet mellow in its tone, the tune rides along a syncopated bass and drum line that feels neither over baring or driven by ego. The head melody is humbly stated, setting the stage for a free wheeling jam that bounces back and forth between pulsating chords and sharp rhythmic displays of Kamae’s inventive tremolo technique. By now the listener has accepted the chordal tremolo as a standard voice of the `ukulele rather than a novel presentation of its capabilities.
At a place of complete comfort with not only his instrument, but song choice as well, Kamae dips again into the songbook of pop standards with “Under Paris Skies.” Referencing the forceful striking of the strings first presented in “Grenada” a contrast is made with the light tremolo found in “Star Eyes.” By combining the two an argument is made for an instrumental piece that should be in the canon of any self respecting `ukulele player. But alas, it has not reached this place in the society of `ukulele performers. Usurped by flashy displays of arpeggiated picking and tongue in cheek instrumentals of bland pop songs common to the modern instrumentalist, the magnitude of the song has been lost with time. Only the most tasteful of individuals with an eye on the past and a true voice of the instrument would dare take on such a piece. The musicality of the song yearns to come out the `ukulele yet the modern player is distracted by the bombardment of ambitious youtube posters hoping for a seat at the small round table of proficient `ukulele soloists.
Finally the first side of this narrative comes to a close with the unexpected “Around the World in Thirty Days.” If the listener wasn’t discouraged enough with his or own prejudices regarding the `ukulele, the first half of the philosopher’s stone concludes with delicate picking evoking nimble protons of light bouncing off the `ukulele strings. Small declarations of greatness with each note flood the ear, putting the listener in a dream like alternate universe where all the great musicians of the world were given but a small humble four stringed two octave box to express themselves.
Here HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries resides on its glorious throne atop the mountain of instrumental expression. Need I say more? Side B to be covered in the next post.
Part Two coming soon….