Another day, another list of the top fifty Hawaiian music albums, or the ten best Hawaiian songs or top five essential ukulele albums. While these lists are valuable in exposing outside audiences to Hawaiian music artists and albums they may have otherwise not heard about, they still are far from comprehensive in my humble opinion. As Hawaiian music, and the ukulele in particular, continues to be pushed into the limelight outside of the islands, the more people without the proper knowledge of Hawaiian music history are trying to define what is the “best” most “important” and most “significant”. And while I usually ignore these lists, two in particular I came across this week really drew my attention, so I felt it was time for a little clarification and education from my own perspective. The two lists I am speaking of are the following: The All-Time Best Hawaiian Playlist and Ukulele Magazine Five Essential Ukulele Albums.
The first list I can ignore because it say it was reader generated, so looking at that lit I would assume they no nothing about Hawaiian music or its historical significance. While there are some nice songs on there, any list without a song by the Sons of Hawaii, Hui Ohana or Kahauanu Lake Trio is meaningless.
The second list I would like to ignore as well, but this one I feel needs a rebuttal, and here’s why. That list was published by a reputable ukulele magazine. By attaching the word “essential” to their article, people doing basic internet searches will probably come across this list and think they have found the true answer to the question of what are the top five Hawaiian ukulele albums. But I am sorry to say they have missed the mark. I do want to give kudos to them for attempting to make a list that is presented as a “those other than Jake Shimabukuro” list. And looking at the list they were going somewhat in the right direction with the inclusion of the Sons of Hawaii, Kahauanu Lake Trio and The Sunday Manoa. But if you want to talk about essential UKULELE albums, there are some glaring omissions. (author note: after posting this on their discussion board the writer of the Ukulele Magazine article responded by clarifying as such “I have to say, this piece is not a ranking —- it’s only five (out of dozens? A hundred?) of great Hawaiian ukulele-driven records — and one that makes no claim, anywhere, that it’s the ‘Top 5.'” I would like to note I appreciate and acknowledge this clarification and feel it is important to point out this distinction by the author).
But before I start, I think it is important that I qualify myself if I am going to make such broad judgements about lists made by such “reputable” sources as Ukulele Magazine concerning the historically complex and comprehensive body of work that is Hawaiian music, and the recordings of ukulele music. First off you can refer to my detailed blog post here where I discuss the history of the ukulele as part 4 of an eight part series of the history of Hawaiian music. From there I would recommend that you link to the other parts in my eight part series on the history of Hawaiian music. For your convenience they are as follows part 1, part 2, part 3, part 5, part 6, part 7 and part 8. In referencing those posts I think you can see that I have familiarized myself with the history of Hawaiian music and I am not sharing my thoughts simply as a matter of providing further uninformed chatter, but rather as an interested contributor to the proper documentation and perspective of Hawaiian music in the realm of world folk musics.
So I would like to present to you in a very particular order, the most significant, important, essential, monumental, ukulele albums in the history of all time. I hope to include those words throughout this blog post in hopes that I will catch some internet or google search algorithm along the way and introduce people to these oh so essential, important, monumental and historically significant ukulele albums.
I have written extensively about this album in two separate blog posts here and here. I would highly recommend you refer to them for my comprehensive analysis of this important album. To summarize, no ukulele album has done such a thorough job of redefining the instrument in terms of technique, song selection and tonal delivery. Here Eddie Kamae is firing on all cylinders, presenting the ukulele as diverse instrument that can shine in a variety of genres and moods. Not only does Kamae solidify himself among the greatest ever through those elements, but it is all done in a tasteful musicality that should tickle the year of the most discriminating musical critics. And I still believe to this day that no one has still yet been able to top this album. Much like Wilt Chamberlin’s 100 point game in the NBA in 1962, it is possible the apex of individual performance was reached some 50 years ago, the rest of the world still vying to catch up to this masterful performance.
Around the same time as “Heart of the Ukulele” came this almost equally as impressive and complex album. And in terms of breathe and scope this album is every bit as close to being on par and an equal to the Kamae’s ukulele album. So while this album does have the advantage of a clearer and higher fidelity recorded sound compared to that of Kamae’s album, and in addition is does feature many of the same techniques that Eddie showcase in the “Heart of the Ukulele” album, Kalima just falls short in terms of song selection and emotional depth. The clarity of his picking lines and well as the precision of his tremelo picking is there, right along side Kamae’s, but Eddie had that unmistakeable ability to find a song typically found outside of the traditional voicing structure of the ukulele, and get it to sing a new way under his deft and careful ukulele manipulation. Kalima’s album is chalk full of complex, careful and exact technique in the realm of traditional Hawaiian tunes, but it is not able to find that other gear in the environment of an American standard or Latin ballad. For those reasons I have to place this very significant and compelling album right behind Kamae’s.
Time after time I am amazed that people who should be in the know are not familiar with this album. Some ten years after Kamae’s and Kalima’s albums were released, Ohta-San comes back with the album that borrows upon the forward thinking application of the ukulele demonstrated by those two masters and updates it with the additional orchestration of electric piano, guitar, electric and standup bass, congas, steel guitar and drums. This creates a very modern yet vintage sound. Here the ukulele finds its new found place as the true solo lead instrument. Rather than being a “solo” instrument in the sense that it is performing a solo piece with rhythmic accompaniment, the ukulele is now the feature, developing a distinct and separate voice within the environment of a full band. Like the lead saxophone or trumpet of a jazz quartet or quintet, Ohta-San shows the ukulele is the true star. The techniques put forth to vinyl by Kalima and Kamae are now refined and carefully placed within the melodic framework of a specific song so it can be showcased and enjoyed for what they are, true revolutionary presentations of never before heard instrumental technique much like Ornette Coleman or Eric Dolphy did with what Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins had done with the saxophone previously.
While it may seem repetitive to include another album with Eddie Kamae’s playing, it is important that this album’s significance be recognized in the development of the ukulele. While Ohta-San and Jesse Kalima and Eddie Bush (more on him later) took what Kame laid down and continued to develop and refine it, Kamae moved in a new direction. With a renewed love for Hawaiian music, Kamae abandoned the Latin ballads and American standards and instead focused on redefining not only the ukulele in the realm of Hawaiian music, but string instrumentation in Hawaiian music in general. The fact that he used the ukulele to accomplish this, makes for a very very important album indeed. What you will hear on this album is the ukulele not only taking the instrumental lead solos, but also providing sonically interesting musical interludes and vamps in the beginning, middle and ends of songs. Here the ukulele finds a third life, now not only as rhythm and solo instrument, but important member of a string ensemble. Without this important realization and application, the music of Peter Moon and Moe Keale in later recordings in the later 60s into the early 70s is not possible. Here the ukulele finds a way to supplement and compliment the slack key and steel guitars. Now the ukulele has become not only the quarterback that throws for numerous touchdowns a la Bret Favre and wins Super Bowls a la Joe Montana, but can run out side the pocket and use his feet to scramble and gain yards as well a la John Elway. Finally the ukulele has reached its fullest potential and has now expanded itself to its farthest reaches. What Eddie Kamae has done with this album in addition to “The Heart of the Ukulele” is put to record the blueprint for all to follow.
5. Eddie Bush “A Man and His Ukulele” (I can’t link to this album as it is out of print, does pop up on ebay in vinyl)
This was probably the hardest place to decide on. And here I would like to praise Ukulele Magazine for attempting to pay proper homage to some fantastic and historically important albums. Yes it is true Kahauanu Lake Trio was extremely significant in creating a sound and role for the ukulele that places it as an important musical element of a Hawaiian group much like Eddie Kamae did with the Sons of Hawaii. And yes it is true as well that Eddie Kamae and Moe Keale do a lot of this as well on the “Folk Songs of Hawaii” album. And thirdly yes it is almost blasphemy not to include Peter Moon’s work on “Guava Jam” as what he does on “Kawika” should be recognized for what it is, an extremely high level of ukulele instrumentation. And if “Pua Lilia” was on the “Guava Jam” album rather than “Cracked Seed” I’d be very tempted to put that album on this list, but it isn’t, so I just don’t think as a whole “Guava Jam” can make the cut. Many of you might be thinking Eddie Bush? Really? Yes really. While this album is out of print and hard to find, it is important that we recognize what was done on this record. Along the same vein as Kalima’s and Kamae’s two ukulele albums of 1962, this album from 1969 has all the same ukulele techniques found on those records. Sometimes it is in an environment that is more hapa-haole or pop orientated, but it is none the less the same equally complex and precise. Where Kamae succeeded in his variety in song selection, and Kalima succeeded in presenting versions of traditional Hawaiian numbers, Bush’s work on this album lies somewhere in between. Other than for the lack of cohesion maybe between the numbers, Bush proves himself to be every bit the ukulele master as anyone else to have ever picked up the instrument, he just fails to get the recognition. To me he is a Harmon Killebrew or Jimmy Foxx of the ukulele. He may not have the name recognition of a Babe Ruth, Willie Mays or Hank Aaron, he can still slug with the best of them on any given day of the week.
So there you have my definitive top five greatest, best, most significant and important ukulele albums ever recorded. And I could keep going and still not make it to Jake. Obviously Jake is an amazing talent, but until he can present the complexity and depth of innovation and inventiveness shown by these players, as well as by Lyle Ritz, Gordon Marks, Byron Yasui or Benny Chong, he will just be searching for his sound. But when he finds it watch out. And who knows, maybe on this upcoming album he does find it, I hope so, otherwise we will be pigeon holed by various internet top ten lists about the best this and the best that and never really get the full picture.
As always, my theme for these posts is “Ho`analu; To Go Beyond Known Boundaries”. Unfortunately with some of these lists, because they often have to pander to outside audiences with a limited view and scope of Hawaiian music, they present stock lists that don’t think beyond the normal confines of how we can define music and present the components of a specific genre or category of musical expression. I feel it is my job as a teacher and writer to present a differing view point to better help in painting a fuller picture. As always, HO`ANALU: GO BEYOND THE KNOWN BOUNDARIES!