by Derek Ferrar
photo by Dana Edmunds
Think "ukulele," and the images that are likely to spring to mind are of Hawaiian singers strumming along to their soaring vocals; or maybe 1920s-era Yalies cheering on the Bulldogs in fur coats and boater hats, ukes in hand; or even the plinky novelty tunes of comic artists like Arthur Godfrey and Tiny Tim. But ever since the instrument arrived in Hawaii as the Portuguese braghuina in 1879, the ukulele has also been played by serious virtuosos. Now, the skill of the ‘ukulele master is showcased in a new CD, The Art of Solo Ukulele, put out by the Honolulu Academy of Arts’ "Na Mele Hawaii" music series and featuring the unaccompanied work of four of the Islands’ most accomplished players.
Benny Chong, best known as a guitarist with Don Ho and the Aliis, brings a sensitive touch to his jazz interpretations of standards like "I’ll Take Romance." Gordon Mark, a retired University of Hawaii administrator, lends a rich, distinctive tone to his own transcriptions of classical pieces like Tchaikovsky’s "Love Theme From Romeo & Juliet." Byron Yasui, a well-known bassist and longtime UH music professor, weaves together original renditions of hapa-haole classics like Blue Hawaii and Sophisticated Hula. And young prodigy Jake Shimabukurobest known for his lightning licks as front man for Island pop groups Pure Heart and Colónbrings his extraordinary energy to bear in showcase tunes like Crazy G.
The most intriguing thing about The Art of Solo Ukulele is that the players’ styles and repertoire challenge accepted stereotypes of what the ukulele is capable of. As project producer J.W. Junker points out in his liner notes to the CD, the recording proves that "Hawaii’s ‘jumping flea’ can leap to heights of artistry equal to any instrument."