Ukulele In Orbit

don baduria 2

I am always amazed at the new undiscovered gems out there waiting for me. Like a rare stone sitting beneath the layers of sand, it remains undiscovered by my eyes, until the right gust of wind comes and blows away the top layer to reveal the beautiful shining crystal. Such is the case with this spectacular set of ukulele recordings, which up until earlier today I had no idea excited.

After my last blog post about THE top 5 ukulele albums of all time I was doing some follow up research and I came upon this page on Herb Ohta Jr.’s website. Here he mentions an ukulele player named Don Baduria. I had never heard this name before and judging by Herb Jr.’s musical skill and tastes, I figured he had to be someone important. Reading the short bio posted on the page written by Don Baduria’s son I started to get excited. This guy sounded like a real talented player! Could there be another ukulele player out there that had slipped through my ears?

After clicking on the small media player with some audio clips I quickly realized I was dealing with a serious player here. His rapid fire strums set off a wave of sounds that soon transitioned into precise single note picking lines, is this “Mr. Sandman” on ukulele?! OK, it’s on!!!

After a google search I discovered that there are two albums of material that was released by Don Baduria. One album called “Ukulele In Orbit” is completely out of print and looked as if it would be impossible to find. The other album “Ukulele Magic” had been re-released and was available on iTunes. After a few other searches I was able to locate his son’s Reverb Nation page which is a website for musicians to share their music as a free streaming service. Here in his play list he had a number of tracks from his father’s long out of print album. You can link to that website here. Note that the son’s own R & B recordings are mixed in so look for the songs with the tag “Don Baduria Sr. Bertram Records”.

That’s what I was looking for! While “Ukulele Magic” is a nice set of tunes, it is mostly covers of Hapa-Haole tunes, and like I said they are well done pieces and quality recordings, but it lacks the inventiveness or creative sparks to the playing that I am always searching for. Definitely quality for sure, but nothing like the recordings from “Ukulele In Orbit”. Those songs have depth, they are complex, they have a sense of soul and freedom that I had only heard in a couple other players, most notably Eddie Kamae, Jesse Kalima and Herb Ohta.

I figured I had to do a YouTube search to see if I could find more. While no video of him performing surfaced I did find audio of some recordings put up by his son. Doing a simple search in You Tube for “Don Baduria” you can find seven of the tracks he recorded on his first album, my personal favorite at the moment being “Tea For Two”.

Listen carefully and you’ll hear many of the elements that made Kamae and Kalima so amazing, tremelo chording strums with accented melodies using the pinky, fast chording changes with emphasis on the 6th, 9th and diminished voicings, but there is a sense of jazzy swing that really sets Baduria’s playing apart. Maybe it was his time in the service that exposed him to more jazz, swing and dixieland recordings?

While I thought the exploration had ended there, after more internet sleuthing I found that his son had also made a Face Book page dedicated to his dad. That can be accessed here. On this page you will find two really remarkable videos. One features Don Baduria performing on the Ed Sullivan show on the same night with guests Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Floyd Patterson!

This video is dated June 6 and is about two posts down as of July 21st. At the 2:00 minute mark you are treated to some fabulous playing by Don Baduria. This is remarkable for so many reasons, a local boy playing the ukulele on the Ed Sullivan show, he is doing it in uniform, he is playing a rare Gibson Tenor and he is using a shoulder strap! All those pieces make for a a really historic and important performances, I really couldn’t believe my eyes and ears as I was watching this. Scroll down a little further and you will come across another video from another televised event. Here he is again in uniform playing his Gibson tenor ukulele. Still after repeated watches I am still trying to swallow and grasp what he is doing.

Overall this made for a ear-opening experience that forced me to rethink my understanding and historical knowledge of the ukulele. I must say while I have not listened to the entire album yet, this easily edges out Eddie Bush’s “A Man and His Ukulele” from my top five, as “Ukulele In Orbit” is without a doubt a seminal recording in the history of ukulele music. Now I must go on an eBay and record auction websites and hunt down my own vinyl copy!

What this makes clear to me is there is a need for some formal documentation of the era of ukulele playing after the second world war leading into the Hawaiian renaissance. There was a pocket of playing here in which solo instrumental performance was featured and explored. Players like Eddie Kamae, Jesse Kalima and Don Baduria were finding a new voice for the ukulele and adding songs to create a new repertoire of ukulele numbers. Songs that were rooted in Latin music, pop standards, military marches and jazz numbers. It seems to be that this style of ukulele playing got pushed aside as traditional Hawaiian melodies began to dominate with the emerging Hawaiian music renaissance. Tiki and lounge music seemed to take over on the instrumental and tourist end of things, leaving little room for the humble ukulele. The dominate instrumentation became the vibraphone, steel guitar, piano and horns. Not to mention the burgeoning rock-n-roll scene that came about in the mid to late 60s that threatened even Hawaiian music itself.

I thank God for people like Don Baduria. This is the style that I believe needs to be studied and resurrected. This is the type of playing that needs to be grabbed onto and shared for the next generation of players if the ukulele is to survive and thrive past this current wave of interest. I hate to say it, but retirees picking out Elvis tunes at ukulele clubs in the mainland is not going to present a compelling picture to the young ukulele player, nor will kitchy tongue in cheek covers of Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber tunes sung by hipsters on yellow ukuleles posted to Instagram. And while Jake and the emerging set of young copy cats playing soul-less, bland, commercial pop ukulele numbers may present something that is flashy and appears new and exciting, once the initial “wow” wears off there is nothing left.

As an ukulele player who has struggled of late with my own direction and inspiration for moving forward with the instrument in the face of the above noted realities, seeing video like that of Don Baduria and listening to his tracks has helped reassure my own playing and has further motivated me to pursue and continue to develop my own voice and style in order to leave something of value for the next generation of players, I feel it is my duty to do so.

So here we come again, another player doing what is best…HO`ANALU…going beyond the known boundaries. It is amazing that tucked away in a lost Face Book page or in the far corners of You Tube lies recordings, sights and sounds that hold the key to the long lost voice of this subtle instrument. All we need to do is find it, make it our own, and pass it on!

The Real Top Five List


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.

1. Eddie Kamae “Heart of the Ukulele”

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.

2. Jesse Kalima “Jess Uke”

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.

3. Herb Ohta Sr. (Ohta-San) “Pacific Potpourri”

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.

4. Gabby Pahinui and the Sons of Hawaii “Music of Old Hawaii” 

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!

The Golden Voice of Hawaii

alfred apaka
With little fanfare and almost no mention in mainstream media, one of the most significant re releases in the history of Hawaiian music occurred over the summer. On July 24th Universal Records released a remastered version of the seminal album “My Isle of Golden Dreams” originally released in 1963. This album by the great Alfred Apaka was for years only available on vinyl and from a time starting in the 1990s as downloadable mp3s. By releasing this remastered version, which is available on Amazon and iTunes, Apaka’s round, clear baritone is captured in its full glory. Many classics of the Hapa-Haole era such as “My Isle of Golden Dreams, “Old Plantation”, “Far Across the Sea”, and “Hawaiian Love Call” are found here, showcasing the sound that helped establish Hawaii as a tourist destination around the world.

For those of you not familiar with Alfred Apaka he is perhaps the most talented pure singer to ever grace the stage here in Hawaii. Apaka was born into a musical family, his father Alfred Sr. being a talented singer himself who was taught by his his aunt Lydia Aholo, the hanai daughter of Queen Liliuokalani.(source) Alfred Jr. became part of this musical legacy learning from his father and starting his own group called “Alfred Apaka and His Hawaiians.” Soon Alfred was noticed by the influential orchestra leader Don McDiarmid and offered the position of lead vocalist for the “Royal Hawaiians.” (source)

This opportunity exposed Apaka to new audiences throughout the 1940s enabling him to tour the U.S. mainland, perform with Ray McKinney, be featured on the influential “Hawaii Calls” radio program and also perform at the Moana Hotel with the “Moana Serenaders.” (source) But it was a luau performance at Don the Beachcomber’s that he was seen by Bob Hope. This served as his big break as he was soon to be featured on national TV and radio along with Hope and Bing Crosby and later on the Ed Sullivan show. (source) Here you can see a performance of Apaka from his first appearance on the Bob Hope show in April 1952 singing “Beyond the Reef.” As you can hear from the applause he was a hit and well received.

Soon Apaka was signed by talent agents Joe Glaser and Jay Faggen in hopes he could compete as a crooner to stand along the likes of Bing Crosby and Perry Cuomo in the burgeoning easy listening and pop standards market. (source) Destiny had other ideas for Apaka though as he was taken under the wing of businessman and industrialist Henry J. Kaiser. (source) Having missed the resort boom in South Florida and Palm Springs, Kaiser was determined not to do the same in Hawaii. (source) Having built the Kaiser Hawaiian Hotel (later renamed the Hilton Hawaiian village) in Waikiki, Kaiser was looking for a top star to headline his Tapa Room entertainment lounge. Kaiser found that person in Apaka who performed there starting 1955. Here is video of Apaka performing courtesy of the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

Soon Apaka began recording on the Decca and ABC record labels and his popularity was steadily growing as his performances were the main attraction in Waikiki during the exploding tourist market of the 1950s. It is well documented that America had a new found fascination with all things Hawaiian, and now with an established entertainment market, all the big record producers from the mainland were coming to Hawaii hoping to make a big buck off of the premier stars of the Waikiki lounges. And here was Apaka with an established fan base, notoriety and a set of widely accepted and heard recordings. Apaka was now poised for his big national coming out party. As Deon Kane harpist with Honolulu Symphony related in an interview, Alfred was a strikingly handsome man, with a world class voice and an accomplished showman (source), and there was no doubt that Apaka would become a star in the now popular American lounge music scene along the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.

What was up next for Apaka was a nationally televised performance with all the promotions and sponsorships one could want to ensure exposure. But what was to happen is one of the great tragedies in 20th century American music. In January 1960 while practicing handball at the local YMCA Apaka suffered a sudden heart attack at the age of 40 and died.(source) This became known as the “The Day Hawaii Cried” (source) as Hawaii lost one of its great talents who could stand along side the greats of his profession and even surpass them much like Duke Kahanamoku did some 50 years earlier. And much like Duke helped establish Hawaii in the eyes of mainland America after becoming a Territory, so was it looked upon for Apaka as Hawaii looked to establish itself in its newfound statehood.

Fortunately there are 6 albums of Apaka material around for us to enjoy. And finally his last album “My Isle of Golden Dreams” is finally available in its remastered form. Whether you are a fan of “hapa haole” music or not, everyone can enjoy the pure vocal musicality of Apaka’s voice on this album. While the term “hapa haole” and the validity of its usage is topic for another blog post, what Apaka represented is a Hawaiian man who was looked upon to stand among the luminaries of the most popular musical form in America. We can only imagine what would of came of Apaka as he moved into the pop standards market of all the greats and had the opportunities to perform in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York and the other great musical metropolises of the era.

So while it is unfortunate that many were unaware of this important release, those who are paying attention can hear the influence of Alfred Apaka all over Hawaiian music. Whether it is the complex scripted stage shows still popular at the hotel luaus, the standarized harmonized trios at the tourist bar or even the soaring falsettos performing in high end theatres across Japan, all who perform Hawaiian music today owe their livings to Alfred Apaka Junior.

And it was the great Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole who was able to sum up Apaka’s influence best when being interviewed by the Honolulu Star-Bulletin shortly before his death. It was at the ceremony to reveal a statue of Apaka in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Hotel when this icon of Hawaiian music said “He was definitely one of my biggest inspirations, maybe the biggest. He’s the first guy people think about when they think of Hawaiian music. The red carnation lei, the spotlight on the ukulele player in the middle, the hula dancers coming out every once in a while…he invented all that.” (source)

In that sense Apaka is a true embodiment of HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. He created something new and fresh and put it on stage in the early years of Waikiki’s growth for all the world to come and see. It is just unfortunate that he couldn’t return the favor and take it out to all those who didn’t get a chance to see it. As another great of Hawaiian music Eddie Kamae said, “He was a classy Hawaiian person, he really made Hawaii look good around the world. He had the personality and the talent to compete internationally. He opened the door for Hawaiian musicians, not just Hawaiian music, to be taken on the level of Mainland acts.” (source)

So yourself a favor, pick up some of Alfred Apaka’s music, readily available on iTunes, Amazon and other major music outlets and take in the smooth, timeless baritone of Alfred Apaka Junior, the Golden Voice of Hawaii.

I Ulu No Ka Lālā I Ke Kumu

sons in studio

As the tourist economy continued to grow and the realities of statehood began to take hold with the people of Hawaii, a realization unfolded that the musical culture of Hawaii had moved significantly far away from its roots. While the Hawaiian language remained relatively strong in comparison with other colonized nations, musically, profound changes had occurred from the humble chant based beginnings of the pre-contact Hawaiian. As covered in detail in my previous post “The World Cup That Is Hawaiian Music Part 7: This Is Getting Big” by the 1960s Hawaiian music had been deeply mixed and intertwined with the developments in American popular music and along with the concurrent commodification of the Hawaiian culture resulted in a watered down musical identity. So here I will be discontinuing my “World Cup” series of blog posts on outside cultural influences on modern Hawaiian music. By the 1960s the music of Hawaii had become some inundated with outside changes that it no longer contained its own unique musical identity. It was time to go back to the source of where Hawaiian music grew from.

And thus I chose the proverb “i ulu no ka lālā i ke kumu” for the title of this post. Translated as “the branches grow because of the trunk” this proverb refers to the branches that continued to grow during the commodification of Hawaiian music. While the music found in the lounges of Waikiki, the Hollywood movies of Elvis and the barrooms of the cruise ships may have been the systemized pop music of the Don Ho stage show, many Hawaiians were still playing a style of music that was a continuation of the music that was created from the influences of Mexican ranchera ballads, Madeiran folk songs and the jazzy steel guitar that laid the foundation of the modern Hawaiian sound. The difference being, these musicians were playing this music in their backyards and beach parties, rather than in the bars along Kalakaua Boulevard or lounges of the Moana Hotel.

There were two individuals that were very conscientious of this reality and dedicated themselves to changing what type of music was being played at the popular bars and restaurants of Honolulu; Eddie Kamae and Gabby Pahinui. If you haven’t done so, I would recommend that you read Eddie Kamae’s account of this shift of consciousness in his biography Hawaiian Son.” In this stirring recollection about his meetings with Gabby during a weeklong recovery from near fatal sickness, Eddie recounts his discussions with Gabby about their frustrations with the type of musical demands put on them by the restaurant and showroom owners in Waikiki. At this point Gabby was in high demand as a steel guitar player in the resort music scene and Eddie had been recognized as the number one ukulele performer in all of Hawaii, even having toured the mainland. But they had become restless performing a style of music that had drifted too far from their idea of a true Hawaiian sound. Performing steel guitar in Andy Cummings backup band, Gabby was now playing the jazz and pop styles favored by the Hawaii Calls radio program. Eddie had become well known for his ukulele arrangements of Latin numbers and American standards he performed during Ray Kinney’s luau shows. Something had to give.

As Eddie tells it, it was through these discussions that Gabby began to feel alive. He got so excited that he began to eat and was finally able to regain enough strength to pick up his guitar again. Armed with his ukulele, Eddie began to play the music with Gabby that they remembered from their childhood. The rapid strumming of the ukulele and the finger picking of the slack key guitar along with the traditional ballads and place songs of the early 1900s reaffirmed the original joy that they got from playing music. Calling upon close friend Joe Marshall to bring his stand up bass, they knew they had tapped into something new that was based on the sound they had been missing. The final piece was the steel guitar of the elusive David “Feet” Rodgers who had maintained the traditional steel guitar style of his father, rather than the new pedal steel style that had emerged as the dominant sound.

For the next four months they met regularly honing this new sound. Rather than trying to replicate the sound of the past, they were looking to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. They took the songs of previous generations, but by applying a fresh new musicality to it, developed over their years and years of performing, created something that had never been heard of before. Eddie began to research the archives of the Bishop Museum incessantly, looking for the original vocal and musical arrangements and the original unadulterated verses of long lost Hawaiian compositions.

After these months of long jam sessions, this group, now dubbed the “Sons of Hawaii” debuted their new music at the Sandbox in Honolulu to raucous crowds. People would travel from all over Oahu island to see this new group who had a sound that was distinctly different from what was being played on the “Hawaii Calls” radio show. Gone were the jazzed up chord vamping of the electric guitar, the repetitive downbeat root notes of the bass, the chang-a-langy open chord rhythms of the ukulele and the long drawn out reverb laden notes of the steel guitar. These were replaced by the rapid melodic fingerpicking of the open tuned steel string acoustic guitar, the complex closed chordal voicing and intricate lead lines of the ukulele, syncopated dulcet tones of the stand up bass and the tight staccato flourishes of the steel guitar. On top of this were Hawaiian vocals that, through the guidance of cultural elder Mary Kawena Pukui, were sung with proper intonation and pronunciation with conscientiousness adherence to the original intentions of the composer.

Soon they were one of the highest paid and most in demand Hawaiian music groups in all of Hawaii, as people eagerly attended their shows to soak up this “new” music that so strongly tapped into their ancestral consciousness with clearly an ear and eye on the future. With the release of their debut album “Gabby Pahinui and the Sons of Hawaii” (so named as Eddie Kamae was still under contract with another label and couldn’t legally identify himself with this recording) and the subsequent album “Music of Old Hawaii” The Sons set down onto vinyl their new sound. 30 seconds into the debut track “Na Ono Na Ia Na Kupuna” you can tell you are listening to something that sounds uniquely fresh, yet is firmly growing from the foundational trunk of the past. This is the moment of HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries!

These well attended performances and popular first two albums, along with the recordings of slack key guitarists Leonard Kwan and Raymond Kane set the ground work for what would later became known as the “Hawaiian Renaissance” in Hawaiian music. They were perpetuating a style that was soon to be actively absorbed into the younger generation that grew up hearing these recordings. Groups starting with The Sunday Manoa, Hui Ohana and later, Olomana, The Makaha Sons of Niihau, Keola and Kapono Beamer, were branches along this tree whose trunk grew from the Polynesian chants of the original Hawaiians.

And through it all The Sons of Hawaii continued to perform and record. Over the years, Gabby Pahinui left, Moe Keale joined, as did Atta Isaacs, Sonny Chillingworth and a formidable who’s who of Hawaiian musicians. One of the most influential being the late Dennis Kamakahi, whose original compositions jump started the Sons back into the limelight during the musically dense 1970s when every bar and restaurant in Honolulu were hiring “traditional” Hawaiian music groups. Later avoiding the ever growing reggae infused island music of the 1980s, Eddie Kamae and The Sons of Hawaii trudged on with new members Braddah Smitty, Goerge Kuo, Gary Haleamau and Paul Kim. With the passing of Joe Marshall, Ocean Kaowili joined and later Mike Kaawa. Always with their ever present palaka shirts, The Sons of Hawaii held high the candle of this new Hawaiian music sound with over 10 albums of music to draw from.

As a “Spiritus Mundi” took hold on the consciousness of the world with an emphasis on where we came from and the cultural identifiers of our past, so it did in Hawaii in well. Led by Eddie Kamae and Gabby Pahinui, a concise musical language was developed to reflect this changing consciousness. This became the framework of the type of music being produced in the backyards and barrooms across Hawaii.

A parellel could then be drawn to the growing folk music scene of the 1960s in America. Much like The Sunday Manoa and the like were drawing from The Sons of Hawaii, The Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Cosby, Stills Nash and Young, Peter, Paul and Mary and The Byrds were the new groups drawing from the foundation laid by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, The Weavers, Lead Belly and Big Bill Broozny.

Today as American musicians are looking back to these folk music traditions to create a new sound rooted in the past to oppose the electronic and pop laden music of today, will Hawaiian music do the same? Well that is a complex question and one I would like to address in more detail in a future post. Mostly because almost the opposite thing has happened here in Hawaii. Even though the popular music in the islands today is a watered down rhythm and blues reggae style called “Jawaiian”, “traditional” Hawaiian music has remained strong.  But again through the demands of the tourist industry to create a standardized form of Hawaiian music, the original intentions of Eddie Kamae, Gabby Pahinui and other members of the Sons of Hawaii have been misconstrued. The idea as I see it is to coninue to grow. To continue to be the branches growing from the trunk. And this is the idea of HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. But unfortunately this has not happened. Instead the branches have ceased to broaden. The same branch has continued to grow in one direction, never having expanded into new territory. Unfortunately this will cause the branch to collapse under its own weight. So today I ask my fellow musicians and lovers of Hawaiian music to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. This is what I strive to do. Use different instrumentation, compose new mele with variations in tempo, key and rhythm. Experiment, try new things. Adapt and incorporate new sounds from music you enjoy. But always remember the trunk you grow from. Never forget that “i ulu no ka lālā i ke kumu”, “the branches grow because of the trunk.”


The World Cup That Is Hawaiian Music Part 5: From Prussia With Love

royal hwn band

One of the most influential people on the sound of Hawaiian music came from an unexpected place. Having being chosen by the king of Prussia to be sent to Hawaii by request of King Kamehameha the Fifth, Henry Berger changed the face and direction of Hawaiian music for many generations to come. After the death of his father when Henry was four years old he went to live with a talented musician uncle. Under the tutelage of this uncle who was well known as the preeminent village musician and exposure to music in church, Henry went on to join the German army where he was trained in military marches. It was through this schooling that he gained the skills that impressed the king enough to choose him over ten other applicants to fill King Kamehameha the Fifth’s request for a band leader.

Soon after arriving in Honolulu in 1872 Henry went immediately to work. It is reported that he gave a piano recital the very next day and conducted a band concert within a week. He quickly befriended future queen Liliuokalani and by 1877 and assumed full leadership of the “King’s Band” which was to later renamed as the “Royal Hawaiian Band.” In 1879 he became a naturalized Hawaiian citizen of the Kingdom. He worked closely with Liliuokalani helping her arrange her songs. Later, starting 1893 he started the band program at Kamehameha Schools. And he also started what was to be later known as the Honolulu Symphony. During his time as band master he conducted over 32,000 concerts. The Royal Hawaiian Band is still functioning today and is the oldest municipal band in the United States. (For more information on the history of the Royal Hawaiian Band go here for a detailed history by David Bandy).

But these posts are not history lessons though. Rather, I would like to look at how the outside cultures influenced the music that was being made in Hawaii and how these elements influenced modern Hawaiian music. First if we look at the German military march of the mid to late 19th century we hear music set to a strict tempo with an oom-pah beat-like quality. A bass drum or a low brass plays the down beat with a high snare and the alto brass playing the off beat. The final strain is extremely lyrical with a blustery ending.

We do know that Henry worked very closely with Liliuokalani during the 1870s and 1880s. It was during this time that she composed a large number of her songs. If we compare her compositions before and after the arrival of Henry Berger we can hear a marked difference. Compare for example the songs “Pauahi O Kalani” and “Ka Hanu O Hanakeoki” Now, I know we are comparing a choral arrangement and a recording by the Sons of Hawaii, but I choose these two because they are faithful reproductions of the original. One, a choir from the Kamehameha Schools and the other by the leading Hawaiian music group playing an arrangement carefully researched by leader Eddie Kamae.

“Pauahi O Kalani” was written in 1868 before the arrival of Henry Berger. The melody is lofty and lyrical. It is full of romanticism and lofty ambition. This is the type of song that shows signs of influence from the church and their hymnal culture (see my previous post “The World Cup That Is Hawaiian Muisc Part 2: The Church). In comparison “Ka Hanu O Hanakeoki” written in 1874 is driving, with a fixed rhythm. The melody builds from a secure start in the lower registers and constantly rises to the upper registers, finally the song ends with a flourishing crescendo. These elements line up well with those found in the German military marches that were so familiar to Henry Berger and that he surely shared with Liliuokalani.

This is not to say that Liliuokalani’s compositions before Berger’s arrival didn’t have elements of European marches. Through the church and European cultural influences before Henry Berger, Liliuokalani had exposure to musical elements found in the European marches that had seeped into to much of the music created on that continent. Also, Liliuokalani did continue to compose beautiful songs with hymnal qualities after Berger’s work with her. The point is through working with Liliuokalani, Berger made these elements more formalized in her composing. Through his work directly arranging her compositions for the Royal Hawaiian Band, Berger had his direct hand on her songs. It is Liliuokalani herself that called him “The Father of Hawaiian Music.”

One song in which we can point at a direct correlation to a European march is in what was to become Hawaii’s anthem “Hawaii Ponoi.” It is documented that the lyrics were set to the melody of the Prussian hymn “Heil Dir Im Siegerkranz which was loosely based on the English anthem “God Save the Queen. Hear the similarities?

It can’t be underestimated either the influence Henry Berger had on the direction of Hawaiian music through his work with the Kamehameha Schools from 1893-1903. By now Henry Berger had made formalized arrangements and standardized sheet music for many many Hawaiian songs. It was now during his work at the Kamehameha Schools that he taught and spread these standardized arrangements. During his time there he taught hundreds of students of Hawaiian ancestry how to read music and to play various band instruments. Many of these students went on to perform with the Royal Hawaiian Band and further more many of these musicians were some of the first Hawaiian music recording and touring musicians in the 1910s and 1920s. And on top of that just to show the extent of Berger’s influence, many of the off spring of these musicians went on to enroll at the Kamehameha Schools and continued this tradition. Ask any professional Hawaiian music artist of today and almost all of them have some connection to music through the Kamehameha Schools. I cannot site all the examples here as that would take up an entire blog post in itself.

So I don’t feel Liliuokalani was exaggerating when she called Henry Berger the father of Hawaiian music. From Berger’s work with Liliuokalani, to the arranging of the Hawaii state anthem, and his tireless dedication to song documentation and teaching at Kamehameha Schools, his hands are all over the development of Hawaiian music in the 20th century. We can still hear the steady tempos, low down beat with high off beat and bombastic endings in Hawaiian music today. And all these elements originated in the military marches of 19th century Prussia. By the 1920s there existed in Hawaii a unique melding of American Hymnal church music, romantic Mexican Ranchera ballads and the European March. All played on Spanish guitars and the newly invented Hawaiian ukulele which was based on Madeiran folk instruments. Rather amazing don’t you think?

This all set up the next change in Hawaiian music as Hawaiian musicians began to travel around the United States and spread this newly created blend of modern music. Next the sound of Hawaii continued to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries as it began to incorporate elements of American Ragtime and Jazz, American Big Band Music, American Country and Folk Music and Caribbean Reggae Music. Those things will be covered in my next posts. Keep coming back!

The World Cup That Is Hawaiian Music Part 4: The Madeiran Musicmakers


The history of Hawaiian music was altered forever with the arrival of three woodworkers from the Madeira Islands in 1879. The Portuguese had been arriving in Hawaii in small numbers since the 1850s, mostly as cast aways from whaling ships. But it wasn’t until 1878 when the Hawaiian government made a concerted effort to import Portuguese labor from the Madeira and Azores Islands to balance out the increasing number of Chinese laborers found on the sugar plantations that the Portuguese population significantly increased.

It was a very conscience decision to bring in labor from these islands. With a majority of the sugar plantation labor being of Asian decent there was a desire by the plantation owners to diversify the labor population. Various European options were explored, but it was decided that the islanders of Madeira and Azores with their familiarity with sugar cultivation, comfort with island living and a similar terrain and climate to Hawaii, would be the best source of new labor. So starting in 1878 and over the next ten years about 10,000 Portuguese people arrived in Hawaii with about 3,000 of them serving as sugar plantation workers.

The second ship to arrive in Hawaii from the Madeira Islands with plantation labor and their families was the Ravenscrag. Among the 419 people on this ship were Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias and Jose do Espirito Santo, who were cabinet and instrument makers from Madeira. It is believed that not only were those interested in working the sugar plantations brought to Hawaii, but those with specialty skills as well to help diversify the plantation labor and encourage stability among the workers. And in fact Madeira was well known for its wooded forests and talented woodworkers, thus these islands were named Madeira for this reason, as Madeira is Portuguese for wood.

Woodworkers held an important role in Madeiran society, they built cabinets, furniture and almost more importantly musical instruments. Madeira has a strong folk music tradition and it is said that almost every Madeiran has some familiarity with playing one of the many small stringed instruments native to those islands. Most of these stringed instruments are versions of those found on mainland Portugal. One of these is the cavaquinho which was brought to Madeira in the 1850s and renamed the braguinha. Braguinha means “little braga” and is a reference to the its small size relative to the well known braga which was already familiar to the Madeirans.

Here is a picture of the cavaquinho:


And here is a picture of a braguinha:



So it was the braguinha that was one of the two instruments brought to Hawaii by these Madeiran wood workers. Along with the braguinha the other instrument brought here on this fateful voyage was the rajao. Here is a picture of a rajao:


As you can see from these pictures all three of these instruments bear a striking resemblance to the ukulele so closely associated with Hawaii today. This is because the ukulele is the offspring of the braguinha and the rajao. It is interesting how the ukulele came to be by combining elements of each instrument’s size, tuning and style of play. In Madeiran folk music the rajao played the rhythm while the braguinha played the leads. By taking the size of the braguinha and adding the tuning and playing style of the rajao, the ukulele was born.

From the Hawaiian perspective they must have been highly intrigued with these new instruments. According to legend when the Madeiran immigrants landed in Honolulu they kissed the ground and started playing music and singing songs on their braguinha and rajao. The Hawaiians were probably familiar with this passionate singing and playing as it is not to far removed historically and culturally from the Mexican Ranchera music brought here by the vaqueros (see part 3 of this series). Again, Hawaiians at this time were fascinated with things from the outside world and had a strong desire to take these things and adapt them to make them their own.

Soon after arriving here and seeing an interest in their native instruments, Nunes, Dias and Espirito Santo began building versions of the rajao and braguinha. According to Nunes’ granddaughter he simply removed the top fifth string from the rajao to create the first ukulele. This would correspond with the original Hawaiian g, c, e, a tuning. Whether it was a matter of convenience, efficiency or appeal, the smaller bodied braguinha was preferred for the design of the instrument. These first ukulele were built using the most common large hard wood in Hawaii the acacia koa tree. Some of the first ukulele looked like this:


Soon Hawaiian makers emerged as well. One of the most well known in the early years was Jonah Kumalae and later Ernest Kaai. Soon after other Hawaiian makers started shops including the most well known and only one still in business today Samuela Kamaka. Here is a picture of a Kumalae ukulele:


And a Kamaka:


So how did all of this change Hawaiian music? It is interesting how the musical influence of the Mexican vaqueros set up a need for a more accessible and easier to play stringed instrument in Hawaii. You have to figure that after the vaqueros returned to Mexico and left their guitars here, there weren’t a large number of instruments available for the Hawaiian public. With no knowledge of how to build them or access to the wood making tools needed to make such a detailed product, there were only a small number of instruments to go around. There may have been a  few guitars brought here on whaling ships or by church missionaries, but considering there is little of any documentation of this and given the limited cargo space available on those long voyages, it is unlikely.

So while Hawaiians had created a specific style of singing and song composition based on the Mexican ranchera music and church hymns with roots in their native language and chants, they had no easily available instrument to play on. The ukulele was a perfect accompaniment, it was small, easy to play and had a strong rhythmic quality that would support this new form of music developing here. They were also easy to build and not long after the Medeirans arrival here they were being produced in large numbers and available for a relatively cheap price. Unlike the guitar which was large, hard to build and not easy to get, everyone began to play the ukulele. This made every Hawaiian a music maker. Anyone could get an ukulele and start writing and making music. With the spread of church culture and church based education systems in Hawaii, singing and song composition were skills available and known to anyone. These combining factors allowed for a hot bed of new music emanating from Hawaii. All the stars were aligned for HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. Songs, lyrics and melody could be created and shared by everyone with no limits placed on what was the norm or the accepted folk form. It was being created in real time without prejudice or bounds.

So that leads us to the million dollar question, where did the word “ukulele” come from? Great question and there are three main theories behind this. The most commonly shared one is that upon observing the playing style required by the fingers of the first Madeiran performers, the Hawaiians called it “uku lele” which would translate as “jumping flea” as that is what the motion of the fingers on the strings resembled. A second theory is that “uku lele” stands for another translation of the tearms “uku” for “gift” and lele” for “flying.” This interpretation says the Hawaiians saw the ukulele as a gift that “flew” here from afar. And finally the third theory is that “ukulele” comes from a simple alteration of “ukeke” or a combination of “ukeke and mele.” Ukeke being the simple single stringed gourd harp native to Hawaii and “mele” meaning song.

We will never know for sure. It is common in the Hawaiian language to simply “hawaiianize” an outside word to fit it into the phonetic system of the Hawaiian language. See “kika” as a term for “guitar.” With “braguinha” and “rajao” neither really fits in nicely with any Hawaiian linguistic sounds or syllabic structure. Also, the original instrument was altered so it would make sense that a new term was necessary, not a “hawaiianization” of the original word. The “jumping flea” interpretation is plausible as Hawaiians often came up with terms for new items by describing the action being done, or the event taking place with the new item, see bicycle “ka`a hehi wāwae” “vehicle feet press”.

For the interpretation of “uku lele” as “flying gift” it is documented that this term was coined by Queen Liliuokalani. My interpretation is that looking for a more poetic and lofty description if this instrument, Liliuokalani devised her own interpretation of “ukulele” to fit in with her heightened view of Hawaiian music and musicians. Something that the term “jumping flea” did not accomplish.

As for the third theory, this one makes the most logical sense to me, but the linguistic history doesn’t support it. It is rare for Hawaiians to change a native word to fit in to describe a new item. While the ukeke does have a string on it making somewhat similar to a ukulele, the similarities end there. They are completely different in size, use and function. On top of that it is rare for the Hawaiians to alter a native word. The jump from “ukeke” to “ukulele” isn’t something that happens in the Hawaiian language. I can see the possibility of the name “ukeke mele” as the ukulele is like a musical, “song-y” variation of the single string “ukeke” but there is no evidence of Hawaiians shortening or combining parts of two words to create a new word. Sometimes Hawaiian words get changed by non-native speakers when they are hard to pronounce, but because ukulele were being built and used in Hawaii by Hawaiians I don’t se how a bastardization of “ukeke mele” (if this is the actual source) would get changed to “ukulele.”

So I think it is a combination of all of these. The Hawaiians were very fond of word puns and subtle relationships between words. Word play was common and similarities between sounds and meaning were often explored and appreciated for the possible variation in meaning and interpretation. With only 13 letters and limited rules for syllabic structure, this was necessary to create a diverse language to describe the diverse world and world view available tot he Hawaiian speaker. So the fact that “ukulele” filled three functions, described the manner in which it is played, gave it a poetic description and also subtly referenced the only known stringed instrument in pre-contact Hawaii, “ukulele” was the perfect fit!

We may never know the exact reason for the naming of this new instrument the ukulele. But for the purposes of this blog entry we can look at the influence this instrument had on the development of music in Hawaii. Again, most importantly the accessibility and ease of playing the ukulele made in instrument of the commoner. This opened up the possibility of song creation and song performance by almost anyone. Also the rhythmic qualities of the ukulele supported the syncopation and bouncy tempos of Hawaiian music.

Over time, most significantly through the contributions of Eddie Kamae (see my post on the Heart of the Ukulele and part 2) and Jesse Kalima, it became a solo instrument. Filling the gap left by the waning popularity of the steel guitar, the ukulele became a lead instrument in the hands of these talented players. This was later developed by Herb Ohta, also known as Ohta-San, (my favorite album being “Pacific Potpourri”) who made important physical changes tot he instrument. Replacing the high re-entrant “g” string, with a low wound “g” note that made for a linear progression of the strings from low to high and opened up new melodic range and possibilities. He also asked the Kamaka family to build a larger sized body and neck length to support more notes and the increased demand on tonal variation.

This was taken to new levels by Peter Moon in his work with The Sunday Manoa as he explored deeper chordal, melodic and technical possibilities with the ukulele. See the song “Pua Lilia”. From there, building on the advancements of these four important figures in ukulele playing, the doors were open for other skilled players like Tony Fernandez and Kelly Boy DeLima. And of course this culminated in the amazing skills of Jake who is not a Hawaiian musician per se, is without peer in modern ukulele playing and has shown the amazing complexity possible with this small four stringed instrument with roots in the Madeira Islands.

And there are many gaps in between these important players that could be filled with a thousand blog posts, some of which I hope to cover in the future. From the Pan-American Exposition in 1901 to the vaudevillian appeal of the ukulele in the 1920s to the tourist culture of 1950s and Elvis’s subsequent use of the ukulele in popular movies to Arthur Godfrey’s lessons on his popular radio show to Tiny Tim’s eccentric playing on the Tonight Show and to Jake Shimabukuro’s YouTube video of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” the ukulele has a long and storied history.

While the music of Medeira never took hold here in Hawaii, its instruments surely did. That’s why I titled this post the “Medeiran Musicmakers.” They literally “made” music by building these first ukulele. Using their hands and the woodworking skills native to their homeland these three simple Medeiran cabinet makers changed the course of Hawaiian music forever. There was a movement to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. The people of Hawaii took this small four stringed instrument and adapted it to their music playing, and in return their music playing adapted along with it.

If you haven’t already please see the first three parts in this series where I cover the Polynesian music foundation, the church influence and the music of the vaqueros. Stay tuned for future posts about European Royal Music, American Ragtime and Jazz, American Big Band Music, American Country and Folk Music and Caribbean Reggae Music as I explore the theme of the influence of world music on modern Hawaiian music during our World Cup season.


Heart of the Ukulele Part 2


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.

Heart of the Ukulele Part 1



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:

Side A

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….


Talking Story With Jesse Kalima’s Nephew



When you grow up in the Big Island the big city is in Hilo.  And having spent my whole life on the west side, I still get lost over there and I still find places in parts of town I never knew existed.  During the time I spent playing music with Braddah Smitty I had the wonderful opportunity to play in some of these little hole in the wall joints, that I otherwise would have never known existed or would have never dared walk into for that matter.

One of the most interesting things about paying music with Smitty is you never knew when or where a music throw down was about to happen.  Once after playing a baby luau in Hilo we decided to stop into a bar for some drink and pupu.  We found some little hole in the wall in the industrial part of town.  Upon entering it was like the whole entire staff rearranged things to accommodate Smitty. Tables would be moved, chairs changed around, pupu magically arriving out of the kitchen and of course cold beers quickly arriving in front of us.  I wasn’t of interest to anybody, it was all for Smitty.  Soon an entire table would amass with people coming to sit down, talk story and say their hellos.

After some food and drinks would come the gracious request if he would so kindly be interested in plugging in and doing some entertaining.  Smitty would always generously oblige and we would play a short set for whoever happened to be there.  It was one of my most favorite moments to be apart of.  I felt like I was experiencing something magical, spontaneous and above all real.  These people longed to hear Smitty sing.  They needed it.  People would dance the hula, people would cry, hoot, holler, whatever the music did to move them.  I was just lucky to be along for the ride.

On this particular night after we had finished sharing some music I was seated next to a kind elderly gentleman who was very interested in where I was from and how I learned to play `ukulele.  I told him my story and he was very complimentary of my playing. He told me his uncle was the great Jesse Kalima.  I was shocked.  Jesse Kalima is one of the first true virtuosi of the `ukulele.  His album Jess’ Uke was revolutionary in its use of chord voicing, intricate picking lines and tremolo rhythmic strumming.  Coming out in 1962 it, along with Eddie Kamae’s “Heart of the `Ukulele” set the gold standard from what is possible on this little four stringed wonder.

It was so great to sit and talk story with this man.  He was so forthcoming in his compliments of me and his advice to keep doing what I do, that the art of true `ukulele playing is being lost to all the newer emphasis on flashy showmanship and single note rapid picking.  I felt so humbled to hear this from a man who I know had heard and seen the real deal.  But he also told me an important thing.  Have your own style.  He said that’s what truly set his Uncle Jesse apart.  He always strived to have his own style.  And if you listen to his recordings, especially the Jesse Kalima and Sons & Sam Wai`au album you will know what I mean.  Unfortunately this album is out of print, but if you ever get your hands on it you will be amazed.  The song “Kila Kila O Moanalua” still blows me away with its use of syncopated rhythmic drumming and subtle ukulele counterpoint.  It sounds like if Hawaiians brought their music to Mexico, taught them how to play and left, not the other way around.  Truly innovative and unique.

HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries.  When I think back to this moment in time and I listen to Jesse Kalima’s music I think about how much he went beyond the known boundaries.  He put his own stamp on Hawaiian music.  He never played a song how others were playing it.  His tempo, instrumentation and arrangements were always his, but always Hawaiian at the same time.  I love when I hear an arrangement of a song that is new and fresh and unlike anything I have before.  It is getting rarer and rarer these days.  More people continue to churn out the same arrangements of the classics done so many times before.  that is OK, that is what they know.  But for me, I look to HO`ANALU….to go beyond the known boundaries.  I like to play Hawaiian music with my own little flourish.  I learned this from people like the great Braddah Smitty who always did things his way.  He played Hawaiian music the right way, with the right heart, the right feeling, but it was always a little different.  It had that little touch of something that was unique to him.  He along with so many others embody that spirit of HO`ANALU….to beyond known boundaries.


A Painting of Eddie Kamae Takes Me Back



I humbly believe that the greatest ukulele player ever was Eddie Kamae. He recorded what I find to be the best ukulele album in existence “Heart of the Ukulele” in 1962. I was very blessed to have the opportunity to share the stage with and play with Eddie Kamae when I played ukulele for Braddah Smitty. It wasn’t my best night and I was honestly rather intimidated to be playing with such a master. As he sang “E Ku`u Morning Dew” and I transposed in my head the often played version in G to D, I prayed he wouldn’t ask me to pa`ani. Of course he did and I proceeded to mangle what is a perfectly constructed melody in my attempt to quickly transpose the melody up a fifth. This is a lot more challenging on an ukulele with its limited range and peculiar re-entrant high G tuning.

None the less, afterwards Smitty related to me Uncle Eddie’s impressions of me as a player. When Smitty asked him how “the boy (me)” did, he responded with “the boy still has lots to learn.” When Smitty said “I think in a couple years he get ’em” Pops said, “I think in 20 or 30 years he might get ’em.” That remains the most humbling assessment of my skills as an ukulele player and something that always reminds me to keep working at my craft and more importantly be ready for the moment. This painting is currently on display at the Isaacs Art Center at HPA, it is what got me thinking about that moment when Eddie Kamae sang “E Ku`u Morning” and tossed me the solo. An adjunct is I totally nailed “Ka Lama `Ae One.”