From the Summer 2016 issue of Ukulele | BY AUDREY COLEMAN
The opening moments of “Stardust” come in leisurely phrases, as if the musician is pausing to reflect on cherished memories. Each note has a purity. As the song’s regular rhythm takes over, Herb Ohta gives the jazz standard unique freshness. In a video of his performance at the 2015 Ukulele Festival Hawaii, his improvisations on Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” are a study of cool inventiveness rather than the blur of bravura often expected of virtuosos. His recording of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” projects exquisite delicacy and a sense of passionate expectancy.
Such are the gifts of the master who, as the Ukulele Hall of Fame has noted, “. . . has created an unprecedented body of work and has arguably inspired and influenced more players than any other living ukulele virtuoso.”
How did he reach that level of musicianship?
Herb Ohta was born the son of Japanese immigrants in Honolulu in 1934. His mother taught him a few ukulele chords when he was seven years old. At nine, he won first prize in a local amateur ukulele contest. Three years later, Eddie Kamae, the young Hawaiian who was redefining ukulele technique, began mentoring him. Ohta shared this and other musical milestones in a 2012 interview at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
“I was shocked that the ukulele could sound that good,” Ohta recalled. “To play all those intricate and difficult things like double picking. All these things, he started, like Latin music. So I bugged him every weekend. He played for me, and by watching, I learned more.”
Kamae advised Ohta to find his own unique style. During military service, the younger musician developed his personal approach to the ukulele. After his ten-year stint in the Marine Corps, a high-school friend introduced him to Don McDiarmid Jr., the leader of Hula Records. One audition convinced McDiarmid to record Ohta and to give him the honorific Ohta-san.
Ohta-san’s debut album of mostly Japanese instrumentals, called The Cool Touch, contained a catchy song called “Sushi.” “That’s the one that hit,” he said in 2012. “That thing became No. 1 in Hawaii in two weeks. Dick Clark [the host of TV’s American Bandstand] . . . played my record. And the kids were dancing to it.”
“Sushi” propelled Ohta-san into a five-year major-label contract with Decca. During the 1960s, he also produced his own popular show at a Waikiki hotel. Invited to the Yamaha Music Festival in Japan in 1972, he met and played for French composer André Popp. After listening to Ohta-san’s rendition of “Clair de Lune,” Popp was nonplussed. “He said, ‘You come to Paris in April,’” recalls the uke virtuoso. “‘Let’s make an album together.’ Bingo!”
After April in Paris, a jubilant Ohta-san returned to Hawaii and sent cassette copies of the album’s dreamy title piece, “Song for Anna,” to all the major US labels. “They all turned me down,” he recalls. “They said, ‘We cannot sell something like this, not in the rock era.’ So I just released it locally and it became No. 1 in Hawaii on all the rock stations.” Soon mainland record distributors were clamoring for it.
Along with five decades of performances and recordings, Ohta-san is also a renowned teacher. His son, Herb Ohta Jr., a fellow Na Hoku Hanohano (Hawaiian music award) winner, and Roy Sakuma, founder of the Ukulele Festival Hawaii, are two of his stellar students.
Perhaps Ohta-san’s most important contribution is the respect he earned for the four-stringed wonder we love. “The ukulele has unusual qualities that have not been properly exploited,” he told the New York Times in 1966. “It has the range of a flute, but it also can be chorded.
“And you can’t strum a guitar the way you can a ukulele.”