Ken Emerson,
Hawaiian Tangos, Hulas & Blues
(Cord/Hana Ola, 2004)

Your knowledge of Hawaiian music might be like mine, pretty much limited to Don Ho's "Tiny Bubbles" and "Aloha Oe." If so, this CD will be a revelation, as well as a fine introduction. Ken Emerson covers many styles here with various guitars and ukuleles.

On many tracks he overdubs himself with guitars and ukes to emulate Hawaiian string bands. For example, on "Hilo Hanakahi" he plays a 1928 National Style 1 tri-cone steel guitar, a 1930 Martin style ukulele, a 2001 Amistar style 4 tri-cone steel guitar and a 1999 Superior steel guitar.

I do not mean to imply that Emerson takes an academic approach to his music. He appreciates tradition, using many local chanters and traditional vocalists, including Darlene Ahuna.

As it should be, however, the music has an easygoing vibe. It is intricate but mellow. All the songs have only string instruments and vocals, some of the latter by Emerson himself. Most of the tracks include a string bass player, and a few include guest players on fiddle and mandolin. "Ulupalakua" features Todd Rundgren on backing harmony vocals.

The 16 cuts, some written by Emerson, go beyond traditional Hawaiian folk to include "Sitting on Top of the World" done in a country-blues style, ska/reggae ("Natural Fact"), tango ("Tropico Pacifico"), jazz/blues ("Kalihi Blues") and even "The Third Man Theme."

If you think that more information on the CD sleeve increases both your understanding and enjoyment of the music (I certainly do), you will find it here. Besides listing and describing the instruments, he includes a biography, and short histories of both the Hawaiian steel guitar and the Hawaiian slack key (alternate tuning) style of playing.

One song, "Moonshadows on Coconut Grove," celebrates the hotel where Elvis sang "The Hawaiian Wedding Song" in the film Blue Hawaii. Songs like that killed many people's desire to hear more of the islands' music. Now with Ken Emerson and his friends, it is time to return.

- Rambles
written by Dave Howell
published 2 April 2005