various artists,
Legends of the Ukulele:
Hawaiian Masters

(Cord, 2003)

The ukulele provides some of the world's most recognizable music, known -- if only in passing -- to casual tourists and fans through sweetened reinterpretation. A few notes from its strings immediately bring to mind images of blue waves and hula dancers. Depending on the era and tune, it may represent a range of popular musicians or bring back fond memories of some long-ago day in the sun. But the ukulele rarely gets much chance to voice more than those first few notes. The wide range of albums that have been released are largely out of print or hard to find without prior knowledge.

Aloha Joe and Michael Cord have assembled an album that shows casual listeners what they've been missing in the aptly titled Legends of the Ukulele: Hawaiian Masters.

Legends of the Ukulele is out to do more than gratify the tourists. The opening "Stars & Stripes Forever" is driven by bright, percussive playing -- shockingly bombastic for a ukulele performance. Few would expect "Gypsy Ukulele," a sexy, swirling song ready to dance the night away. There's a spot perfect version of "Dueling Banjos," with Ale'a's warring ukuleles delivering western flair and country goodness in tropical voices. There are retro hits, too, stretching into pop influences of decades long gone. Lyle Ritz turns "Lulu's Back in Town" into a jaunty piece of ragtime; "Kona Wind" has been absent for over 30 years and sounds like Herb Ohta Sr. pulled it whole from the 1960s.

There are also the more standard, perhaps expected, Hawaiian theme tunes, delivered with bright grace. Daniel Ho's "Pineapple Mango" couldn't hide its roots if it tried. The hula "Kaulana O Hilo Hanakahi" makes the movements of the traditional dance into an audible pattern. Even the almost mandatory "Blue Hawaii" is given a haunting new sound by Eddie Bush.

For ukulele fans, the names on this album are as worth noticing as the track list. Herb Ohta has three cuts pulled from several decades of music, providing a chance to witness his style progress without digging through a lengthy retrospective. Jake Shimabukuro weaves the sweet "Honu's Dream." There's even a lovely surprise bonus performance by Bill Tapia, who after 80 years of playing should be recognizable to all fans of Hawaiian music.

All 22 tracks are politely introduced in brief, detailed liner notes along images of numerous creatively made ukuleles. Looming pineapples and suntanned banjos form around the familiar strings and frets, next to swinging, skirt-shaped boxes and blue guitar moonscape scenes. They're visible evidence of the devotion, diversity and fun that can be heard in every tune from Legends of the Ukulele.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 19 June 2004