This new compilation from Neos Productions, a small label based in Oahu that specializes in contemporary Hawaiian music, features 14 tracks of modern and vintage Hawaiian songs played by some of the ukulele’s top players. Like any good collection, Na Mele Ukulele rounds up a few familiar names that promise listeners that you’re going to get a few good songs. With tracks from Herb Ohta Jr., Benny Chong, Kalei Gamiao, and Bryan Tolentino, you’re bound to hear music that will dazzle and inspire.
One highlight is Herb Ohta Jr.’s recording of the “Ke Kali Nei Au (The Hawaiian Wedding Song)” and the recording displays his signature fingerpicking tone, crisp and clear, played with enough patience to let the melody sway. Benny Chong sounds like the old jazzer that he is, filling “Blue Hawaii” with slippery double-stops that give the tune real harmonic sophistication and some ’50s swing. Kalei Gamiao, who can rip with the best hotshots, shows off a sweet side with a delicate and spacious performance of “Waialua Sky.”
But the other side of a good compilation, like Na Mele Ukulele, is that they are often a fantastic way to discover new artists—or at least artists that are new to you. Nestled among some of the familiar names in the ukulele world are several players who, if you do not already know about them, are likely to end up on your listening list. While Kawika Kahiapo might be best known for his slack-key guitar playing, “Lei No Ka’iulani” will leave you wanting to hear more uke from him. Shaun Reyes’ sprightly and bright playing on “O Kalena Kai” makes it one of the album’s more up-tempo tunes. The album closes with Honoka and Azita, a duo that play with a skill and ability to share that belies the musicians’ youth.
Ukulele music is one of the label’s specialties and I really appreciated the CD’s liner notes, which tell you what ukulele each artist was playing, in addition to the typical info about the track’s songwriter and the other performers.
Na Mele Ukulele is the perfect kind of compilation: one that turns you onto a bunch of talented players worthy of exploration and is filled with great music to inspire you. —Greg Olwell
A CLASSIC REVISITED
OK, so How About Uke? is not the first album with this name (see Lyle Ritz’s essential debut for the original). Nevertheless, this compilation, first released in 1974 by Lehua Records, is an important album of ukulele music and worth hunting down a copy. (You can find it streaming online, on CD, or if you’re lucky, in a bin in your favorite record store.)
The album’s 13 tracks pull together four of the most legendary players who ever picked up the ukulele: Eddie Bush, Jesse Kalima, Eddie Kamae, and Ohta-san. While the final two players on this list have extensive discographies that give us a chance to love and study their playing, Kalima and Bush were almost criminally under-recorded, so getting to hear them is a treat.
Before he became famous as the founder and leader of the Sons of Hawaii, the late Eddie Kamae gained some fame as a fleet-fingered virtuoso of the “jumping flea.” Kamae, who gets five of the album’s tracks, plays through the chord progressions using tremolo strumming, one of his signature techniques on classics like “Akaka Falls” and “Aloha Oe.”
Accompanied by lush arrangements and pedal steel guitar, Ohta-san works his magic on “Pua Maeole” and “Kawohikukapulani,” taking it slow and sweet and showing why he was such a huge influence.
But, it’s getting to hear Bush and Kalima that really makes this album worthwhile. By using his uke with non-Hawaiian rhythms and sounds of exotica, even when playing traditional Hawaiian songs,
Kalima’s strong feel shows why he one of the instrument’s early virtuosos. But for me, it’s Bush’s two pieces that stand as the album’s high points. For all of the blazing technique on the other tracks, it’s Bush’s reverb-drenched 16th note strumming on “Adventures in Paradise” and “Blue Hawaii” that transport me to another place and time. —Greg Olwell
How to Start and Grow an Ukulele Group
Given how many people ask for advice on starting (and maintaining) a ukulele group, this books seems to be coming at a good time. As the founder of Oregon’s Tigard Ukulele Group, Joshua Waldman knows about the challenges of launching and building a local community of ukulele players. In this book, he offers advice for “an easy play for spreading aloha in your town.” Perhaps Waldman’s book’s greatest value is its thoroughness and depth of resources. While this book might not be essential, it could be very helpful for anyone running a group or considering starting one. Available in paperback and as a digital download, $9.99, tigardukes.com
Baritone Ukulele Fretboard Roadmaps
Fred Sokolow (Hal Leonard)
Sokolow, a popular instructor and lesson author, adds to his large body of work with the baritone ukulele edition of his popular Fretboard Roadmaps series. This series helps you expand your ability to make music on your baritone by having you work through real musical examples that will have you exploring every inch of your instrument’s fretboard, creating your own arrangements, improvising, or just getting up past the fifth fret. Like other recent titles from this publisher, Sokolow’s book features an access code to hear 60 audio tracks of the examples on a website or for download. (Note: Sokolow is a frequent contributor to this magazine.) Hal Leonard, 80 pages, $14.99.