A founding member of The Aliis, a group that performed with legendary Hawaiian entertainer Don Ho for decades, Benny Chong is one of the most respected and influential jazz ukulele players in the world today. Cameron Murray learns from a master.
What did you think of the uke when you were growing up in Hawaii?
I’ve always thought the ukulele was a unique instrument. The best part about it was its size, I could take it anywhere with me to practice. My uncles were professional musicians who played the ukulele as a secondary instrument, so I was fortunate to be exposed to it as a 10 year old. I was just a normal kid who learnt to play the ukulele by listening and asking my peers. It didn’t matter if they were younger or older; if they could play, I wanted to learn whatever they would teach me. Some of the first tunes I learnt were Crazy G, Stars and Stripes, Hilo March, Lady of Spain and Granada. Those were some of the songs that were commonplace among the players at that time.
Who were your ukulele idols when you were a kid?
During the 1950s, there weren’t that many albums I was aware of which featured the ukulele as a solo instrument. The ones I heard of and purchased were done by Harry ‘Mungo’ Kalahiki and Kiha Kinney, and I had a 45 single of Perry Botkins playing On The Beach At Waikiki. In actuality, my favourite ukulele players of that time were my uncles Dennis (‘Kuki’) and Alex Among. It was their style of playing that attracted me. They were the first uke players I heard play tunes in a style using mostly chords to play the melody. This contemporary style of playing always made the song sound full, rich and vibrant, so when you played a solo you didn’t need anyone to accompany you because the melody and the chords were sounded simultaneously. It was my uncles who introduced me to Lyle Ritz’s first album.
What did you hear in the playing of Lyle Ritz that you hadn’t heard before?
It is no secret among my friends and fans which uke player is my all-time favourite: Lyle Ritz, whose playing influenced many of Hawaii’s finest musicians. His style of playing brought the uke to a whole new level. Pure jazz on the uke had never been done before. Some of us still call him the ‘Godfather of Jazz Ukulele’. Besides his amazing technique, the most inspiring aspect of his playing is his creativity. Technique can always be learnt, developed and improved upon to accommodate a player’s style, but creativity cannot be taught. It comes from a passion that cannot be duplicated because we are all individuals who have different interpretations on what we create.
You almost made an album with Lyle. Tell us about that.
About 1969, the manager of The Aliis heard me play the uke at a party and told me I should do a uke album. He asked me who I thought would be a good producer for the album and I suggested Lyle Ritz. Lyle lived in LA and I lived in Hawaii. There were no computers at that time and we were both full-time musicians. To make a long story short, it was difficult to correspond with cassette tapes when we both travelled. Things happen for a reason and maybe it wasn’t the right time. I could have followed up and pursued it, even though it may have taken a long time, but I made the mistake of not doing so. Big mistake! But at least I got to meet Lyle in person and we have performed together within the past eight to 10 years.
Technique can always be learnt, developed and improved upon to accommodate a player’s style, but creativity cannot be taught
Who are your favourite players right now?
I’m always asked who my favourite uke player today is. There are many good players out there. For me, it’s not the art of playing the uke upside-down, behind your head or while tap dancing, etc. It’s also not about styles or types of music being played or how great your technique is. It’s about pure music, passion and, mainly, creativity. You already know how I feel about Lyle, so here are some of my favourite players and the reasons why…
John King: In my opinion, he was the finest classical uke player in the world. Sadly, he died too young. You were fortunate if you saw him perform in person. His transcriptions for the uke of classical compositions were true to the structure and not watered down. You had to be very creative to transcribe some of these masterpieces to a four-string instrument. He used a re-entrant tuning and was the only person to play a true soprano-size uke.
Bill Tapia: I first met Bill about 2004 or 2005 through Byron Yasui, who called me one night when I was on my way home from work. When I arrived at the Moana Hotel, Bill was on stage singing, playing the uke and yelling out the chords to the band in between the lyrics of the song. After, we found a place in the hotel where we could play and not bother anyone. Two uke players jamming from 10pm until 1am. Bill loved jam sessions. His sense of rhythm, articulation and on-the-spot ad lib solos were exceptionally creative, even more so because he was 96 years old at the time. Bill played a tenor and used a non re-entrant tuning.
Dr Byron Yasui: Byron is a composer, classical guitarist, bassist, educator and ukulelist. When I first heard Byron play the uke, the style he played was similar to styles we all played when I first started. The difference with Byron was the form of the music and the melody and chords were always correct. When most of us learnt a song that had been passed on from one person to another, the form, melody or chords eventually got altered to a point of becoming musically incorrect. Through the past 10 years or so, Byron has developed a style of arranging that employs classical guitar right-hand technique and applications of contemporary art music concepts of harmony and counterpoint. It is truly a groundbreaking achievement that can change the way the uke is looked at as a solo instrument. His arrangements are at a level never before achieved and very difficult to play. You would be amazed to hear how beautiful the music sounds. Byron plays a tenor and uses a re-entrant tuning.
Abe Lagrimas: Abe is one of the most gifted and talented young musicians to emerge from Hawaii. He is a jazz drummer, mainly, but also plays the vibraphone and uke. I know he has released at least three uke CDs. He plays jazz uke with a creativity that puts him among the best instrumentalists in the world. I’ve had the pleasure of playing with Abe as a uke player and drummer and look forward to the day I get to play with him on the vibes. Abe plays a tenor and uses a re-entrant tuning.
Jake Shimabukuro: Jake, Byron, Gordon Mark and I toured the islands in 2000 in a tour put together by Jay Junker called The Art of Solo Ukulele. There could be no doubt of Jake’s passion for the uke. In those early years, his passion for music was expressed in part through his amazing technical abilities. Since then, he has developed into one of the most creative ukulelists. His arrangements, whether they are of standards or of new compositions, are created passionately and his feelings are expressed through his playing. He has great sensitivity for his music and has achieved a level of artistry that very few instrumentalists are able to reach. He will definitely take uke playing to higher levels. Jake plays a tenor and uses a re-entrant tuning.
These masters of the uke are serious advocates of treating the uke as a solo instrument. There are no gimmicks in their playing – just pure music. Their persistence and dedication show in their playing, yet it’s the fun of creating and the enjoyment of playing that remains on top for them.
What are your thoughts on the current ukulele boom?
It is wonderful to see the uke grow internationally. For the majority of players, it’s not about how well you can play solos. It’s all about the gratification of playing an instrument, singing, getting together and just having fun. I have seen this in Japan, Australia, the United States and Hawaii, at uke festivals and gatherings. For these people, taking their playing ability to whatever level they want is achieving their goal. There is nothing wrong with that. The good thing is that, with so many uke players in the world, there will always be that small percentage of players who will take the instrument seriously; to explore, invent and use their imagination. The possibilities are endless.
It is wonderful to see the uke grow internationally
What’s the trickiest part about being an instrumentalist?
Probably the question most frequently asked of my uke playing is about the way I form some of the chords I play. Understanding how chords are formed from scales, knowledge of intervals between notes that form a chord and ear training are all part of music theory. Basically, it’s a matter of changing the pitches an octave up or down or changing the interval of the notes within the chord. It is the creation of playing the same chord with the harmony spread apart or close together. As a uke soloist, I find that the most challenging aspect is trying to imply chords with 5, 6, and 7 notes on four strings. Finding the right combination of notes to make the melody sound harmonically correct and interesting is always a challenge. It is the placement of a chord on a melody note that adds harmonic value and sense to a song.
You often perform with a double-bassist. What is it about the combination of uke and bass that you love so much?
My favourite instrument to play with is the double bass. Dr Byron Yasui is the bassist I work with the most in Hawaii. It is obvious that the more instruments in an ensemble, the easier it is to perform and the fuller it sounds. As a duo, it’s not about the uke or bass separately, but the two instruments creating music together. There is a lot of demand on creativity, which makes it challenging and fun. Byron and I have performed together for many years, in Hawaii, the US and Japan. We perform together mainly as a bass-and-uke duo, but also do uke duets. Most recently, we were featured with the Hawai’i Symphony Pops Orchestra, each of us as soloist, but also together as a uke duo. It was the second time for us with the Symphony and for me the biggest accomplishment of my instrumental career. The whole experience was beyond words.
Why do you prefer the baritone uke?
I play the baritone uke mainly because I have large hands and when playing chords above the twelfth fret, my fingers tend to cover two frets on the tenor or smaller ukes. I have grown to love the baritone because of the warmness of its tone.
Finally, what does the ukulele mean to you?
The majority of what I learnt on the ukulele was when I first started from 1953 to about 1959. From 1960 to 1970, I rarely played, except for one recording I did in 1965 with The Aliis on our first album. From mid-1970 to about the year 2000, I stopped completely. I never thought that the ukulele, being my first instrument, would make its way back into my life. It is as if it’s been looking for me to rekindle our relationship after all of these years. Well, it found me 12 years ago. Call it fate or whatever you want. It has given me new life as an instrumentalist and musician. Almost like being born again. There are endless bounds to what can be created on the ukulele for the soloist of today and the future.
This article first appeared in Issue 4 of KAMUKE, which is available in the Store