Ukulele In Orbit

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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

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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!

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

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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:

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And here is a picture of a braguinha:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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And a Kamaka:

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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.

 

Talking Story With Jesse Kalima’s Nephew

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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.