“Right now, 99 percent of the world thinks of the ukulele as a novelty instrument. I want to change that,” declares Byron Yasui. “With Mika, I started doing that. With the Concerto, I started doing that.”
In 2018, Yasui’s student Mika Kane played the first classical ukulele recital to take place at the University of Hawaii. In 2015, Jake Shimabukuro and the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra performed the premiere of Yasui’s Concerto for Ukulele and Orchestra, Campanella. In Yasui’s view, the ukulele merits “music to be taken seriously… It doesn’t have to be classical. It can be jazz. Benny Chong is a serious artist; world-class,” says this multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, songwriter, teacher, scholar, and author (Did we miss anything?).
Well into his fourth decade of musical travels, Yasui sometimes veers away from the ukulele, but always spirals back to give fresh performances, create new music, or offer instruction and support to dedicated ukulele players.
He had no plans for a musical career when he was growing up. He loved playing his ‘uku (Yasui uses the Hawaiian abbreviation, pronounced “ookoo”) but didn’t consider it a serious instrument. “To me, ukulele playing was for fun, to play at parties and with friends,” says Yasui. “I didn’t even want to be in any group playing for money.”
Not long after, he was playing music for money. An early gig on uke was at the Halekulani Hotel in Waikiki. On the elegant patio, he and his friend Jimmy Kaina, who played autoharp, performed while strolling from table to table. By this time, however, Yasui already was playing upright bass, as well.
He became a bassist after hooking up with The Internationals: “like a garage band,” Yasui recalls, “spending time just rehearsing, hoping for a paying gig someday.” They needed someone to play bass. Yasui offered to learn. “The pianist, Amos, happened to know the basics,” says Yasui, “and showed me how to hold the bass and pluck the strings.” Later, Yasui would listen to him play a bass line and try to replicate it. “To everyone’s amazement, I was able to do it on my first try. I just had a sense of where the notes were on the instrument, probably from my years of playing by ear on the ukulele.”
Learning and subsequently bonding with the bass changed Yasui’s sense of identity as a musician. After one short-lived gig with the Internationals “at a sleazy dive on Kauai,” he became a freelance bassist. “I got to play all kinds of gigs—Hawaiian music, jazz, dance music…”
In 1963, the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra hired him to play bass part-time. Even though he left Honolulu for several years, after he returned, the HSO frequently called him to fill in—and not just on bass. If they needed someone to play mandolin or perhaps shamisen, Yasui was, as he puts it, “the utility string player.” He was present when orchestra members panicked over a mezzo-soprano’s choice of encore, “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin.’” The Gershwin song requires a banjo and nobody in the HSO played one. “So, everybody looked at me,” Yasui recalls. “I didn’t have a banjo, but one of the cellists did, so I took it home, practiced it, looked at the music, and played the job.”
He continued playing his ‘uku. Even decades later, he retained his ukulele chops and received invitations to perform. In 1998, he replaced an ailing Herb Ohta Sr. for a series of Ukulele Hall of Fame concerts. Two years later, a grant-funded project recruited him for a concert series titled The Art of Solo Ukulele. In addition to performing and serving as emcee, he was to find three other outstanding players. Getting commitments from the gifted Gordon Mark, a young virtuoso named Jake Shimabukuro, and jazz innovator Lyle Ritz was straightforward. Then Ritz backed out. He wanted Benny Chong to replace him.
Yasui remembered Chong as a jazz guitarist. In the 1960s, both had worked at Duke Kahanamoku’s club, a multi-stage venue in Waikiki, where Yasui played jazz bass with the Ernie Washington Trio and Chong was part of singed Don Ho’s backup group, the with the Aliis. Some 40 years later, Yasui’s invitation to play in the ukulele concerts astounded Chong. He insisted on auditioning for Yasui, who recalls listening in disbelief to the musician’s rendition of “My Romance.” Afterwards, “I picked my jaw off the floor,” says Yasui.
The Art of Solo Ukulele earned multiple kudos. Hawaii Public Television aired additional performances and the four soloists took the series to Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island. The concerts also marked the beginning of Yasui’s enduring friendship and musical collaboration with Benny Chong.
“Here’s how we started playing together,” says Chong. “He calls me up all excited about this gig he got for us as a bass-and-ukulele duo. It was at the [Waikiki] bandstand. So I say, ‘Okay, let’s run over a few things,’ and he says, ‘No, no, no, no, you’re a good musician. I know I can back you up. Let’s just play.’”
After nearly 20 years, they continue to “just play.” Countless feelings flow from their jazz dialogs—bliss, surprise, urgency, playfulness. When they improvise, shimmering chordal cascades coming from Chong’s baritone alternate with intricate melodic sequences travelling like quicksilver up and down the fretboard of Yasui’s bass.
At the NAMM music trade show in Southern California, both have played ukulele in the Kamaka booth. Several times during the annual event, they also have performed at the restaurant/music venue Happa in a showcase of fellow Kamaka ukulele players, including Bryan Tolentino. In January, 2019, they appeared as a ukulele-bass duo.
It’s time for the highly-anticipated last set, their set: Like a pair of seasoned dancers, they conjure musical moods as they play “The Nearness of You,” “Wahini Ilikea,” two by Antonio Carlos Jobim, and several other pieces. The improvisations prompt hoots and claps of praise. Too soon, it seems, Chong tells the audience this will be their final number. Pausing, he looks at Yasui questioningly.
“Let’s play ‘My Funny Valentine,’” says Yasui quietly.
Shaking his head, Chong replies, “’Take the A Train.’”
Yasui screws up his face. “I hate that piece,” he mutters.
“A Train” it is. They take off at full throttle for a wild ride.
As a ukulele duo, Yasui and Chong create equally potent magic. The 2010 documentary Mighty Uke shows them playing while relaxing on chaise lounges under a shady tree. As they whip out a red-hot rendition of “Sophisticated Hula,” the camera captures furrowed brows, subtle smiles, expectant glances, and the occasional chuckle. They end with a flourish of synchronized chords followed by hearty laughter. Twice the pair has played with the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra, performing individually and as a ukulele duo.
To explain their musical chemistry, they say that, first of all, they’re friends. Also very important is their shared musical background. Growing up, both had a passion to play the ukulele. “I had it on the table beside the bed and I’d play until I felt sleepy,” says Yasui. “When I woke up, the first thing I did was play.”
Yasui and Chong learned by ear, copying songs from the radio. Yasui remembers figuring out chords for “Mule Train” and other songs he heard on J. Akuhead Pupule’s morning program on KGMB, an AM station in Honolulu. They created accompaniments to Hawaiian songs. Listening to Jesse Kalima’s high-speed rendition of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” gave them goosebumps. Both stayed in sync with popular music. Yasui constantly listened to the 78s his father lugged home so frequently of artists such as Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, and the Andrews Sisters. Later, he and Chong plugged into the sounds of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and other jazz trailblazers. But Lyle Ritz’s album How About Uke? was a revelation to them because it introduced the jazz capabilities of the ukulele. This was the musical background they shared—separately. According to Chong, the major difference between them is that “[Yasui] went to college and got a PhD and I didn’t.”
The eminent Dr. Yasui’s academic career began with a false start. “I was the first one in my family to go to college. I majored in business, not knowing anything about business and not interested in it. When I flunked accounting, I transferred to the music department.”
When the department would not approve the ukulele as an instrument major, Yasui chose baritone horn, which he had played in high school, adding double-bass as an extra instrument. Some classes demanded special effort because he’d had little exposure to classical music. On the other hand, he reaped benefits from playing ukulele with the radio. “All the theory and aural training was easy for me because I had learned by ear whereas other students were struggling.”
Theory and composition courses so enthralled him that he went to study them in graduate school at Northwestern University, outside of Chicago. But Yasui-the-scholar always co-existed with Yasui-the-musician. He taught himself classical guitar with such zeal that by the time he completed his PhD, his playing was beyond proficient; way beyond. “A large part of my musical identity is as a classical guitarist,” he says. “My repertoire in this area consists mostly of standard classical guitar pieces plus some original compositions, transcriptions, and arrangements.”
Decades later, when he was performing regularly in a classical guitar duo, Yasui began adapting classical right-hand technique to the ukulele.
In 1972, he joined the music faculty at University of Hawaii at Manoa. Primarily teaching theory and composition, he also took on classes in jazz improvisation and classical guitar. He coached the double-bass ensemble as well.
THE UKULELE SUMMIT
Yasui and Chong continued performing and getting together to chat and play ukulele. “For about four years, Benny and I used to meet every Thursday at Kirin Restaurant, which is close to the University,” recalls Yasui. “We would stay there from about 11:30 a.m. until three o’clock in the afternoon, just talking and playing ukulele. Along the way people heard about it and started dropping in.”
“First just a couple,” adds Chong, “then maybe four, until we had five, six, and more.” Bryan Tolentino, Halehaku Seabury, Herb Ohta Jr., and Jake Shimabukuro were among the drop-ins. “Whenever John King would come to town, I’d go to pick him up and bring him over,” says Yasui. “We’d all be sitting around and eventually start playing. We had a kind of ukulele summit.”
Tolentino recalls Yasui’s keen musical ear. “I’d be playing a song with Benny while Byron would be having a conversation with Hale or Jake. Then Byron would stop the conversation he was having and turn to me and say, ‘Bryan, that’s the wrong chord.’”
When Kirin Restaurant closed, the ukulele summit stopped convening. Yasui says he and Benny wish they could have recorded conversations during those long, music-filled afternoons.
Yasui’s UH appointment had a requirement tailored to his background—composing. This was an impetus to harness ideas from his musical imagination. His background in composition analysis provided a strong foundation, allowing him to learn from masters such as Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Bartók, and Mahler. “They all contributed to who I am as a composer,” he says.
By now, Yasui’s works have been performed all over the world. In January 2019, the National Public Radio program Exploring Music featured several of his compositions in a series titled Pacific Overtures.
In 2015, the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra commissioned Yasui to compose a concerto for the ukulele. HSO engaged Jake Shimabukuro to play the premiere. Aware of the virtuoso’s technical and expressive gifts, the composer still wondered if he would have difficulty with the notation. “My music was at the highest level in terms of rhythm, melody, harmonies—totally foreign to him,” says Yasui. “But then I thought, ‘I’ll just pull out all the stops, write what I want to write, and he’ll rise to the occasion.’ And he was more than willing. He’s so dedicated and disciplined.”
Preparing for the premiere, they focused on tricky elements such as the new work’s syncopated rhythms. “He’s used to a steady tempo, and this was totally different. One time I worked with him eight or nine hours straight—but by golly, he pulled it off.”
The first movement includes a “rocking section” to be played in the style of an electric guitar on which the highly amplified ukulele plays. Yasui tailored it to Shimabukuro’s gifts. The section, titled “Tritone,” is on Shimabukuro’s 2016 album Nashville Sessions.
All three movements feature the sound of strings ringing and overlapping one another. The effect is produced by a plucking technique called campanella (little bell). Yasui first heard it in a 16th century piece for vihuela (a Spanish precursor to the guitar) titled Fantasia X. “I loved the sound and ever since then it’s been my default sound when I play guitar or ukulele. That’s the technique that dominates the Concerto.”
The Concerto is a major contribution to music for the ukulele. Yasui’s beautifully-crafted arrangements are another. The 18 pieces on his 2006 album Anahola come from diverse sources. “Some are pieces I played when I was a kid, like ‘Stars and Stripes,’” he says. Three give a nod to ’50s-era arranger Harry “Mungo” Kalihiki who ada pted diverse genres, from Hawaiian classics to Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” He based other arrangements on folk melodies and songs from musicals. The Scherzo from Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, one of three classical works he arranged, turned out “pretty faithful to the original,” he says. Recording it was hard: “That was tough because it’s multi-layered. I’m playing all of the string parts on various ukuleles and on the bass, since I’m also a bass player. There are about seven tracks.”
Because Yasui originally intended the CD as a memento for his family, he didn’t seek out marketing or distribution. Later, it received a bit of promotion from interested parties. But Anahola is a dazzling showcase of ukulele arrangements that merits major distribution. Sometimes new or used copies are available on Amazon. The Kamaka store in Honolulu sells it; so does Yasui. “Email me with your mailing address,” he writes, “and send me a check for $20 (includes shipping & handling).”
The title Anahola comes from his lyrical song about the village on Kauai he often visits. A track on Kamaka’s 2016 centenary album features him playing the instrumental version of “Anahola.”
Alongside the musician, composer, and arranger is Yasui’s identity as a teacher. Although he always has enjoyed working with music classes, he derives a different kind of fulfillment from sharing his knowledge and experience informally on a one-on-one basis. For example, when Bryan Tolentino told Yasui he planned to go back to school to acquire a background in music theory, Yasui said he didn’t need a degree unless he planned to teach, and then offered to help. Tolentino remembers Yasui saying, “You know, Bryan, a large number of my students will never have what you have, but music theory—don’t worry. We will go at your own pace, and you won’t get graded.”
“That stands out for me because it really boosted my confidence,” says Tolentino, adding that Yasui’s instruction was “totally understandable to a ukulele player.”
Yasui also has worked on music theory with Benny Chong. “He’s an unbelievable teacher,” says Chong. “If I have trouble with [a concept], he’ll turn it around and turn it around until I get it. And when I do get it—I’d be driving home from playing with Don Ho at 11 o’clock at night, and when I got home, I’d call him and say, ‘I got it! I got it!’ And we’d talk till two in the morning.”
On several occasions, Yasui has also reviewed course material with Raiatea Helm, who is completing a music degree at UH. In an e-mail, the acclaimed vocalist shares her experience: “Dr. Yasui has taught me the importance of detail. He makes aural training and theory while incorporating his style of solfege so much more fun. His aloha spirit is quite contagious. Every musician that has graduated from the university here has beautiful words to say about Dr. Yasui. As for me, I call him Uncle Byron.”
He gives private lessons to dedicated players, who often come from other countries to tap his expertise. “Then there’s my pride and joy—Mika,” says Yasui. “I’m really tickled how he has developed.”
Mika’ele Kane came to UH a passionate ukulele player. Like Yasui, he had to major in a different instrument. Soon after starting Yasui’s ukulele class, the Maui-born 23-year-old became determined to study intensively with him and learn “whatever [Dr. Yasui] wanted to pass down to me that he thought would help me as a musician.”
To prove himself, Kane played an arrangement his teacher had challenged him to learn. After hearing it performed in front of the ukulele class, Yasui told the young musician, “Congratulations! No one has ever been able to play that for me.”
The Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts awarded them a grant to cover 80 hours of instruction over two years, ending in June 2019. Throughout their time together, Yasui responded to his student’s learning priorities and encouraged questions. He critiqued Kane’s playing, shared technical strategies, and showed him how to play using classical guitar right-hand technique. They delved into musical concepts. Kane remembers Yasui asking, “How can you take the four strings and orchestrate the ukulele?”
For Kane’s recital, they prepared pieces such as John King’s arrangements of two Bach Preludes. Yasui pushed him to play them perfectly and incorporate relevant techniques and musical insights. Mastering Yasui’s arrangement of the Chinese folk song “Jasmine Flower” was a struggle for Kane, who had to move his right hand over the sound hole, near the bridge, over the fretboard to get the sounds needed by the arrangement. “By doing this, you get different colors, different tones—when you play close to the fingerboard, you get a nice warm, subtle sound.” On November 30, 2018, Mika Kane played the first classical ukulele recital at UH.
Yasui has devoted much of his musical journey to changing the ukulele’s image from a novelty instrument to a serious one. The work needs to continue on many fronts. He is certain that college music departments will not approve the ukulele as an instrument major until it has a long history of notated music, a body of literature. “That’s why I try to teach ukulele players how to read music.”
And that’s why 78-year-old Byron Yasui wrote The ‘Ukulele Music Reader, which does just that in a series of progressive single-string picking exercises.
Yasui’s various musical identities have a full agenda these days. With his friend Benny Chong, he performs on jazz bass and does the occasional ukulele duo gig. From time to time, he plays classical guitar concerts in the duo he formed decades ago with virtuoso Carlos Barbosa-Lima. At home, this ukulele player is never far from his trusty tenor or tenor-baritone hybrid, a recent gift from Casey Kamaka. “If I get to play the ‘uku around the house, I keep both of them out of the case on stands so I can readily pick either of them up and have at it.”
Currently, the composer identity is focused on Kilauea: a new work evoking the mighty volcano is in the planning stages. Already he has completed the on-site research. Thanks to the National Parks Arts Foundation, he spent a month living in a cottage, “just steps away from the rim of the caldera.” As for instrumentation, Yasui muses, “There are so many directions in which I could go–ukulele or guitar solo, woodwind quintet, band piece…
At least a ukulele is in the running.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Ukulele.