BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE FALL 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
When Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz died at the age of 92 on May 5, 2023, the roots music world lost one of its most passionate and important champions. Strachwitz is best-known for the hundreds of no-frills recordings he made beginning in 1960 with blues artists such as Mance Lipscomb, Big Joe Williams, Lowell Fulson, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Booker “Bukka” White, Big Mama Thornton, and Charlie Musselwhite; Cajun and zydeco artists like Clifton Chenier, Marc Savoy, and Michael Doucet & BeauSoleil; Norteño and Tejano artists including Lydia Mendoza, Flaco Jiménez, and Los Pingüinos del Norte; as well numerous folk, country, gospel, klezmer, and other styles. At the same time, Arhoolie and FolkLyric Records (which Strachwitz acquired from pioneering Louisiana recordist Dr. Harry Oster in 1970) released a steady stream of historical compilations of old 78s dating back to the 1920s and reissues of out-of-print albums of all the styles mentioned above, plus Greek, Calypso, old-time fiddle music, field hollers, and… vintage Hawaiian music!
FolkLyric put out three significant Hawaiian collections culled from 78s: the multi-artist anthology Hawaiian Steel Guitar 1920s–1950s (1976); a disc from the greatest Hawaiian vocal group of the ’20s and ’30s, Kalama’s Quartette: Early Hawaiian Classics (1978; later released with additional tracks); and the epic 1993 CD Hawaiian Steel Guitar Classics, which contained nearly all of the tracks from the ’76 LP anthology plus a dozen more. And while the instrumental focus on all these albums was acoustic steel guitar—played by such notable virtuosos as Roy Smeck, Sol K. Bright, Bennie Nawahi, Jim & Bob, Sam Ku West, and Kalama’s Mike Hanapi—many of the tunes include ukulele (mostly sopranos) for strummed support. William Kalama led his Quartet with an ukulele, but unearthing the names of other uke players on the anthologies is a daunting challenge—group credits for obscure recording sessions in that era are extremely hard to come by. For instance, we know that it is Jerry Kelly who played banjo uke alongside his steel guitarist brother Ramon in Master’s Hawaiians; that George Kainapau wielded the ukulele in Sol Hoopii’s Novelty Trio; and that Rose Kaohu, wife of Tau Moe, played ukulele in Madame Riviere’s Hawaiians. In fact, we can see from old photos that female ukulele players were common in large Hawaiian music troupes in the 1910s and ’20s, sometimes doubling as hula dancers, but their names are mostly unknown.
Strachwitz came to love Hawaiian music thanks to the influence of a circle of record collectors he was part of in the San Francisco Bay Area, including members of R. Crumb’s Cheap Suit Serenaders acoustic band, who made three albums of vintage songs in the ’70s for Blue Goose Records—two included old Hawaiian tunes, with Allan Dodge playing uke on one record, Bob Brozman the other. Strachwitz tapped Brozman (1954–2013) to compile the tracks and write the liner notes for the Kalama and Hawaiian Steel Guitar Classics CD collections.
“I believe Chris was somewhat influenced by [the Serenaders’] general enthusiasm for Hawaiian recordings from the late 1920s, since we all as a group collected, researched, and even performed music from that period,” recalls original CSS member Robert Armstrong (who has played with Crumb and Allan Dodge as recently as June 2023). “When Chris issued his Hawaiian Steel Guitar Classics LP, it was the beginning of an appreciation for this overlooked music that came out around the same time as a collection by Rounder Records and one I worked on for Yazoo.
“As for the Kalama’s Quartet compilation, Chris pooled the best copies of these original recordings from Brozman’s collection and others from the Cheap Suit archives. [CSS member] Terry Zwigoff was the first to find the classic photo of Kalama’s group in an old OKeh record supplement publication, which was then used for the cover photo for the LP.” U
To learn more about Strachwitz and his remarkable life story, go to arhoolie.org.