Bill Tapia,
Tropical Swing
(Moon Room, 2004)

How can you not love Bill "Tappy" Tapia? Here is a ukulele-playing jazzmaster who began his career at age 10 performing "Stars & Stripes Forever" for World War I sailors in his native Hawaii. And it has only taken him 86 years to come out with Tropical Swing, his first solo album. The thing is, he doesn't sound like a 96-year-old at all. In fact, if I didn't know better, I'd have sworn he wasn't a day over 75.

All of which is to say that what this album may lack in youthful fire and exuberance, it more than makes up for in the kind of nuanced taste that comes with age and long experience -- and in showcasing the laidback Hawaiian swing style that is Tapia's birthright.

As a youthful showman, Tappy learned to wow the crowds by playing the uke behind his head, long before the days of Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix (see the photo inside the CD cover). In the course of his long career, he has played with jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday and Fats Waller, and as a ukulele teacher he showed stars like Shirley Temple and Clarke Gable how to play for the silver screen. Tappy's own playing has been recognized as a major influence in the development of the original Hawaiian jazz sound. But although he started out on the ukulele, Tappy wound up putting it aside for 50 years to make his living with the more popular guitar, only returning to his first love in later years as economic pressures diminished.

Now to the music on this CD, which consists of wonderful old chestnuts like "Mack the Knife," "Stardust," "Mood Indigo," "My Little Grass Shack" (part of a Hawaiian medley), "Misty" and "Hapa Haole Hula Girl" (which I knew as "Honolulu Hula Girl" in a much more up-tempo version by the Incombustible Men). Tappy plays both rhythm and lead ukulele, and while he certainly breaks no new stylistic ground, as I noted before, his taste is spot on, as befits someone who has been playing as long as him. He is supported by a trio calling themselves the Essential Resophonics, who provide appropriate and unobtrusive accompaniment on acoustic upright bass, Hawaiian steel guitar, Spanish guitar and even a subdued trumpet on "Misty." Buck Giles' steel playing is especially delightful on "Paradise Isle."

Tappy also sings on "Mack the Knife" and "Hapa Haole Hula Girl," and here is where his age really shows, as his voice is weak and quavery. But that, of course, is part of his charm, and I couldn't help but be moved at the humanity that came shining through as this 96-year-old treasure warbled out these tunes.

One other bonus is the inclusion of two tracks featuring Tappy from 1936. One is a fireball ukulele version of "Stars & Stripes Forever," with some amazing right-hand strumming work, and the other is the title song of the CD, "Tropical Swing," as rendered by Tapia's own band of the time, Tappy's Island Swingers. Again, delightful. Tapia is the Hawaiian equivalent to the old Piedmont and Mississippi Delta blues singers who were "rediscovered" in the 1960s and whose music was fortunately captured on tape before all their marvelous knowledge, style and passion disappeared from the world with them.

Listening to this CD is like having the absolutely coolest grandpa in the world (and a dynamite ukulele player to boot) sit down with a tape machine to record his favourite songs just for you. The result is intimate, sweet and lovely, and touching beyond compare. Play it during a romantic, candle-lit dinner with your sweetie, and I guarantee it will enhance the romantic mood.

- Rambles
written by John Bird
published 2 October 2004

[ visit Bill Tapia's website ]

[ visit the Resophonics's website ]

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