Maui’s Andrew Molina is among a new generation of Hawaiian ukulele players taking a global-sized approach to what’s possible on the uke. Over the course of A New Journey’s one-hour run time, the 24-year-old ukulele virtuoso takes us on a musical journey that highlights his own compositions and modern ukulele playing.
Though his name is the one on the marquee, Andrew’s guests—which includes a few of the most recognizable names in the ukulele world—and his band, featuring his father Jay Molina on electric bass, plus guitar and percussion backing, are a big part of the show, adding texture and groove.
Four of the album’s 14 tracks are covers of very popular songs, tunes that nearly every listener would recognize, though each is twisted into something new. After the long crescendo of “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” the Guns N’ Roses anthem goes out in a blaze of flamenco-type strumming, while his cover of the Game of Thrones theme accentuates the aching longing of the theme’s melody as it drops some of the hit HBO show’s soul-crushing heaviness. On Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” however, he goes more for a straight tribute, right down to copping Steve Lukather’s rhythm guitar part and a nearly note-for-note take on Eddie Van Halen’s smoking (and wacky) solo.
While the cover songs offer up something familiar to relate to, it’s Andrew’s originals that really stand strongest on A New Journey. Several friends join Molina on his journey, including Craig Chee, who plays cello (!) on the title track, a piece with Andrew’s cascading arpeggios that made it a song that I kept returning to for further listening. With a Latin-like backing that gives it something of a classic surf-music groove, “Surfing at Jaws” features Andrew and fellow ukulele hot-shot Kalei Gamiao working through a tumbling melody line that sounds like a big wave breaking. But, just based on star power, it’s an appearance by Jake Shimabukuro on the album’s closer, “Dancing Strings,” that will garner the most attention. Molina is a one of the new generation of ukulele players who grew up watching Jake kick the doors open of what’s acceptable for the ukulele to play and it’s fitting that the two boundary-breaking players take turns ripping through “Dancing Strings.” —Greg Olwell
If there is any musician alive who understands the importance of the word “play” in the phrase “play music,” it’s Ledward Kaapana. For decades, the Big Island native has been one of the most beloved and revered musicians from Hawaii. Best-known for his skill and endlessly inventive musicality on slack-key guitar, Kaapana specializes in thrilling audiences by making the difficult look so, so easy. His ukulele playing has long been a featured part of his shows, but Jus Press Vol. 2 marks the first time he has recorded an entire album’s worth of ukulele music.
And it was worth the wait.
Kaapana plays a mix of Hawaiian slack-key classics (yes, he detunes, or “slacks the keys” on his Moore Bettah tenor ukulele) and standard-tuned favorites on this ten-track, 34-minute album. In true solo-album approach, Kaapana plays all of the instruments on the record, including ukulele, tiple, guitar, and bass backing. (The original Jus’ Press was a 1985 album by Ledward Kaapana and I Kona.) In his typical fashion, Kaapana’s playing on each piece is joyous from the first notes through each piece’s resolution, pushing and pulling the melody over a solid feel. Whether he’s playing slower tempos or a bit more sprightly, it creates a touching emotional effect.
With slower-tempo pieces backed up with speedier songs, the album has a great flow of energy, giving you a chance to catch your breath after the blazing showpieces with something a little more chill. Led reimagines Henry Mancini’s adorable, slightly silly “Baby Elephant Walk” with tiple, a 10-string cousin of the ukulele, and retitled “Elephant Walk.” One of his concert staples, a bouncing slack-key classic called “Opihi Moemoe” is a fantastic example of Led’s ability to creatively improvise within the song’s groove.
Jus’ Press is not just for his dedicated followers, “Ledheads,” it’s a great album of music for Hawaiian music fans or anyone needing fingerpicking inspiration mixed with abundant fun. It’s as essential as ukulele albums can get. Jus’ press play on your CD player. —GO
Cited as the first album of instrumental ukulele music, Mungo Plays Ukulele holds an important place in the history of recorded ukulele music. Reissued on CD by Cord in 2012, this long out-of-print record from the late ’50s features Harry “Mungo” Kalahiki playing a mish-mash of mainland and Hawaiian classics with upright bass and percussion accompaniment, giving the album a feel of being a ’50s-era tourist listening to the group while sitting in a Waikiki bar.
With a deft right hand, Kalahiki’s set of instrumentals cover vintage Hawaiian classics like a hyper “Palolo” and the fingerpicking single-note lines of “Hanohano Hanalei”; playing chord melody on Kurt Weill’s “September Song” and Debussy’s Clare de Lune; and the playful “March Medley” that wraps up a quartet of military standards including “Anchors Aweigh” and the “Marine Hymn” and dresses them in playful strumming. At a brief 29 minutes, this record is a crowd-pleaser and an important step between the hapa-haole/vaudeville classics of the first ukulele wave and the Hawaiian cultural renaissance that followed—and a warm-up to today’s ukulele virtuosos.
Given the lush packaging you often see with reissues, it’s disappointing to see that Mungo doesn’t have any additional information or images to contextualize the recording or even tell you more about Kalahiki. I want to know more about this player’s background and what the future held for Mungo. —GO
JAKE SHIMABUKURO TEACHES UKULELE LESSONS
With this new book and online video series, you can finally take lessons from Jake. Each book includes an access code to exclusive video content (available for streaming or download) that accompanies every example in the 14-chapter book—a nice modern twist to the book/CD combo that many of us may have started with. Jake may be an advanced player, but the lessons in this book are for everyone. Lessons begin like this is your first day with a ukulele, teaching pronunciation and posture, quickly moving to getting beginners making music. From there, the lessons progress to the various chords, strumming, fingerpicking techniques, and gear knowledge that everyone needs to know. Of course, there are also full transcriptions/lessons of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Ukulele Five-0.” More than just a great introduction to the ukulele, it’s a valuable new instruction book for anyone looking to enrich their playing. Hal Leonard, 80 pages, $19.99. halleonard.com
VINTAGE UKULELE BOOK
Though it’s nearly entirely in Japanese and will take some hunting online to find for US buyers, the Vintage Ukulele Book belongs on the bookshelf of anyone who can’t get enough of classic ukuleles. The detailed photographs of gorgeous instruments and breadth of coverage of historic makers in chapters on the “Hawaiian Brands” (Kamaka, Nunes, Santo, Kumalae, Aloha, Royal Hawaiian), the “Chicago Connection” (Maccaferri, Harmony, Regal, J.R. Stewart, Lyon & Healy, and Gibson), and of course, Martin, makes this book invaluable to collectors and history fanatics—even if you don’t understand a word of Japanese. Futabasha, 178 pages, approx. $32 (plus shipping from cdjapan.co.jp)