Heart of the Ukulele Part 2

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Here is a continuation of my analysis of the great `ukulele album “Heart of the `Ukulele.”  For an introduction please see my post titled “Heart of the `Ukulele” part 1.  The first analysis covered Side A which was comprised of a mixture of American standards, Latin folk songs, string symphonies and a popular movie score.

Here on Side B we find Eddie Kamae continuing in his `ukulele mastery, employing many of the same techniques he refined and revolutionized for the `ukulele presented on Side A.  These include tremolo chording, intricate single note melody picking, rapid interval plucking and syncopated rhythmic strums.  Here the song choice is decidedly Hawaiian, foreshadowing the direction he would soon take with his group the Sons of Hawai`i.  In exploring the heart of the `ukulele, Eddie discovered the heart of his music as well.

Side B

The second half of the album begins with the classic praise song for the beautiful waterfall along the Hamakua coast “Akaka Falls.”  Written by Helen Parker early in the 20th century, this song once and still is a standard of the Hawaiian music repertoire.  Its easily recognizable melody has found a lasting place through the different phases of popular Hawaiian instrumentation; from the acoustic tricone steel guitar of Sol Ho`opi`i to the vibraphone of Arthur Lyman to the petal steel guitar of Jerry Byrd and to the slack key stylings of Leonard Kwan.  Along this journey this classic recording on `ukulele got lost.  Here it is played with such passion and concentration that the breathing of Eddie is audible on the recording.  At first the melody is played with the rapid tremolo strokes so familiar to the listener by now, and then interrupted by a soft single note picking line.  Chordal flourishes interject at appropriate times as the melody line builds to a fervent crescendo.

The next song “Ka Ua Loku” is a fast paced jazzy number from the island of Kaua`i.  The quick chord changes mimic the quick falling rain so familiar to anyone who has been to the “Garden Isle.” The chords dance off the `ukulele with the seventh chords providing a mixture of rag time and bee-bop.  Again the second verse is played with a single note picking line, this time the tones thick and creamy, each note expertly played to precision.  In over 50 years very few `ukulele players have dared try to record such a challenging musical piece.  While melodies of equal difficulty in terms of number of notes have been tackled by some of the modern instrumentalists, no one has taken on the task of recording something that requires the combination of technical prowess, tonal comprehension and ardent passion.  Often confusing notes per second with proficiency on the `ukulele, the popular `ukulele performer is left reaching for inspiration in the oeuvres of a kitschy pop cover while greatness lies right before them in the grooved lines of a classic lp from the 1960s.

Having established himself as a fine interpreter of the Hawaiian ballad and the up beat jazz number, Eddie next reminds us that a waltz is in order with Charles King’s ode to his alma mater “Kamehameha Waltz.”  At first we hear a solo introduction on `ukulele done in almost free time.  A number of `ukulele techniques are presented that impersonate things found on popular orchestra instruments.  In the first 60 seconds we are introduced to the melodic arpeggios of a violin, to ascending and descending intervals of a cello to the minor voicing of a 6 string concert guitar.  If one were to isolate each of these techniques and play them together a true `ukulele orchestra could be born.  This is a concept I have heard the great Jake Shimabukuro mention during his own concerts and I await to hear the concept come to musical fruition.  None the less, the exposition of versatility well established, Eddie moves into a tutorial on `ukulele intervals striking them vigorously and adding melodic embellishments as he sees fit.  A flurry of chords signals the ending, completing an instrumental arrangement of the highest quality and ambition.  Again, setting a bar so high that in the next 50 years of recorded `ukulele music, no one has touched it since.

Another brash series of chords introduces the next song much like the tune “Grenada” was presented to the listener back on Side A.  This time the chords allude to early rock-n-roll, but alas another jazz standard comes your way, this time a nod to the Hawaiian song book with the song “Sweet Someone.”  Although originally from the Bernstein-Shapiro publishing house, a later version by Don Ho and Sam Kapu made it a tune played throughout the bar rooms and lounges of Waikiki in the 60s.  Here Kamae is dedicated as ever, playing through the tune with a determined sense of tone.  The feel is established early and he never lets up.  The physical demands alone to perform the song would scare away most any `ukulele player who thinks highly of himself.  With the drum and bass steadily plodding along Kamae holds on to the end, a thoroughbred on four strings.  In anointing one to the rarified throne of `ukulele virtuoso, this tune should be required playing for acceptance into the faction of ukulelists, similar to the ceremonial ordaining of a black belt in karate.

As the second half of the philosopher’s stone comes to completion, Kamae presents another Charles King waltz.  Much like “Sweet Someone” another exposition of high level physical dedication is played on the `ukulele.  Like Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs, Wilt Chamberlin’s 100 points or Nolan Ryan’s 383 strikeouts, Kamae sets the bar so high I am not sure it will be matched without performance enhancers.  To do this in one take in a time when numerous shots a recording wasn’t a reality is truly exceptional.

Here before he rides away into the sunset, Eddie clearly says, here is the bar, here is greatness, here is the blue print for the future generations.  Unfortunately the `ukulele was not destined for this path.  In the coming decades `ukulele solo instrumentation ceases to be explored as a viable musical expression by the Hawaiian player save for a select few.  Hidden on the beaches of the remotest sands, played in solitude on the porches of isolated plantation homesteads and relocated to the evening backyard jams of close relatives and friends, this beautiful music form is left undiscovered until it is too late.  It won’t be for another 40 years when a branch of this genius is to grow with the young Jake picking away in a far away park in New York City playing a British pop song, that people’s ears begin to open up the potential of the `ukulele.  The cobwebs now taken control in the attics of people’s musical minds, one man tries to continue this mission started by Eddie “Pops” Kamae so long ago.  A single man on a mission to bring this style and level of playing to the world, all alone, still searching for his direction in the vast desert of instrumental expression.

And so Eddie Kamae says “Aloha `Oe.”  Aloha to his previous life and career.  Soon he would abandon inventive arrangements of Jazz, American standards, Latin music and  Hawaiian classics.  Next he would enter the world of Hawaiian lyricism, archival investigation, group orchestration and vocal harmonies.  With 30 minutes of greatness firmly engrained in the microscopic lines of a record groove and later in the digital binary codes of the cd and mp3, Eddie never plays instrumental `ukulele music again.  And to my knowledge no one has ever played it as expertly ever since.  Many have come and many have tried, but in the annals of recorded `ukulele music, no in my mind has reached the technical proficiency, tonal semantics, syntactical arrangement and self driven passion of Eddie Kamae and his “Heart of the `Ukulele.”

And so we have HO`ANALU…. to go beyond known boundaries.

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