Tag Archives: ukulele

Aloha Xmas

Ms. M and Oz let us know that they were going to hear slack-key guitarist Patrick Landeza play Hawai’ian Christmas music at the San Leandro Public Library, and would we like to meet them there? I found out that Herb Ohta Jr. would be playing too — Herb Ohta Jr., son of Ohta-san himself and one of the best ‘ukulelists alive! — and told Carol that we had to go.

We arrived in time to eat the Hawai’ian dinner plate (rice, chicken teriyaki, macaroni salad, but no spam). The hall was filling up, and it was a nice crowd — older people, middle-aged people, young parents, kids. Haoles were definitely a minority. By the time Ms. M and Oz showed up, there were some two hundred people in the hall and we could not find seats together.

Carol entered us in the raffle, and before the music started Patrick Landeza raffled off several items. A young girl got a bag for wine bottles. Next to be raffled off was a little bag with a bright floral pattern, obviously perfect for a young girl. Landeza joked that it was a “man purse,” then started laughing when he pulled out the name: “It’s going to a man: Dan Harper!” I went up and claimed my little floral purse. And against all odds, Carol also won something in the raffle: a little Hawai’ian wreath for a Christmas tree ornament.

The music was perfect Christmas music — what could be better than traditional Hawai’ian songs at Christmas time? What could be better than hearing a master like Herb Ohta Jr. play “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on the ‘ukulele? What could be better than hearing “Silent Night” sung in Hawai’ian, and interpreted by a hula dancer? And to top it all off, I got my man purse signed by Patrick Landeza and Herb Ohta Jr.:

In memory: John King

I just learned that John King, arguably the only classical musician to perform at a virtuoso level on the ‘ukulele, died April 27. His sensibility and technique was that of a classical guitarist, but he also took advantage of some of the unique characteristics of the ‘ukulele: e.g., he played using the Baroque-era campanela style of guitar playing, which requires the re-entrant tuning of the ‘ukulele; he made the short sustain of the ‘ukulele’s individual notes help increase clarity of individual notes while allowing resonant response of open strings to come through; etc.

King may be best known for his adaptations of Bach to the ‘ukulele. But I have been most moved by his arrangements of classical Hawai’ian music. The shimmering, bell-like sounds of King’s playing match the melodies of composers like Miriam Likelike, William Pitt Leleihhoku, Lydia Lili’uokalani, and David Kalakaua. King’s performances sound small and intimate, like the instrument he played, yet they are also informed by King’s distinct musical sensibility. As a fitting way to remember King, here he is in a YouTube performance of Ka Ipo Lei Manu, a song composed by Julia Kapiolani:

Obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle. King’s Web site.

Meditation, ukulele-style

After a month or more of unseasonably warm weather, temperatures have dropped back below freezing. Ordinarily at this time of year, 29 degrees would feel mild, warm even; but on Friday it felt bitter cold. The strong westerly breeze, damp and raw, didn’t help matters.

I walked across the harbor bridges to Fairhaven, all bundled up; and, if truth be told, feeling a little sorry for myself. It had been a week filled with too many little things to do, I had lost sight of the big picture, lost in the trivia of church work. And now it was cold, and it was supposed to snow. I walked along with my head down, brooding.

As I got to the gas station on Fish Island, for no reason at all I started to sing ‘ukulele songs. I’ve never been to Hawai’i — the closest I’ve come is reading the old James Michener novel, which isn’t very close — so I really don’t know what Hawai’i is like, except that it must be warm and friendly:

I wanna go back to my little grass shack in Kealakekua, Hawai’i,
I wanna be with all the kanes and wahines
That I used to know, long ago….

A truck pulled up beside me into the gas station and a man got out. The noise from four lanes of traffic running right next to me meant I could sing at the top of my lungs and he could barely hear me:

I can hear the old guitars playing
On the beach at Honaunau
I can hear the old Hawai’ians saying:
Komo mai no kaua i ka hale welakahao….

(Years ago, my ‘ukulele teacher told me that last line doesn’t mean anything at all, it’s just there to confuse the haoles.) Further along, a man stood on top of an old semi-trailer amidst all the junk and old machinery on Fish Island; a bulldozer rolled up to him, raised its bucket up, he stepped in and was lowered down. I kept singing:

When you love, ‘ukulele style,
With every note your heart will float
Far away to a tropic isle,
Where a ‘ukulele tune is softly played….

I kept walking along past the parking lot for Pope’s Island marina. The bright February sun crisply lit up every little piece of trash and broken shell along the highway. Ordinarily the trash would bother me, but I just kept singing.

Hot jazz

Abe Lagrimas, ‘ukulele master plays with Akamai Brain Collective with Randy Wong on bass and Eric Lagrimas on guitar, and they serve up some hot jazz over on the Midnight ‘Ukulele Disco Web site. Check out their version of Spain. Abe does a nice solo version of Skylark. The band also does a tune called Tocada with more Spanish or flamenco influence. None of this sounds like stereotypical ‘ukulele music — but like the best of Hawai’ian jazz it combines diverse influences into a relaxed swinging whole.

Unfortunately, the cuts from his new solo album that are up on Abe’s Web site suffer from being overproduced. Let’s hope Abe does more of the kind of work you can hear on Midnight ‘Ukulele Disco.

(Thanks to blog Ukulelia for pointing the way.)

Vintage pre-1920 recordings online

The Special Collections department of the library at University of California at Santa Barbara has an ongoing project of digitizing pre-1920 wax cylinder recordings, and making the digital files available online. I found out about this project from the blog Ukulelia, who reported on some great early recordings of Hawaiian music. But you’ll find music from classical to popular song to early jazz as well.

My favorite recording so far? Well, there are some good recordings by the Ford Hawaiians, but I really like “Clarinet Squawk,” by the Louisiana Five, hot jazz from 1920.


Carol just let me know about this amazing cultural event that’s coming up. Yes, it’s Ukulele Noir, with an all-star cast of uke performers including Greg Hawkes (formerly of the Cars), Mark Occhinero (a jazz ukulelist), and none other than Sonic Uke. Well, OK, Sonic Uke are pretty bad but they’re hilarious.

Only problem is, the concert starts at 8:30 in Somerville. Greg Hawkes probably won’t come on till much later than that. And I’ve got to preach the next morning.

Good angel: “No, don’t go, you need to be fresh for preaching.”
Bad angel: “Haha, don’t listen to the good angel, go hear Greg Hawkes.”
Good angel: “But you’ll be exhausted.”
Bad angel: “One word: Ukuleles….”
Who will win — the good angel or the bad angel? Only time will tell.

Not midwestern

Living in the Pacific Rim city of Oakland, California, last year, we got immersed in an entirely different culture. For example, ukuleles are not exotic in the San Francisco Bay area — there are plenty of Pacific Islanders in the area, and lots of Asian Americans have picked up the instrument as well. There is a ukulele orchestra in Oakland. There was a fellow in the UU church I served out there who made his own ukuleles. Ukuleles are normal.

Here in the Midwest, the ukulele is mostly an oddity, a toy you give to kids. Which means Jake Shimabukuro is not exactly a household name around here. If he were white, or black, and played an electric guitar, we would have heard about him. But he’s Japanese American from Hawai’i, and he plays ukulele.

Midwestern culture is wonderful, but cross the boundary into Pacific Rim culture for a moment, and go check out Jake’s version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. He’s incredible.

Monkey’s brain

Today I had this daydream about being a monkey… What would that be like?

What’s so funny about bein’ a monkey?
Monkeys is a very funny things —
always wanna laugh when a monkey tells a joke,
and dance when a monkey sings…

What’s so great about bein’ a monkey?
Somethin’ I gotta explain —
always know which hand you’re gonna grab your banana,
when ya got a monkey’s brain.

Yup, the Hoppin Haole Band knows what’s it’s like to be a monkey. If you have broadband, just click on the link above for audio and video (and what’s up with that ukulele player when he starts going “Ooo! Ahh!”). Dial-up connections who don’t mind waiting for an mp3 to download can find audio only at www.hoppinhaole.com — just click the “Muisc” link, and then choose “Monkey’s Brains.”