Every year, people in the music industry gather at the Anaheim Convention Center in California, USA, for The NAMM Show. Over the past few years, the ukulele presence has grown and grown. This year, I was lucky enough to be invited by Romero Creations to play at their booth. I met a lot of old friends, such as jazz uke legend Benny Chong, and made many new ones, such as Hawaiian uke and slack-key guitar artist Garrett Probst. Special thanks to Pepe Romero Jr and Daniel Ho for their friendship and inspiration…
Welcome to a brand-new podcast in which I plan to investigate people’s connections with the ukulele. You should know from the outset that this is not a podcast that will teach you how to play the ukulele and nor is it a podcast that will teach you about the ukulele. This project is about people and about music and the intersection at which they meet.
June 1, 1949 – a young man named Robert Fernandez left the Hawaiian islands for the first time, on his way to New York to accept his appointment at the United States Military Academy West Point. Not yet 19, Robert left with big dreams in his head, love for Hawaii in his heart and a Kamaka ukulele in his hand. Throughout his 30-year military career, Robert carried that little soprano ukulele with him. Upon his retirement in May 1978, Colonel Fernandez could focus on other endeavors, including pursuing a master’s degree, performing in the theater and spending time with his family. Parties, “kanikapila” (impromptu jam sessions) and smiles seemed to follow Robert wherever he went. All the while, his ukulele by his side.
On June 9, 2018, Col. Robert Nolasco Fernandez passed away surrounded by his loving family, including four children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. The precious ukulele was passed down to Col. Fernandez’s son, Robbie, who happens to be my best friend. That’s where I come in.
Knowing that I’m a luthier, Robbie asked me if I could refurbish his dad’s ukulele, and maybe upgrade it with some inlays as a tribute to his dad. I was honored to be asked to work on this very special instrument. Up until then, I had only seen it in pictures, Robert smiling brightly as he strummed it at a party. As I held the instrument in my hand, I was surprised by just how small this thing actually was. I’m used to making jumbo-bodied acoustic guitars, so a ukulele that tops out at 18” (46cm) long is a bit of a novelty. I also noticed that this instrument was well loved. The years of playing had worn the koa top thin, the constant warmth and sweat had started to separate the top from the sides and the wood was dry and brittle. I could tell I had my work cut out for me.
I started off with a full disassembly, every part came off. I steamed the top and back to separate it from the sides (the bridge had fallen off some time ago), the neck was removed, all the internal bracing was removed and the tuners and hardware was stripped. For the first time since it was assembled in Hawaii in the ’40s, this ukulele was back to its basic elements. As I carefully removed and catalogued the pieces, I noticed the Kamaka tag was in very bad shape, pieces flaking off at the slightest movement. This was concerning, as I wanted the instrument to remain original. Once I had the uke apart, it was time to clean up and condition the wood. Years of travel and several vastly different climates had taken their toll on every piece.
As I worked on restoring the core of this instrument, I met with the family to design the tribute aspects of the piece. It was clear that the family wanted to focus on Robert’s distinguished military career. Several meetings later, it was decided: a mother-of-pearl Colonel insignia was to adorn the fretboard, a tribute to his Hawaiian roots on the headstock and a large inlay of the West Point crest on the back. Knowing what this would take, and knowing I was to present this to the family at the memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in a few short months, it was time to dive in and get to it.
Having already cleaned up and sanded every wooden part, I now had a beautiful hardwood canvas from which to work. I drew up what I wanted to inlay and cut out the pieces, 53 in all. I smiled at that because Col. Fernandez graduated from West Point in 1953. With all my inlay cut, it was time to route and glue the pieces in to the body. Then came the sanding and final detailing, which was the most time consuming and tedious part. I don’t use CNC machines or laser engravers in my shop, all my work is by hand. As I detailed the crest on the back, I began to see what I envisioned from the start: a beautifully restored instrument and inlay tributes that are worthy of the man they honor.
Through the process, I encountered issues with one part or another. The butt joint, where the sides meet, was separating and was a bit unsightly. Also, the top was badly worn away from constant play. If a particular area didn’t meet my standards, I had to come up with a solution, one that not only fixed the problem, but also kept with the original look of the instrument. I was able to inlay some beautiful pāua abalone to fill in where needed. As I previously mentioned, the Kamaka label was in bad shape and I was heartbroken I couldn’t save it. I did, however, come up with an acceptable alternative. I contacted the Kamaka ukulele company in Honolulu, Hawaii and told them about my project and the man it was honoring. I was overwhelmed by their willingness to help, providing me with an original ’40s “gold label”, inscribed with “Col. Robert N. Fernandez” and signed by both Samuel Kamaka and his brother Fred Kamaka, the latter a retired Lt. Col. who also wrote an amazing letter recounting fond memories spent with Robert and his family, playing ukulele on the beach and “sharing aloha”.
As anybody who knows me will tell you, I don’t do anything halfway. I tend to jump into anything I do with both feet and this was no exception. I already had an authentic 1940s Kamaka label and a wonderful letter from the Kamakas themselves. I wanted to do more. Having obtained permission to use the West Point crest from the Licensing and Trademark office, the ukulele’s story made its way to the office of Hawaii’s governor, David Ige. I was honored by a call from his office and offered a beautifully written memoriam from his office. Add to that a special Congressional Recognition from US Senator Mazie Hirono’s office and I had the makings of a pretty special presentation come October.
I flew out to Washington DC with the family. I made a special walnut presentation box fashioned after a military ammunition crate and carried it on the flight the whole way. The family hadn’t seen any progress on the instrument, a standard practice for my shop. Nobody sees the instrument until it’s meant to be unveiled. The morning of the memorial, I secured the ukulele in Patton Hall, where we were to gather after the service. It was then that I let my buddy Robbie see the restored ukulele for the first time. I’ve done a few memorable reveals, but this one will always have a special place in my heart. The sheer awe and emotion that Robbie expressed was all I needed to assure me that expectations were exceeded.
We gathered in the Old Post Chapel for the service, after which we all walked behind the caisson, slowly, making our way to the gravesite. All the while, the United States Army Band, “Pershing’s Own” played out strong. After the beautiful ceremony, we made our way to Patton Hall, where I was pleased to unveil and present the ukulele to the family, all of whom know the instrument well. I was humbled to hear all the compliments and praise for my work and was proud to know I accomplished what I set out to do – honor a great Hawaiian man, a soldier, a family man and a musician. It is my hope that the aloha spirit Robert spread throughout this world will forever live on through this instrument.
Oak Creek Guitars
TO CELEBRATE the release of his fantastic new tab book 12 Days Of Christmas, our friend Christopher Davis-Shannon shot this video exclusively for us and has kindly offered the music as a FREE PDF to all KAMUKE readers (see below). You can get Christopher’s book here: thetinman.co
By Dan “Cool Hand Uke” Scanlan
Among other things, the ukulele is a strum drum. A single tone — say one produced by clicking two rocks together — when played over and over in a rhythmic pattern is music. Perhaps the most rudimentary music.
It behooves the ukulele player to visit this basic truth from time to time. Although there are many, many rhythms and time chunks, in this article I will stick with plain old 4/4. But the concepts we will look at can be applied to any time signature. Have a tuned ukulele in your hand and play along.
Play the one-finger C chord (ring finger on the third fret of the A string). Strum down with your index finger and count out loud: 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4… Play this as evenly as you can for as long as you feel like it. This may seem like a silly step, but it’s actually very important. Play it long enough to feel you are laying down a nice, smooth, unruffled carpet of sound.
Now we’re going to mess with it.
Each time you play the 1 beat (the first beat of every measure), whip your finger energetically so the 1 beat stands out from the others: 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4… Play this one-chord riff until you feel the drive of the syncopation. Might even help to shrug a shoulder or stomp a foot on the first beat. Do it until you own it.
Cool. Now do the same thing with the second beat: 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4… When you own that one, move on to the third beat, then the fourth.
You’re not done with this part yet. Put the same energy — accent — onto beats one and three: 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4… Remember to count out loud. Continue playing it until you feel it in your heart and soul.
Finally, do the same exercise but accent beats two and four — Hey! Hey! Rock and Roll!
What we have just done is demonstrate to ourselves that we have control over the accents in our playing. We get to determine the personality of our strum.
But there’s much more we can do.
In our meanderings above, we accented certain beats by simply strumming harder and louder. But check this out — instead of striking the accented beat with an energetic index finger, try accenting it with a gentle sweep of your thumb. To really get a sense of this dynamic, start simply with an unaccented 1-2-3-4; after you’ve got it rolling, accent the first beat with a gentle thumb stroke. Though the accent is on the same beat(s) as before with the energetic index finger, the music now has an entirely different feeling or attitude. Even though it’s not brash like before, it is still an accent, a syncopation. The fat, fleshy thumb spreads out the notes, whereas the index finger sounds the strings almost in unison. It’s like the difference between a wall and a picket fence — there’s air.
Now here’s the thing, the basic truth about ukulele rhythm — it’s up to the player to decide what beats to accent when, and what to use to do it. In this lesson, we only looked at two accent strokes — the strong index finger and the thumb. There are numerous strokes a player can use to get the feeling he or she wants, but the job is always the same: to express one’s unique self and feelings by accenting pulses on the beat.
BLUE HAWAII (1961)
Director: Norman Taurog
Stars: Elvis Presley, Joan Blackman, Angela Lansbury, Nancy Walters
NOTHING illustrates the popularity of Hawaiiana in the early 1960s better than Blue Hawaii. The first of three Elvis movies to be filmed in the islands, it was one of his most successful, and the soundtrack spent 20 weeks at number one on the Billboard chart.
Presley plays Chadwick Gates, the heir to a pineapple fortune who returns to Honolulu after a stint in the US Army. While he’s happy surfing, singing and playing uke with his beach-boy buddies, Chad’s snooty parents don’t like it one bit and pressure him to join the family business. He refuses and instead becomes a tour guide, which leads to him working with a visiting high school teacher (Walters) and her four female students. Chad’s girlfriend Maile (Blackman) gets jealous of his relationship with the pretty teacher and some fairly predictable miscommunications form the basis of the comedy.
While it’s not high art by any means, Blue Hawaii is undeniably entertaining and the scenery is stunning. Much of the film was shot on location at the Coco Palms Resort on the east coast of the island of Kauai. Sadly, the resort, which was once a playground for the rich and famous, has been abandoned since it was hit by Hurricane Iniki in 1992.
The soundtrack was recorded at Radio Recorders in Hollywood before filming began, with Fred Tavares and Bernie Lewis playing the ukuleles. Elvis later gave a Martin uke used in the flick as a gift to famous session guitarist Hank ‘Sugarfoot’ Garland. Aside from the title track, notable songs include Rock-A-Hula Baby, Ku-u-ipo (Hawaiian Sweetheart) and Aloha ’Oe.
Surely a movie that features the King of Rock ’n’ Roll strumming four strings instead of six deserves a spot in any uke fan’s collection.
I first met Dan “Cool Hand Uke” Scanlan in 2003 when I travelled from Australia to America for the Ukulele Hall Of Fame Museum Expo in Rhode Island. We became friends instantly and I’m so glad he’s decided to share his vast uke knowledge with the world in his new book How To Play Ukulele: A Complete Guide For Beginners.
Now, firstly, if you’ve been playing for a few years, please don’t be deterred by the title – Dan’s packed a lot into this extremely helpful guide and I’m confident most people will get something out of it.
The book is broken up into the three basic elements of music: rhythm, harmony and melody, and its clean, uncluttered design – complete with clear diagrams – makes it very easy to follow. While most beginners’ books include the basic anatomy of the uke, Dan goes one step further and touches on often neglected but vitally important aspects, such as string height.
There’s a good variety of strums on offer, as well as an excellent section on understanding chords. While the information can get quite technical, Dan has an uncanny knack of explaining it simply and concisely. My favourite chapter is fittingly entitled “Doo-Dads” and contains useful techniques such as muffling, hammer-ons, pull-offs and slides – the stuff that will set you apart from other casual players.
I also love that the book is dotted with interesting facts and breakouts on ‘Ukulele Heroes’ and also includes a solid history of the instrument, which is foolishly missing in many other titles.
From choosing your first uke to the business of learning a song and embellishing it, How To Play Ukulele is a one-stop shop for the aspiring musician. Thanks, Dan!
Order your copy here: simonandschuster.com/books/How-to-Play-Ukulele
By Cameron Murray
The maestro returns with the follow-up to his 2016 album Nashville Sessions. Featuring the same producer and rhythm section, The Greatest Day feels like something of an evolution for the 41-year-old Hawaiian megastar.
Joining bassist Nolan Verner and drummer Evan Hutchings this time around is guitarist Dave Preston, who adds another layer of complexity to proceedings.
“On the last record, it was pretty much the sound of a live trio, which sounded fresh, raw and organic,” says Shimabukuro. “Now we’ve expanded to a quartet, which has added more colours and variety to the overall production. Once we recorded the live takes, we experimented with overdubs and added horns, strings and keys and other funky sounds. There are even some vocals on a few cuts.”
Yep, vocals! Certainly something new to a Jake album.
Comprising six originals and six covers, the record, which was recorded at the famous Ronnie’s Place studio in Nashville, is quite diverse. The first cover, The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby, features world-renowned dobro player Jerry Douglas and works well as an instrumental. Other enjoyable covers include New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle, which is rather soft and gentle but still retains an immediacy and electro feel, and Bill Withers’ Use Me, which stars Preston on guitar and vocals and funks things up a treat.
As for the originals, Straight A’s, inspired by the A string of the ukulele, is fun and playful and the addition of vibes is a nice touch. Meanwhile, Mahalo John Wayne is suitably cinematic and a fitting tribute to The Duke.
The digital edition of the album includes a live version of the Sunday Manoa classic Kawika, which sees Jake returning to his island roots, and Blue Roses Falling, which features Jake duetting with cellist Meena Cho and reminds us of the magic that can be created with the two instruments.
The Greatest Day is Shimabukuro’s riskiest record to date, but it’s also his most exciting because he’s taking those risks and finding new ways to make interesting music for his fans.
1.Time of the Season
2. The Greatest Day
3. Eleanor Rigby
5. Bizarre Love Triangle
6. Straight A’s
7. If 6 Was 9
8. Shape of You
9. Go for Broke
10. Little Echoes
11. Mahalo John Wayne
CD/VINYL BONUS TRACKS:
13. Use Me (feat. Dave Preston) (’18 Live)
14. Dragon (‘18 Live)
15. While My Guitar Gently Weeps (’18 Live)
DIGITAL BONUS TRACKS:
13. Kawika (’18 Live)
14. Blue Roses Falling (feat. Meena Cho) (’18 Live)
15. Use Me (feat. Dave Preston) (’18 Live)
16. Dragon (‘18 Live)
17. While My Guitar Gently Weeps (’18 Live)
Buy your copy of The Greatest Day here: jakeshimabukuro.com
Thanks to our mates at Ukulele Lab in Hawaii, we have TWO beautiful koa iPhone cases to give away! All you need to do to be in the running to win one of these handcrafted beauties is send us a photo of yourself with a copy of KAMUKE Ukulele Magazine. The two most creative entries will win. Remember to send us your full name and mailing address, as well as your preference for an iPhone X or iPhone 7/8 case. The competition is now open worldwide and will end on Sunday, September 30 at midnight, Australian Eastern Standard Time. Send your entry to email@example.com NOW!
Danielle Ate The Sandwich (aka Danielle Anderson) is a fantastic singer-songwriter from Colorado, USA. Her often hilarious, always poignant YouTube videos have garnered tens of thousands of fans (aka Fanwiches) all around the world. This is her ukulele story…
What was your first contact with the uke?
I rarely thought of the ukulele until I was at the home of my friend Brandon. I noodled around with his uke and loved it so much, I asked if I could take it home for a few days. I kept it for too long and he bought me one so he could have his back. After that, it’s a runaway love story! I never expected the ukulele to take over my songwriting or shape my career in the way it has. It’s been an amazing tool and an amazing way to meet new people and get out in the world and enjoy music!
How do you approach songwriting?
I don’t have a rigid or formal approach. I try to be open to however a song might come to me. I usually start with an idea or subject, or something that’s been on my mind. Then I noodle around on the ukulele, trying to find a good set of chords, then I play them over and over until words and melodies start to fall out of me. In my process, starting a song is more of an exercise in letting go. Trying anything, singing whatever comes to mind, some of it sensible, most of it gibberish, until there’s some form or outline. Finishing a song, then, is taking those loose ideas and whittling them down to make more sense, be more poetic, fit better in the line and stand nicely as the expression I intended.
Making good YouTube videos is a lot harder than it looks. What’s your top tip for anyone who’s just starting out?
I strive to make videos that are engaging and sincere, so I believe strongly in delivering a passionate performance. If you’re able to lose yourself in what you’re doing, as if you were on stage in front of actual people, you’ll give off a level of comfort, ease and intimacy that the audience will hopefully be drawn to. It’s just you and a camera in a room, but it’s good to give it all you’ve got!
And technically speaking?
Technically, I think it’s important to record a little audio and video, then listen back to make sure you’re a good distance from the camera or microphone to avoid clipping or distorted audio. It’s also good to make sure your camera is focused and centred and is set on something steady, with a light source of some kind pointed at your face. It’s easy to get caught up in the fancy lights and cameras, but truthfully, some of the most charming videos I’ve seen are very low-fi! At the end of the day, it comes down to whatever moment is captured and how people respond to it.
You play Mya-Moe ukuleles. What do you like about their instruments?
I think their ukuleles are gorgeous. They sound amazing acoustic and plugged in to a sound system, which is important for me since I’m performing a lot. They hold their tuning, they’re expressive, they’re well built. And aside from the instruments, I really like the team at Mya-Moe. Gordon [Mayer], Char [Mayer] and Aaron [Keim] are good people. I trust them and I enjoy their company – they’ve cooked me dinner! It’s nice to feel close to the instruments and the people who are building them.
What did you do before you became a uke star?
I was a seamstress at an alteration shop. I went to school for apparel design and production and wanted to own a store where I sold the things I made. The alteration shop job was the first ‘real job’ I got after graduating and was the one I decided to quit to pursue music.
You tour a lot. What’s the most important item you’ve forgotten to pack?
I’ve packed my car so many times, I know the way it needs to fit together. One time, something just wasn’t right, but I couldn’t figure out why. About six hours down the road, I realised I forgot to pack my sound system! Inevitably, I freaked out and assumed the tour was ruined, but it all worked out okay. I’ve tried to stop worrying. Most anything I need can be bought or borrowed. Pyjamas, deodorant and my phone charger are the things I always make a point to remember. I always have a hard time packing, even though I do it so often. I should be really good at it!
Have you got a message for your Aussie Fanwiches?
HELLO! And thank you for being my fans from so far away! I’ve always had some really strong YouTube friends in Australia, so there’s a very soft spot in my heart for you. I would love to come and play in Australia some day, but until then I’m so honoured to be in KAMUKE!
Finally, why did you choose the stage name ‘Danielle Ate The Sandwich’? We need to know!
I chose the name because I thought it sounded fun and interesting. I didn’t want to be another singer-songwriter with a boring first and last name. I like my first name and I like sandwiches – how they look and taste and come in different shapes and sizes – so I thought it made perfect sense. I’ve got so used to it, sometimes I forget how strange it is! I pulled it right out of my head!
City: New York (but I also like my city, Fort Collins, Colorado!)
Hungry for more? Add danielleatethesandwich.com to your bookmarks bar today!
Photo: Kaela Speicher
This article first appeared in Issue 9 of KAMUKE, which is available in the Store