The Anaheim Hilton’s California Ballroom conveyed a glitz that at first seemed removed from the art and craft of making world-class ukuleles. But on January 23, the Friday evening of the five-day NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show, sponsors of Kamaka Ukulele 100th Anniversary concert were seated at 12 white-draped round tables graced with birds-of-paradise centerpieces and bathed in candlelight as servers glided around with tray after tray of appetizers. Not a bad vantage point for enjoying a who’s who of ukulele perform on their Kamakas, hand-crafted by the esteemed Hawaiian luthiers who have been doing it since 1916.
And who among the rest of us, seated on our straight-backed chairs, would begrudge companies such as D’Addario Strings receiving the royal treatment for helping bring together ukulele masters Jake Shimabukuro, Benny Chong, Kalei Gamiao, Herb Ohta, Jr., Bryan Tolentino, Andrew Molina, Kris Fuchigami, Brittni Paiva, Aidan James, Halehaku Seabury, and Side Order Band (Asa Young, Bryan Tolentino, Del Beazley, and Chris Kamaka) for a three-hour, once in a lifetime concert?
The master of ceremonies, award-winning singer, songwriter, guitarist, and ukulele player Del Beazley put everyone at ease with his infectious humor, early on claiming to be old enough to have been around “when the pterodactyl was Hawaii’s state bird.” All the performers, young and old(er), said they felt honored to be asked to play for the event and credited their Kamaka instruments with enhancing and inspiring their music making. What made for an unusual concert experience was how they each demonstrated the different capacities of the ukulele. Molina and Fuchigami made ample use of the uke’s body for percussive, rhythmic effects. Paiva, dashing in her gray fedora with black hat band, performed Ellie Goulding’s “Lights” with flair. Gamiao brought out the instrument’s soulfulness with soft rippling chords, sweet pings, interesting modulations, and dynamic variety.
When Chong came on stage, Beazly quipped that the ukulele legend was the only performer older than the wood on his ukulele. After the 72-year-old finished his set, the MC pointed at him: “That’s ukulele royalty right there!” Chong put across jazz standards such as “The Nearness of You” with chord-based interpretations augmented by dazzling, picked ornamentations blurring up and down the fretboard. He brought the audience to its feet with shouts of “hana hou!” (encore!), the only participant to do so apart from Shimabukuro, who ended the concert.
The 39-year-old uke luminary’s comments were almost as moving as his intense tremolos, speed-crazed picking, and rollercoaster dynamics as he performed Peter Moon’s legendary “Kawika” (see video above). Shimabukuro said, “I would not be playing the way I do today if it weren’t for their (Kamaka’s) instruments,” and referred to the craftsman of all his customized ukuleles, Casey Kamaka, as “a genius.” He also called the Kamaka family “inspirational on so many levels,” mentioning their donations of instruments for schoolchildren, and placed the ukulele in its cultural context as an expression of Hawaiian culture – “part of how we grew up.” However, he ended the set with a nod to rock, playing the “electric ukulele” with improvs that conjured memories of Jerry Garcia. His entire body jumped repeatedly with the final cascade of chords. Need we report that the California Ballroom rocked with shouts of “hana hou?” Oh, what a Kamaka ukulele can do.
Kamaka has an entire year of events planned in honor of its centennial.