• Ukulele Stories: Janet Klein

    For Episode 10 of the podcast, it’s my great pleasure to bring you an interview with the incredible Janet Klein. Since 1998, the charming uke-playing chanteuse and her hot band The Parlor Boys have been recording and performing rare and forgotten musical gems from the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s. 

    During lockdown, she’s been presenting her “Hit Of The Week” Parlor Party, an online hootenanny that features interviews with fascinating artists and historians, as well as plenty of fabulous music. 

    I hope you enjoy our chat!

    Cameron

    janetklein.com

    janetklein.bandcamp.com

    facebook.com/janetkleinandherparlorboys

    kleinette.com

  • Ukulele Stories: Victoria Vox

    AMERICAN uke star Victoria Vox put out her first solo album in 2006 and in 2018 released her 10th, the fantastic Colorful Heart. More recently, she’s been performing with her husband Jack Maher as one half of Jack & The Vox, and the couple has been presenting fun online concerts from their home in California during the COVID-19 lockdown. 

    It was a real pleasure to catch up with Victoria for this episode and I hope you enjoy it!

    Cameron

    VictoriaVox.com

    Patreon.com/victoriavox

    Instagram.com/victoriavox

    twitter.com/victoriavox

    Facebook.com/victoriavoxlovesyou

    YouTube.com/victoriavox

  • UKE-IN-FOCUS: Martin Taropatch

    SUPPOSEDLY derived from a guitar-like instrument brought to Hawaii by Portuguese sailors, the taropatch is similar in size to a concert ukulele and has eight strings, arranged in four pairs. 

    Although manufacturers such as Nunes, Kumalae and Oscar Schmidt produced the taropatch during the early-mid 1900s, it’s generally accepted that the finest examples were built by C.F. Martin & Co in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, USA.

    The first recorded sale of a Martin taropatch was on August 9, 1916, and it first appeared in the company’s price lists in 1918. Available in three styles of mahogany and koa, it didn’t sell as well as Martin’s easier-to-play, four-stringed ukes, particularly after the company released its own concert size in 1925. The taropatch was dropped from the Martin line in 1932.

    Pictured here is a Martin 1K (koa) taropatch dating from around 1929. The instrument was purchased in England in 1977 by Richard Maingôt and the case was made for it in 2004 by Cedar Creek Custom Case Shoppe (cedarcreekcases.com) in Oilville, Virginia, USA. 

    “I acquired my lovely taropatch while I was living in Richmond, Surrey,” says Mr Maingot. “I purchased it on the spot; an eight-stringed beauty without a scratch or blemish on her body. And what a tone! You are immediately transported to Hawaii when you hear this instrument.”

    Some contemporary manufacturers, such as Kamaka, Lanikai and Kala, make eight-string ukulele variants, but none are quite up to the standard of the vintage Martins. At least not yet…

  • Hall Of Fame: Eddie Kamae

    WHEN it comes to Hawaiian music, perhaps no other artist looms larger than the great Eddie Kamae. Credited as a major proponent of the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance in the late 1960s and ’70s, he was one of the first people to treat the ukulele as a serious solo instrument. 

    Born into a music-loving family on August 4, 1927, Kamae started playing uke when he was 15. His first instrument was a gift from his brother Sam, who found it on a bus he was driving for Hawaii Rapid Transit. 

    “From that day onward, Eddie was hooked,” says author James D. Houston in his excellent biography Hawaiian Son. “He just liked the sound of it, the size of it, the feel of the strings, the hum of the wood.” 

    It was another brother, Joe, who became Eddie’s first teacher. Joe passed on basic chords and strums and soon his younger sibling was hungry to learn more. 

    When Eddie turned 18 in 1945, he was still eligible for the draft and was sent to New Caledonia in the Coral Sea, where it was his job to pack up US military supplies for shipping back to America. With plenty of spare time on his hands, Kamae practised day and night and developed an impressive repertoire of instrumental solos. 

    On his return to Hawaii, Eddie started attending weekend music sessions in downtown Honolulu. He received a standing ovation the first time he revealed his stunning solo tunes and it was there he met a fellow uke enthusiast named Shoi Ikemi. The pair eventually began working together, calling themselves The Ukulele Rascals and wowing the crowd with complex duets.

    Eddie was to get more time to practise when he was caught trying to pass off vials of cornstarch and flour as household medicine and was sentenced to three years in prison. “I didn’t know how I was going to last three years in there,” says Eddie in Hawaiian Son. “My uke was my companion and my way to find some peace of mind. Music got me through.” 

    With a newfound appreciation for Hawaiian music, Eddie teamed up with slack-key guitar star Gabby Pahinui to form a band and, in 1960, the Sons Of Hawaii was born. Despite Pahinui later leaving to pursue a solo career, the group went on to record 14 critically acclaimed albums. 

    Eddie set up a production company called Hawaii Sons, Inc. and was among the first Hawaiian musicians to establish his own recording label. Outside of music, he and his wife Myrna produced a set of 10 culturally important documentaries that examine the history of the islands. 

    Without Eddie’s powerful impact, it’s fair to say the ukulele would not be where it is today. The great Ohta-San was mentored by Eddie and Jake Shimabukuro credits him as a major influence and his favourite player. 

    On January 7, 2017, Eddie passed away in Honolulu, surrounded by family and friends and while his best-known song, E Ku`u Morning Dew, played softly in the background. Mahalo, Mr Kamae.

    By Cameron Murray

    This article originally appeared in Issue 11 of KAMUKE Ukulele Magazine, which is available in the Store

  • Pro Tip: Thumbing It, By Jason Arimoto

    Growing up in Hawaii, my ukulele journey began in the fourth grade where we first learnt our basic chords – C, F, and G7. My passion for the instrument developed a few years later during a resurgence of ukulele playing in Hawaii. Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole had just released his Facing Future album, Ka’au Crater Boys came out with Valley Style and Pure Heart featuring Jake Shimabukuro and solo ukulele albums by Daniel Ho were looming on the horizon. The mid-’90s brought ukulele back to the forefront of the local airwaves in a stripped-down acoustic format where you could hear each artist hitting the strings and even breathing in the studio microphones in quieter sections. I would listen to these albums on repeat, inspired by their playing techniques, which I still use in my performances today. 

    In middle school, I was thrust into a new world on the opposite side of campus, where the cool kids were ukulele players and they were playing all the songs I loved listening to on the radio. Not only were they having fun jamming, but people were listening – more importantly, girls were listening and singing along. Now my calling was clear: I would be a ukulele player. 

    My ukulele at home was a Martin soprano passed down from my great-uncle, who had worn a thumb groove into the back of the neck in first position and had worn the frets nearly flat from playing. I set out on the daunting task of teaching myself to play, pre-internet. My cousin’s friend, who happened to be a guitar player, helped tighten up the tuning pegs so they would hold their tune. My dad showed me how to tune the instrument using the piano and taught me the Hawaiian Vamp – D7, G7, C. My family helped me set up my first ukulele, but no-one thought anything of my new-found musical interest as I’d failed miserably on other instruments from a lack of motivation and practice. 

    I would have to learn a few basics on my own before I would dare take my ukulele to school. This presented a few challenges: one, I didn’t have a chord book, and two, I was supposed to be doing my schoolwork. I quickly discovered the best way to play in secret was to use my thumb. Using the side of my thumb as opposed to the nail made for a nice fleshy surface with a rich, mellow tone that was pleasant, subtle and quiet. It was perfect for late-night practicing propped up in bed when I was supposed to be asleep or studying. 

    While practicing in secret, I surprised my parents a few months later by playing IZ’s version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World off a photocopied chart from the Roy Sakuma school that I got for trading some choice baseball cards. Soon I was asked to play the song at every family party, wedding and funeral. The core of the IZ strum to me is the use of the thumb as a different tone in the strum. 

    Many flashy techniques use the index finger as the main strumming finger – the nail on the down-strum produces a brighter, harder sound that sonically cuts through. The techniques I enjoy playing the most use both thumb and finger in the strum. The juxtaposition of tones helps to create a more sophisticated sonic landscape and in many ways is easier to keep in time. 

    As an example, strum swung eighth notes using your index finger with down-strums falling on downbeats and up-strums on upbeats. Now accent the backbeat (beats two and four). You’ll notice you have to strum harder in order to accent. This change in velocity of your strum creates an accent, but also adds another variable to fall out of time. Now add a downbeat/down-strum with your thumb on beats one and three while keeping the finger down-strum on beats two and four. The trick is to use the same motion for both the thumb-strum and the finger-strum and let the different ‘picks’ create the accent. 

    The brighter nail sound of the finger on a down-strum will give you a natural accent without having to use as much effort. This translates to a more laidback-sounding strum and lets you play with more dynamic range because the thumb-strum can be made very quiet due to the fleshy nature of the thumb, while the nail of the index finger adds a loud and bright strum. Changes in volume and tone create a more textured sound, producing a more nuanced strum. This type of flow in a strum is one of the most magical sounds in ukulele playing. 

    For people new to using the thumb-strum, I usually recommend two practice approaches for incorporating the thumb-strum into your repertoire. First, use your thumb on downbeats only. Start with the thumb on quarter-note down-strums, then incorporate up-strums with your finger. Next, practice alternating thumb and finger on quarter-note down-strums, then incorporate up-strums with the finger. 

    The second approach is to use your thumb to play any of your go-to strum patterns. You’ll be using the side of your thumb on both the down and up-strums for a softer tone on both strums. Keep your thumb parallel to the strings and avoid using the nail on the up-strum – think of the feeling of swiping a touchscreen with your thumb. This will also ensure your wrist is relatively straight on the strum, which will help to minimise tension and strain and give you an even, mellow tone. Using your thumb on both the down and up-strums provides a tactile movement that will help you keep time by allowing you to physically feel the off-beats when incorporating both finger and thumb-strums. 

    I always use the example of listening to two very popular songs: IZ’s Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World and Hey, Soul Sister by Train. One strum is nuanced with an interplay of all parts of the strumming hand, while the other has a more static feel. Both fit perfectly in their respective songs – the nuances of an IZ-style strum would be buried in a larger arrangement of a pop song like Hey, Soul Sister, but there is something beautiful and meditative about playing quietly and subtly late at night while propped up in bed using your thumb-strum on your ukulele. 

    This article first appeared in Issue 11 of KAMUKE, which is available in the Store

  • Review: A Hawai’i Interlude

    BORN and raised on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Makana has been lauded for his slack-key guitar stylings, but he’s also a fine uke player, as he proves on A Hawai’i Interlude.

    ‘Diverse’ is the first word that springs to mind when I think about describing this album. A lot of instrumental records suffer from a lack of diversity, resulting in a fairly mundane listening experience. That’s certainly not the case here. Each of the 20 tracks has been well thought out and expertly produced to showcase Makana’s impressive compositional skill and playing ability.

    A few of the standout uke-centric pieces include the smooth Kahala Jazz, somewhat ethereal Waiola Wonderland and spacey Waikiki 2050, which has a sort of synthwave feel to it. And special mention goes to Pu’uale’ale’a (Bliss Hill), which features renowned jazz trumpet player Deshannon Higa. There are also some fantastic non-uke tunes – my pick is Ha’iku Zen, a layered and interesting collaboration with slack-key guitar master Jeff Peterson and shakuhachi [Japanese bamboo flute] player Riley Lee.

    If you’re looking for something a little bit different to the norm, I urge you to seek out A Hawai’i Interlude. Makana has managed to create a thoroughly modern album that is quintessentially Hawaiian and pays tribute to the unique musical traditions of the islands.

    The album is available on various platforms. Simply follow this link: bit.ly/AHawaiiInterlude

  • Review: Ukexotic

    WHILE the uke has proven itself to be one of the world’s most versatile instruments, there’s no denying its tropical roots. Just a few strums can mentally transport the listener to an island paradise where the only thing you need to think about is which cocktail you’re going to order at sunset.

    If that’s the sort of feel you’re looking for, you can’t go past Mike Diabo’s new album Ukexotic. Inspired by the tiki/exotica scene of the 1950s and ’60s, it’s a polished collection of catchy ukulele instrumentals, bolstered by the addition of bass, percussion, flute and bird calls.

    “After looking around for a jet set-inspired uke-led album and coming up empty-handed, I thought I would record my own,” says Mike, who’s perhaps better known as guitarist Rev Hank in popular Canadian band Urban Surf Kings.

    The album opens with Ideal Surf Cafe, with its distinctive jungle rhythm and soothing vibes, and progresses through 11 tracks, appropriately ending with Tropical Twilight, which nicely highlights Mike’s uke playing. If you don’t have a Mai Tai (or at least a fruity mocktail) in your hand by this point, you’re doing something wrong! Cheers, Mike.

    Ukexotic is available here: https://reverbranch.bandcamp.com/album/ukexotic

    And here’s track 2 off the album, Penetration:

  • Learning to Play Ukulele in a Group Setting: What to Expect

    There are many ways to learn ukulele, from doing self-study through books and instructional videos to signing up for private lessons or group classes at a nearby music studio. Each method has its own set of benefits and drawbacks – for example, studying on your own is often the cheapest way to go, but without a teacher around you probably won’t be able to tell if you’re doing something wrong, or which aspect of your playing needs to be improved.

    This is why many aspiring ukulele players choose to take group music classes while others sign up for one-on-one lessons with an instructor. Individualised instruction is recommended if you want lessons to be tailored to your goals, needs and learning style, and if your schedule doesn’t allow you to attend group classes. 

    A lot of beginners choose to enrol in group music classes because the classroom-like setting and supportive environment motivates them to learn. Group classes are best for ‘social’ learners who absorb information and perform best when they’re learning with other people. 

    Group classes, in contrast to private lessons, are also more affordable to a majority of players and allow them to learn some skills they won’t get to practice when they’re studying solo (like playing in an ensemble).

    If you’re also interested in learning to play the uke in a group, here’s what you can look forward to.

    Inspiration and motivation from classmates

    Different people have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to learning ukulele. Some are better at memorising chords, some take a little more time to get strumming patterns right and so on. It can be hard for teachers to address the needs of individual students in a group setting, but often this is where the class comes together and helps each other out.

    In a group setting, beginners learn from each other and in turn be inspired and motivated to keep practicing. Someone who’s lagging would be encouraged to do better, or someone who’s learned a neat chord memorisation trick would share it with the rest of the class. 

    If you sign up for group ukulele classes, you’ll find that people who play the ukulele are some of the kindest, most helpful folks in the world. You can even get recommendations on the best concert, soprano, baritone or tenor ukulele models when you upgrade from your starter instrument.

    KAMUKE’s Cameron Murray teaching a group uke class in Sydney, Australia

    You can learn performance skills

    If you already play a bit of ukulele and want to advance in your playing, a group class can help you gain new skills. Performance skills such as improvising and playing in an ensemble are just some of the things you can learn and practice in a group setting. A simple jamming session with classmates can lead to you finding people whose style of music jives with yours. Who knows, you can even form a band!

    It’s fun

    When you’re in a group and you’re doing the same thing, the experience can give you a sense of belonging. Mistakes that seem horrible when you’re sitting alone with an instructor can be easily laughed off when you’re learning ukulele with other beginners. 

    It may feel awkward at first but once you get to know your classmates, become comfortable with one another, start playing together and learn from each other’s mistakes, it’s going to be a fun and rewarding educational experience for you. 

    All in all, if you want to have fun while learning to play ukulele, sign up for group classes!

    This is a guest post by Rebecca Marlow

  • Hall Of Fame: Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards

    THE life of Cliff Edwards is as remarkable as it is tragic. 

    Born in 1895 in Hannibal, Missouri, the same town that informed Mark Twain’s youth and work, Edwards left school at 14 and moved to St Louis, where he got his start singing in saloons. As many of the venues didn’t have pianos, he bought a soprano uke to accompany his voice and was given the moniker ‘Ike’ by a waiter who couldn’t remember his name. 

    “Ukulele Ike” went to Chicago in 1917 and got his first big break performing a novelty song called Ja Da with its composer, Bob Carleton, at the Arsonia Café in 1918. On the back of the tune’s success, vaudeville headliner Joe Frisco hired Edwards and he was soon performing on Broadway in New York, first at the famed Palace Theatre and later with the Ziegfeld Follies. 

    The pioneer of a distinctive form of scat singing he called “effin”, Edwards made his recording debut in 1922 and quickly became popular. His version of Singin’ In The Rain was number one for three weeks in 1929, and he was the first person to perform the standard on screen in The Hollywood Revue Of 1929

    As Ike got more famous, so did the ukulele. Millions of instruments were sold in the 1920s and Tin Pan Alley publishers responded to the craze by printing ukulele chord diagrams on the sheet music of the day. Edwards always favoured Martin ukes and developed a unique roll stroke. 

    “Most people play the four-finger roll starting with the pinky finger and ending with the index finger or thumb,” says Ike expert Terry Chapman. “But Cliff Edwards played it differently; he started with the index and followed it with the other fingers, with the pinky last.” 

    In his only instructional booklet, 1927’s Ukulele Ike’s Complete Ukulele Method, Edwards describes his technique: “If you were to make a series of six consecutive strokes, in strict cadence, all down, in this order: index finger, second finger, third finger, fourth finger followed by the thumb then return up by the thumb, you will have laid the foundation for the very flashy roll stroke which very few amateurs know how to use.”  

    Throughout the 1930s, Ike appeared in Hollywood musicals and on radio, but his star began to fade as the public became enamoured with crooners such as Bing Crosby. Edwards’ last great role was as the voice of the infectiously happy Jiminy Cricket in the 1940 Disney feature Pinocchio, and his tender treatment of the song When You Wish Upon A Star made it an instant classic. 

    Sadly, massive alimony payments to three ex-wives and alcohol and drug problems plagued Ike’s latter years and he died penniless in a Hollywood nursing home in 1971. The Walt Disney Company paid for his grave marker. 

    Blessed with a three-octave vocal range and the ability to sell both comedy ditties and heartfelt ballads, Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards sold an estimated 74 million records and appeared in more than 100 films. Aptly described by American movie expert Leonard Maltin as “probably the best known/least known performer in show business history”, he was a true original who deserves to be remembered. 

    This article originally appeared in Issue 2 of KAMUKE Ukulele Magazine, which is available in the Store

  • Ukulele Stories: William Preston Robertson

    WILLIAM Preston Robertson (above left) is the writer and co-director of 2003 documentary Rock That Uke. Narrated by Oscar-winning actress Holly Hunter, the quirky film looks at the punk rock ukulele scene that emerged in America in the 1990s and includes interviews with local punk luminaries, such as Carmaig DeForest, as well as our Issue 7 cover girl Janet Klein.

    RTU was heavily criticised at the time of its release, but to me – and many others around the world – it was nothing short of a revelation. When I finally met Bill in Sydney, Australia, I knew right away that we’d be friends. It was a great pleasure to reconnect with him for this episode. Happy listening!

    Rock That Uke is available on DVD exclusively here:
    kamuke.com/store/Rock-That-Uke-DVD

    *This episode of Ukulele Stories was recorded before the COVID-19 crisis.