various artists,
A Father & Son Reunion:
The Braguinha Meets the Ukulele

(self-produced, 1998)

This lovely little CD, which sounds like it was made in somebody's living room, is not only a fun listen, it's also a fascinating sidebar to music history. It was recorded in 1998, when four American and four Portuguese musicians got together on the Portuguese island of Madeira (actually several hundred miles west of Casablanca, Morocco). After a little practice, they performed two concerts together, one at Expo '98 in Lisbon (the last World's Fair of the last millenium, in case you were wondering) and the other, which provides the music for this disc, at Radio do Portugal in Funchal, Madeira.

Remarkably, the result is the first known recording of the ukulele in performance with its Portuguese predecessors, the braguinha and rajao. With the Americans and Portuguese taking turns to lead the concert, the CD flips back and forth between American ukulele standards like "Aloha Oe," "Ain't She Sweet" and "Stars & Stripes Forever" (written by Portuguese composer John Philip Sousa) and traditional Madeiran songs like "Balinho," "Na Noite do Pao" and "Mourisca."

So why is it so interesting that the ukulele and braguinha be heard together? Well, perhaps it isn't to everyone. But the main attraction, for lovers of these instruments at any rate, is that all three are very closely related. And thereby hangs a tale.

The development of the ukulele in Hawaii can be traced to 1879, when a shipload of Madeiran emigrants arrived in Honolulu after a wicked hard sea voyage of several months. One of the travelers celebrated the long-anticipated landfall by leaping down onto the dock and excitedly playing a tune on his little 4-string guitar, a braguinha.

Hawaiian onlookers immediately took to the diminuitive instrument, adapting it and the slightly larger, 5-stringed rajao to their own purposes. According to one of the organizers and performers, Dan Scanlan, they took the tuning from the top four strings of the rajao and put them on a braguinha-sized body, and so the ukulele was born. It is pronounced oo-koo-lay-lay in Hawaiian, and means "jumping flea," to describe the way the player's fingers jump about the fretboard. Although all three instruments may have originally been strung with gut strings, ukuleles now have nylon strings, while braguinhas and rajaos use steel strings, giving them a sharper, louder tone, easily distinguishable on this recording.

So back to the music. "Aloha Oe" is among the best known and most recorded of Hawaiian songs, but perhaps you didn't know that it was written in the 1800s by Queen Lili'uokalani, a bona-fide member of the Hawaiian royalty. This version is instrumental, with the grand complement of ukes, braguinhas and rajao and lots of tremelo effect. Sweet.

My favourite here because it has a surprisingly delightful groove, is "Ain't She Sweet," an old standard from the Jazz Age of the 1920s -- the height of ukulele popularity -- and is much associated with this instrument. "Stars & Stripes" is also a uke showpiece of long standing, perhaps due to the huge U.S. military presence in the Hawaiian Isles. It's a tune virtuosos often choose to show off their strumming and picking chops, and this version is no exception, although unfortunately the limited liner notes don't identify the soloist. They do note, however, that it is Alfredo Canopin who plays the solo version of "On the Beach at Waikiki," and it's worth noting, as he does a bang-up job on this hapa-haole song (literally "half-white" a phrase used to refer to songs with Hawaiian themes but generally written by non-Hawaiian tin-pan-alley tunesmiths).

Another less-impressive hapa-haole tune, "There's No Place Like Hawaii," a traditional blues number, "Everybody's Fishin'" and Scanlan's own composition, "Raga Rag," round out the American contribution. Only "Ain't She Sweet" and "Everybody's Fishin'" feature vocals, and perhaps that was a wise decision since, although the singing is fun, it's not the strongest aspect of the CD. A nice touch on the blues piece is the call-and-response chorus in Portuguese.

I can't say much about the Portuguese numbers as they are unfamiliar to me, other than that they seem to be fairly straightforward folk tunes with country-dance rhythms and with pretty, lilting, often wistful, tunes that I liked very much. But the Portuguese singer, identified as Mario Andre, brings a stronger voice and more emotional (if no more polished) delivery to the material than does his American counterpart, Scanlan. The enthusiastic audience participation in the form of rhythmic clapping and shouting is a welcome addition, too. These are clearly well-known and well-loved songs in Madeira, although to my ear they suffer from a certain sameness. Mixing them up with the American pieces was a good idea.

And finally, there is a bonus track, not listed in the liner notes. It's another Scanlan original, written during the trip to Madeira and titled "O Luto da Filho (The Cry of the Son)," and recorded by him back home in California. Again, the singing is not the strong point, but it's a lovely tribute to an experience and to people who moved Scanlan deeply. It mixes Portuguese and English lyrics, and they are worth quoting here, from Scanlan's own explanatory e-mail: "high upon a Funchal hill, near the avenue of the Crosses, the Atlantic's waves (undulacions Atlantico) murmer through the noisy streets. In the little workshop of Carlos Jorge, the ancient braguinha on the wall hears the cry from long, long ago: The cry of the son (o luto da filho), floating on the distant seas; the cry of the son, sharing future histories; the cry of the son, the cry is the ukulele."

This album captures my fancy, not for any particular virtuoso performance -- although there is some quite nice playing and singing, both. Nor is the music original, or the recording particularly crisp and clean. But this is a CD with that elusive quality, soul. It is the music of eight men playing (and two singing) for the love of it, not for money or career aspirations. It is like nothing I have ever heard before; a bit of history. And like just about everything uke-related, it is delightfully unpretentious.

- Rambles
written by John Bird
published 4 December 2004

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