• Colonel Robert Fernandez’s Kamaka

    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.

    Josh Stotler

    Owner/Luthier

    Oak Creek Guitars

    oakcreekguitars.com

  • JUMPIN’ JAKE FLASH!

    NO OTHER player in recent decades has popularised the ukulele to the same extent as Jake Shimabukuro. Since shooting to stardom in 2006 with his YouTube cover of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the Hawaiian virtuoso has been touring the world and inspiring millions. In our exclusive interview, Jake takes time out from his Uke Nations world tour to chat about his ukulele idols, a brush with royalty and what the instrument means to him.

    Which uke players did you look up to when you were a kid?

    My all-time favourite ukulele player is Eddie Kamae. He is regarded as the first ukulele virtuoso here in Hawaii. Some of my other heroes include Peter Moon, Ohta-San and Troy Fernandez.

    You were already a respected musician in 2006, but how did that YouTube video change your life?

    YouTube opened so many doors for me in 2006. It helped to introduce my ukulele playing to millions of people around the world and allowed me to establish a consistent touring schedule. YouTube is a great vehicle for artists like myself to be heard.

    What advice do you have for the next generation of YouTube hopefuls?

    I think the most important thing is to be yourself. The video that you post will be around for a very long time, so make sure that you post something you’ll still be proud of 20 years later.

    You’re always touring. What’s been your most memorable gig so far?

    By far one of my most memorable moments is a performance with Bette Midler in England, for Queen Elizabeth. I even shook Her Majesty’s hand after the performance.

    Why do you choose to play Kamaka instruments?

    I always wanted to play a Kamaka tenor ukulele – they are the Excalibur of ukes. The tone is what sets it apart from other brands and Kamaka is the world’s leading ukulele manufacturer when it comes to quality, with almost 100 years of experience.

    Where is your favourite place to practice?

    I can practice anywhere. That’s the beauty of the ukulele. I could be at the airport, in a taxi or on a boat strumming away and not have to worry about ruining the instrument.

    What’s your No. 1 tip for intermediate players who are looking to step up?

    I always tell players that the most important thing is your tone. If you can get a good tone out of your instrument, people will want to listen and you will be inspired to play.

    You’ve performed in Australia. What do you think of the uke scene down-under?

    The ukulele scene is growing rapidly in Australia. The last time I toured there, a lot of people brought their ukes for me to sign after the show. I’m looking forward to touring there again next year. I’m sure I’ll meet a lot more uke players.

    If you could record a fantasy duet with any artist, living or dead, who would you choose and why?

    My fantasy duet would have to be with Eddie Kamae. I wouldn’t be playing the ukulele the way I play it today if it weren’t for him and his vision for the instrument.

    What’s on heavy rotation on your iPod right now?

    I’ve been listening to the Rocky IV soundtrack recently. It’s very inspiring and definitely motivates me to work hard and not be lazy!

    In terms of its development, where would you like to see the ukulele movement go in the next five to 10 years?

    I hope that gear manufacturers will start to make quality products specifically for the ukulele. For example, pickups, tube amps and effect pedals that are calibrated for the range of the instrument.

    What can we expect from your 2014 Uke Nations tour?

    I’ve been touring with a bass player this year. That’s been a lot of fun. The bass guitar and ukulele complement each other very well. They don’t get in each other’s way sonically and the low bass notes allows for more harmonic complexity in the ukulele.

    Finally, what has the ukulele given you?

    The ukulele has been a great mentor in my life. I try to think and be like an ukulele – to live simple, be humble, friendly, child-like, positive, and always keep my roots in Hawaii.

    For tour dates and a whole lot more, head to jakeshimabukuro.com

    Photos by Paul McAlpine

    This article first appeared in Issue 8 of KAMUKE, which is available in the Store

  • THE DUKE OF UKE

    On December 2, 2011, Bill Tapia passed away. Two months earlier, Cameron Murray had the honour and privilege of talking to the 103-year-old ukulele legend for what proved to be Bill’s final interview. KAMUKE pays tribute to an inspirational man who lived life to the fullest. 

    IN 2004, I lucked out on a ticket to one of Jim Beloff’s UKEtopia concerts at the renowned McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California, and it was there I saw Bill Tapia for the first time. He was 96 and blew away the sell-out crowd with his musical virtuosity, wit and charm. That same year, despite having been a professional musician for some 85 years, Bill released his first-ever solo album – the fantastic Tropical Swing – and the worldwide ukulele community sat up and took notice.

    Born in Honolulu on January 1, 1908 to Portuguese parents, Tapia bought his first uke from a neighbour for about US$1.75. He was seven years old and that neighbour was none other than Manuel Nunes, the self-proclaimed “inventor” of the ukulele.

    “A fellow by the name of Jim Crowl taught me,” says Bill. “I was just a kid, but they put me in all these contests, amateur contests, and I won every one.”

    Tapia was soon playing his own arrangement of The Stars And Stripes Forever for American troops en route to World War I and by 12 he had quit school and got into vaudeville.

    In 1927, Bill performed at the grand opening of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki. He subsequently landed a job there as a chauffeur, driving VIP guests to scenic spots on the island and entertaining them with his uke at stops along the way. Naturally, a lot of celebrities entered his car and he would often teach them a few chords. Clark Gable, Jimmy Durante, Shirley Temple and Arthur Godfrey all benefitted from Tapia’s impromptu tuition.

    “They liked me there because I was a good driver and I knew all these people,” says Bill. “I played ukulele and sang a little bit.”

    After working on cruise ships between Hawaii and the US west coast, Tapia decided to relocate to Los Angeles after World War II, where he concentrated on playing jazz guitar and performed or jammed with the likes of Charlie Barnet, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, among many others. The ukulele took a back seat and he barely touched it for 55 years.

    Enter public radio DJ and concert producer Alyssa Archambault.

    “I met Bill a little over 10 years ago,” says 35-year-old Archambault. “It was the summer of 2001 and I was doing family genealogy at the time. On my mom’s side, I’ve got a pretty strong Hawaiian heritage. My great-grandparents played in vaudeville. They were part of the first wave of Hawaiians to bring their music to the mainland in the early 1900s, and when they came here, they toured the country and eventually settled in downtown LA.”

    It was Hawaiian slack-key guitarist George Kahumoku Jr who suggested that Archambault should contact Bill Tapia. He knew Bill was in Los Angeles at the same time as Alyssa’s great-grandparents and thought it was possible that they may have known each other.

    “I was really interested and excited about that idea,” she says, “so I gave Bill a cold call one day and started talking to him about my family. Bill basically said, ‘Why don’t you come over and show me your photos of your great-grandparents and we can talk about it?’ I had a lot of things to share, so I loaded up my car and I hung out with Bill all day. He took me out for lunch and we just had this great time.”

    Although he had certainly heard of them, Tapia had never met Archambault’s relatives, but he and Alyssa quickly became friends.

    “Two or three months later, I started booking him at concerts that I did locally and people were eating him up!” says Alyssa. “I started throwing ideas at him, like, ‘How would you feel about touring California?’ Or ‘How would you like to go back to Hawaii?’ And he was all for it. His wife had died just after he and I met, so I think he needed something to concentrate on. Our work together led to a record deal and more tours and more interviews.”

    The year before Bill turned 100, Alyssa approached him with the idea of organising a special birthday concert.

    “He didn’t even blink before he agreed,” she says. “I thought I’d give a tip of the old hat to Bill and create a vaudeville show, so I gathered all of his friends and different types of performers, from tap dancers to hula dancers and drummers and jazz bands.”

    On November 18, 2007, the concert took place at the historic Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro, California. Tapia had performed there once before – in either 1935 or ’36 – and he played for two solid hours before being presented with a huge birthday cake. Archambault recently released a brilliant CD recorded live at the momentous event.

     

    Aside from his musical skill, the one thing that always set Bill apart was his sense of style.

    “When I was 21, I was living in Hawaii and they had me model clothes in the theatre,” he says. “I love clothes and I wouldn’t leave the house unless I was dressed up with a jacket and everything.”

    “He told me many times that being a musician back in the day was like being a doctor,” says Alyssa. “It was a big deal back then. Nowadays, for a girl to bring a musician home, it’s another story!”

    Almost right up until his death, Tapia was still teaching uke, and he has some helpful hints for beginners: “Tell them to buy a ukulele and get a good book – and don’t try to learn too quick. The main thing is to learn to tune it good and learn two chords every day. And strum the chords so you can change from one to the other without breaking or stopping the rhythm. You’ll learn to play the darn thing in no time and you’ll learn it right. And tell them to put in half an hour, at least, every day.”

    “I played a helluva lot of steel guitar and regular guitar and bass, but ukulele is my favourite,” reveals Bill.

    Everybody likes it when you play the ukulele. I don’t know why, but they do. I played the ukulele when I was 12 years old, in 1920, when they loved it, and now it’s coming back! Everybody has a ukulele.

    So what can we learn from Bill’s amazing life?

    “I learnt to believe in my dreams and my passions – and to try to follow through with that in my life as much as possible,” says Archambault. “Bill did it since he was eight and it got him to 103.”

    We celebrate Bill Tapia not because of his extraordinary age, but because of his extraordinary personality. In a world of fakes and imitators, he was a true original.

    This article first appeared in Issue 3 of KAMUKE, which is available in the Store