From the Winter 2016 issue of Ukulele | BY STEVEN ESPANIOLA
The year was 2004 and I was performing at the inaugural Uke Fest West in Santa Cruz, California. The event was the brainchild of ukulele enthusiast Andy Andrews and he had assembled an amazing collection of some of the best ukulele teachers and artists available at the time, including mainstays James Hill, Lyle Ritz, Jim Beloff, and the late, great Bill Tapia. However, there was one artist that day that many players would call a “musician’s musician:” Bryan Tolentino.
Tolentino, who recently retired from a three-decade career at the Post Office, began playing ukulele when he was ten. “We had a Duke Kahanamoku ukulele at home and my mom and dad played some,” says the 55-year-old Tolentino. “We also started learning ukulele in the fourth grade at Alvah A. Scott elementary in Aiea [part of Honolulu].”
He counts Ohta-San as an early influence and listened to “a lot of Eddie Kamae and the Sons of Hawaii, Peter Moon with Sunday Manoa, and Lyle Ritz’s LPs.” But he also stays on top of what is happening today, because, he says, “To me, the learning never stops. Among ukulele players, I really like Byron Yasui, Benny Chong, Jake, and Herb [Ohta] Jr., while with guitar, I listen to Hale Seabury, Hiram Olsen, and Kuki Among.”
With more than 40 recording credits, including 14 Na Hoku Hanohano winners and two Grammy nominations, Tolentino is the ukulele player Hawaii’s top artists and producers call when they want that indescribable, certain something on their track. He calls it “fairy dusting,” and over the years he has sprinkled it on recordings from Raiatea Helm, Weldon Kekauoha, Hoku Zuttermeister, Ku’uipo Kumukahi, and Kuana Torres Kahele.
Let’s find out more about what makes this ukulele powerhouse tick.
How did you start being the go-to ukulele player for many of today’s top Hawaiian artists?
The first thing you need to do is to check your ego at the door. It’s not about me—it’s about the artist I’m supporting. Focus is at its highest level [in the studio] and I thrive in these situations, so it helps to be responsible, professional, and easy to work with. You also need to be able to play in time, with feel, to a click track, and be able to play in any key with no capo—a pet peeve of mine—four strings equals four fingers.
How do you approach your session work with the artists you play with? Is there much prep time
It depends. Most of time that I show up to a session with producer/engineer Dave Tucciarone, he will say something like, “Just Bryan-ize it!” I call it “fairy dusting.” To me, less is more! If the session is recording a more detailed or intricate piece, I may get an MP3 with charts.
Your solos are so beautifully tasteful and perfect for the songs they accompany. How much of what you play is improvised?
Most of it! I play to how I feel at that moment and the answer is usually less is more.
What inspires you as a musician?
To continue to learn and to get better in all aspects—I’m all about the subtleties in being a performing, recording, and teaching musician.
Practice has personally never been a strong suit of mine. How often do you practice?
Now that I’m retired from the US Postal Service after 30-plus years, I have more time and I have been practicing more. Before that, a lot of my practice was at gigs, just shooting from the hip and creating on the spot, but making mental notes as to what worked and what didn’t.
Life interrupts. I had work, family, travel, gigs, and recording on my friends’ CDs. The timing was right for Herb Jr. and me to record.
Technology plays a big role in your teaching. Talk about how long-distance video lessons have added to your student base.
Skype lessons allow me to broaden my reach and connect with aspiring ukulele players all over the world.
What kinds of lessons do you learn from your own students?
That everyone learns differently. We all speak different musical languages, but we can all reach the same outcome. Music does not discriminate, it showcases diversity at its finest.
You’ve had a long relationship with Kamaka ukulele.
I’ve known Chris Kamaka for years—he was in my bridal party. Our friend Asa Young introduced me to him some 40 years ago at an annual Christmas Eve party at Asa’s house, called Halawa Jam. Casey Kamaka was also a schoolmate at St. Louis High School, so we are ohana.
Tolentino plays a custom Kamaka tenor, named Blue Spruce. It has koa back and sides, spruce top, mother of pearl inlay, an ebony fingerboard. “I use a low G, set-up with low action so I don’t have to play hard, and Savarez classical guitar strings.” It has an active L.R. Baggs Hex Quad pickup with a volume toggle in the sound hole. “The Hex has an individual pickup for each string, which gives me an amplified sound that is more balanced and not so percussive.” He pairs it with an L.R. Baggs Venue DI and also uses a Boss DD-3 Digital Delay, and connects everything with Analysis Plus Silver cables and runs direct.
To be prepared for gear troubles at the gig, Tolentino also carries: an extra cable and 9-volt battery, Shure Beta 58 mic, a Pedaltrain Nano pedalboard with a Volto rechargeable battery, Ricola, and Tic Tacs.