Considering their long-term friendship, Honolulu’s tight musical scene, and the fact that their first Ukulele Friends collaboration earned them a major award for “Ukulele Album of the Year” from the Hawaiian Academy of Recording Arts in 2016, it’s no surprise that Herb Ohta Jr. and Bryan Tolentino teamed up for a sequel to their first duo album. [Edit: They did it again, this record won a Na Hoku Hanohano award, May 19, 2018.]
This time around, Chris Kamaka and Jake Shimabukuro join the pair for a mostly instrumental album of Hawaiian and hapa-haole classics. (A pair of vocal tracks—“I’ll Weave a Lei of Stars for You,” sung by Kamaka, and “Loa’a Ko Puni Kauoha”—help add a little diversity to nine instrumental tracks, and perhaps open the door for some more vocal work on the next Ukulele Friends album.)
Right from the intro of “Lei Nani,” Tolentino and Ohta hit supremely tasteful notes, rich with double-stops, and seem incapable of playing anything less than the most exquisite passages imaginable. “Sanshin No Hana,” nods to Okinawa with a cover of Begin’s composition for the Japanese shamisen.
No doubt Tolentino and Ohta intended “E Ku’u Morning Dew” as a salute to the legacy of Eddie Kamae, who died in early 2017, and was a towering influence on every Hawaiian musician, and especially the ukulele players, for decades of championing the folk music and culture of Hawaii. Joined here by Jake Shimabukuro, the three friends take turns improvising over the famous melody, with each player’s distinct voice coming through. Part of the fun comes from guessing who is playing what and when.
The intimate production sounds like it relied on the natural acoustic tones of musicians sitting in front of microphones, rather than using pickups, which can sound a little brash and thin to my ears over the course of an album. Here it’s mostly gorgeous, with just a touch of reverb, but at a few points, the audio distorts when the energy picks up.
There is a tremendous amount on Ukulele Friends The Sequel for ukulele fans to enjoy and players to learn riffs and effective accompaniment. It’s some of the most musical solo and duo ukulele work you’ll hear anywhere. —Greg Olwell