BY AUDREY COLEMAN | FROM THE SUMMER 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE

Excited applause and shouts of “Hana hou!” (Encore!) resound from the orchestra section up to the balcony of the Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts in Whittier, California. Three award-winning ukulele players and a celebrated uke-strumming vocalist wave final alohas as the curtain descends on the afternoon performance of “Ukulele Friends Kanikapila!” The evening show will start in about two hours. Bryan Tolentino, Halehaku Seabury, Herb Ohta Jr., and Pomaika’i Lyman know one another, but this is their first gig as a foursome.

The group’s pivotal member, Tolentino, conceptualized and organized “Ukulele Friends Kanikapila!” for the Shannon Center’s long-running Aloha Concert series. The acclaimed accompanist, soloist, and studio ensemble player envisioned a show that would convey the generous spirit and spontaneous music-making found in a kanikapila—often a loose jam session, but really any sort of friendly musical gathering for Hawaiian music. Involving three other top-notch ukulele players would be no problem, since he’s on a first-name basis with the most celebrated performers of Hawaiian traditional music, who, incidentally, consider the Shannon Center a prestigious mainland venue. But for the December 7, 2019 concert, Tolentino needed the right three ukulele players. “There are a lot of musicians that think the spotlight is always on them. We have to be willing to share the stage. For a kanikapila to work, you need people who can play with other musicians. That’s the biggest thing. Not just to do what you do, but to accompany other people. We all did that growing up.”

Pomaika’i Lyman is joined by Halehaku Seabury (on electric guitar) and others in this video from a few years ago.
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He selected the right musicians. Ohta Jr., Seabury, and Lyman enjoy playing music with others. While doing so, they apply lessons from kanikapila they attended among family and friends—where everyone gets a chance to shine, but the overall goal is to make exciting music together and have fun doing it. 

Between the afternoon and evening shows, the four musicians—let’s call them the uke buddies—chat about their collaboration. Tolentino never doubted their combined talents. “There was no ‘I hope this works . . . I hope we connect.’ None of that. And I think each of us had that confidence.”

“We haven’t played as a quartet, but we’ve played in twos and threes, so we all know what to expect from each other,” says Lyman, who strums the rhythm chords. Performing traditional Hawaiian songs in the show, she sounds much like her grandmother, the legendary Genoa Keawe. 

Ohta Jr. explains the foursome’s fluid collaboration differently. “The interaction [happens] not just musically but on a personal level. We’re all friends. We not only respect each other as artists but as human beings. I mean, we all like each other on stage, on stage!” he adds with a laugh.

Musical collaboration can be exhilarating, disappointing, and everything in between.Here, the uke buddies illuminate its rewards and challenges. Sharing their experience, they reveal ways of creating a high-quality musical blend. Want a summary in advance? Ohta Jr. states, “You always have to listen to everyone else and what they’re doing musically.”

“There has to be texture in the music,” says Tolentino, whose creative playing choices have enhanced many live collaborations and more than 50 albums. He describes musical texture for the “Kanikapila!” show: “It’s four ukuleles. Pomai sets the rhythm on her tenor. Herb will probably be doing all the single-string picking and vamps; he’s more of a lead player, anyway. So right there the music will be orchestrated and each of us is listening to what everyone else is doing. Instead of just strumming the chord, I can play arpeggios. Instead of always playing 1-2-3-4, maybe I’ll play on the two and four. Instead of down-stroking, I play up-strums. Subtleties like that enhance what we are doing as a group and don’t take away.”

Herb Ohta Jr. (left) and Bryan Tolentino at NAMM in Anaheim in 2017.
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Ohta, Jr. tells what might prompt him to vary a playing choice. “I could be strumming while Bryan’s singing, but the way he’s singing might be different one night. He’s triggered something in me, so I think maybe I should strum this way or play a high chord here. . .”


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“We have a musical awareness of everything that goes on, so we can make adjustments on the fly,” adds multi-instrumentalist Seabury. “My baritone is tuned the lowest, so it’s my job to take care of the lower pitches. When it’s my turn to take a solo, or if I need to move into their register to get the melody heard, they’ll move their voicings to a lower register. It’s real-time awareness. Everyone’s on.”

But everyone arrives with different skills and abilities. Through careful listening, Tolentino determines the best way to complement the playing of his fellow musicians. “If someone is not strong on rhythm, I’ll take it upon myself to play the rhythm for everybody. If I need to just strum, then I’ll do that. If I know a person is not as strong playing lead, I’ll play lead. If they’re all looking for direction, I will take the reins for that group,” he says. “But with strong people who know what they want, I’ll just ‘fairydust’ [subtly enhance] them.”

As their musical awareness sharpens, musicians gradually learn to complement the playing of their peers. In addition, those committed to collaborating and receptive to learning make surprising musical discoveries.“I apply a lot of what I learn while I am playing in a group to enhance my solo playing—like certain chord choices or rhythms,” says Tolentino, adding, “A lot of young ukulele players have this idea, ‘I’m going to be a soloist, I’m going to be the next Jake.’ They forget that Jake was in Pure Heart [a trio] before he became Jake Shimabukuro.”

Ohta Jr. performs most often as a soloist but says his own musicianship evolves more from playing in groups. “When you get with four ukulele players and everyone enjoys playing and wants to share, the energy you get from each individual is different from yours. Each has a different personality and it comes through musically. That’s the beauty of it.”  

Years of mentoring from Tolentino have helped Seabury deal with challenges on stage and in studio sessions. “He’s a beast in the studio!” he says of Tolentino’s “musical intuition in formulating a part that suits the track.” He especially values the strategy Tolentino suggests when you find yourself in a group situation where the combined music is becoming confused and heading for collision. In Tolentino’s words, “Lay out [stop playing] and just listen to the other musicians. You don’t need to give input to a conversation that’s not making sense.” If two people are playing in the same group and this situation arises, Seabury says, “We’re like, ‘Ho, traffic jam, traffic jam!’”

Ohta Jr. says that other traffic jams and collisions result from the urge to dominate. Someone might think, ‘I just want to play loud so people can hear what I’m doing,’ but when you play with other people, that’s not the case. Every instrument onstage has a voice and its own purpose and responsibilities. Now, when you have four ukuleles, it’s the same thing. We are all just trying to enhance one piece of music to express it truthfully. You don’t want to be overpowering anyone else.”

According to Lyman, even strumming rhythm chords may provoke territorial issues. “I have to be able to hear when my instrument is overshadowing the others. I don’t want to drown out their sound and take their spotlight.”

No such issues plague the uke buddies, who, as Tolentino puts it, “know how to stay in their own lane to make it successful. We have mutual respect for each other. We don’t consciously try to outshine each other.”

While no single remedy exists for musical traffic snarls, humor can diffuse tensions. Each uke buddy has a repertoire. Seabury admits to “playing stuff that will make [the other musicians] laugh.” The show’s emcee, Tolentino, springs surprises on unsuspecting players, like announcing during the afternoon show, “Now we’re going to feature Halehaku Seabury,” who bursts out, “We are? I am?”

However, humor is not always welcome. “We have to know what we can and cannot say on stage,” says Tolentino, who controls his funny bone during concerts with Lyman. She explains, “We have this friendship where we can poke fun at each other. Once we step on stage, he understands that I represent my grandma [Genoa Keawe]. So, he’ll limit his poking.”

From funny moments to music selections, how closely will the evening show resemble the one they did this afternoon? In kanikapila spirit, Tolentino muses, “We might change the whole set . . . although I’m pretty sure Pomai will do ‘Alika’ [her grandmother’s signature song].” 

Indeed, Lyman performs “Alika” to great acclaim. The uke buddies strum and pick their stuff as soloists, superbly blending duos and trios, and the magnificent four. They are on! Their strings tell stories: zesty, mellow, downhome, sassy, exuberant and—for Christmas—touching. Emcee Tolentino throws Seabury another curve, yielding another “We are? I am?” response.  Toward the end of the performance, Tolentino and Ohta Jr. play “G minor Fleas.” They composed it in ten minutes, Tolentino shares with the crowd. “Don’t laugh. It’s going to sound like we wrote it in ten minutes.”


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