By Greg Olwell
Long before Jake Shimabukuro helped launch the ukulele into the stratosphere, many other Hawaiian ukulele players paved the way for his ascent.
Some musicians were active at the height of the first wave of ukulele mania in the ’20s and ’30s—and delivered the earliest recordings of uke virtuosity—while others were the heart and soul of a cultural revolution that began in the Islands in the ’60s and continues to flourish today. Because the ukulele has been the favored instrument of so many Hawaiian players, there are a slew of classic albums worth investigating, making it quite a challenge to narrow the list to five.
Each of the following artists has a large body of work worth exploring, but this is a great place to begin.
Facing Future (Mountain Apple)
It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than two decades years since Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo`ole’s masterpiece took the world by storm. Most listeners didn’t discover the supernatural beauty of his Hawaiian-hearted “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” medley until after his death in 1997, but this record has everything—the soul-stirring beauty of “Ka Pua U`i,” playful strumming on “`Ama`ama,” and a power to unite people on the poignant “Hawai`i ’78.” There’s a reason why this is the best-selling Hawaiian album of all time; it’s a must-have. Just like the album’s title claims, Iz was facing the future, and the rest of us have been playing catch-up ever since.
Hawaiian String Virtuoso (Yazoo)
This compilation of “King” Bennie Nawahi’s recordings from 1928 through 1949 showcases the vaudevillian’s over-the-top virtuosity on ukulele, steel guitar, and mandolin. While it’s heavy on groundbreaking steel-guitar playing, his recording of “Ukulele Benny” with the Georgia Jumpers (one of many acts on this collection) is reason enough to earn him a place at the table. It’s two minutes and 51 seconds of skill, passion, and humor—if only he had a YouTube video, he’d be a star today. Even the songs featuring other ukesters backing Nawahi are a powerful lesson in the power and variety of old-style strumming. This album is a perfect gateway to the amazing vintage Hawaiian music recorded by Kalama’s Quartet, Sol Ho`opi`i, and many others of the early period.
Hawaiian Style (Hula)
The Kahauanu Lake Trio helped to free the uke from its background rhythm role in ensembles and make it a lead melody instrument. Lake, a left-handed strummer who played a custom-made baritone, formed a trio with his brother Tommy Lake on upright bass and Al Machida on guitar that created an influential template of gentle, jazzy Hawaiian swing that continues to inspire. When “Mister K” died in 2011, at age 79, he left behind 60 years’ worth of music, including six albums and countless Island gigs. All of the trio’s albums are worth seeking out, but the group’s 1964 debut is what created the mold.
The Folk Music of Hawaii (Panini)
It would be impossible to overstate the importance of this album, this group, and its leader, ukulele player/singer/researcher Eddie Kamae. With the help of his esteemed bandmates, including Moe Keale on uke and slack-key guitar great Gabby Pahinui, Kamae’s celebration of Hawaiian folk music was nothing short of revolutionary. Already a virtuoso and popular musician, Kamae went to the countryside in the mid-’60s to learn the songs and the language of Island old-timers, then brought it to a wider audience with this 1971 album. A ukulele-driven revolution never sounded so sweet, harmonious, and proud of its island heritage, and the album remains a major influence today.
Guava Jam (Hula)
The Sunday Manoa’s 1969 recording changed Hawaiian music and helped launch a cultural renaissance after 150 years of colonization. From the first strums of the album’s opener, “Kawika,” the group’s co-founder, Peter Moon, heralded a new virtuosic style of ukulele playing and showed fans what the little instrument could do. Guava Jam is not a uke shred-fest, however—Moon takes the lead when needed and melts into the ensemble and thickens it with soulful accompaniment. Moon went on to have a long recording career, including two more albums with the Sunday Manoa and many records with the Peter Moon Band, but it’s here that he got his start, and you’ll find some of the most essential elements of his inimitable style.