The Real Top Five List

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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!

Heart of the Ukulele Part 2

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

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

Side B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heart of the Ukulele Part 1

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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….