Last Saturday, the 39th Annual Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards took place on the island of O’ahu at the Hawai’i Convention Center. Honoring some of Hawai’i’s finest musicians, the Nā Hōkū Awards is often referred to as the “Hawaiian Grammys,” with awards in categories ranging from Hawaiian album of the year to rock album of the year. Some of these categories can change depending on the number of submissions that year. So you can imagine the level of excitement in the ‘ukulele community when they announced the brand new ‘Ukulele Album of the Year category 4 years ago. Since we have seen some of the world’s best ‘ukulele players as both winners and nominees of the category such as Jake Shimabukuro, Brittni Paiva, and Kalei Gamiao.
This year’s Na Hoku Hanohano Awards saw a particularly diverse selection of ‘ukulele players. It truly was a hard pick because each one of these albums stands worthy of the title ‘Ukulele Album of the Year. I wanted to share some personal insights and a general summary on what I think are the merits of each album. Note that this is purely opinion and I would love to open the floor to your thoughts in the comment section down below. Also below each album is a link to some UkePrints articles for further listening of the artist. So without further ado, let’s get into it!
Peter Aquino and Garret Probst are both working and gigging ‘ukulele players on the island of Maui. With close ties to the Kahumoku family, their style of ‘ukulele playing is uniquely authentic as they fuse their traditional Hawaiian music upbringing with their own local flair. Juz Cuz, Ukulele Duets features an on-going instrumental conversation between their two styles such as a spin on Dueling Banjos titled Dueling Ukuleles and a solid version of the difficult piece G Minor Fleas. The two cousins embody the spirit of ‘ukulele and how it brings people together.
While Kimo Hussey can make any style of ‘ukulele sound like gold, he has decided to take a stand and show us just what you can do with a low-g tuned ‘ukulele. Using a tasteful approach to arranging, Hussey plays old favorites such as La Vie En Rose, Danny Boy, and L-O-V-E. His articulate style holds onto the melody of the song yet provides a robust and defined rhythm. This style of solo ‘ukulele playing can often be overshadowed by the flash and chops of the mainstream ‘ukulele sound. I believe this is an album for the books as a study for players and it’s humble statement.
Some argue that the album is dead and musicians have a better chance producing strong and catchy singles. The ‘ukulele world is not exempt from this trend as many players are looking for the next trendy cover or looking to write the next hot hit. Taimane Gardner’s concept album We Are Made of Stars asks it’s audience to sit down for a multi-cultural and cosmic journey through the ‘ukulele. While the album does feature Gardner as an ‘ukulele virtuoso, We Are Made of Stars features her skills as a songwriter and arranger. The mixture of chanting, instrumentation, effects, and her visual and haunting vocals create not only a unique ‘ukulele album but experience. Gardner pushes the envelope with this creative and well thought album.
Jake Shimabukuro – Travels
Over the course of Jake Shimabukuro’s career was have seen him evolve and change from the Hawaiian-pop group Pure Heart to his light-hearted solo album Sunday Morning to his work with Alan Parsons with Grand Ukulele. His journey defining his sound and playing have led to the sophistication of Travels. Travels incorporates a lot of “classic Jake,” such the well-arranged cover of I’ll Be There to the ‘ukulele shredding of Kawika to the rubato interlude of Passport. This well-produced album shows us Shimabukuro’s thoughtful nature as an artist with gems such as the colorful and dynamic Departure Suite to the beautiful counterpoint and harmonies of the self-titled track Travels. Alongside his rendition of the traditional tune Hi’ilawe, Shimabukuro shows us it takes a fusion of the new and old to be an artist in today’s world.
Two of Hawai’i’s greatest ‘ukulele players and long time friends, Bryan Tolentino and Herb Ohta Jr. got together to record a collection of Hawaiian and hapa haole tunes. As two of Hawai’i’s hardest working ‘ukulele players, having the two of them record together in studio is ‘ukulele history in the making. These humble duets provide tasteful and elegant versions of In a Little Hula Heaven, Beautiful Kaua’i, and Hawai’i Calls. Both Tolentino and Ohta Jr. play with light touch and in compliment to each other. Never stepping over the other, they leave space in their playing so the song can breathe and let the beauty of the song tell the story. Some say part of the process of making art is learning how to say what you need to say in as few words as possible. As seasoned musicians, Tolentino and Ohta Jr. bring that wisdom to life in ‘Ukulele Friends.
The 39th Annual Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards and HARA (Hawaii Academy of Recording Artists) voted ‘Ukulele Friends to be the recipient of this year’s award. Congratulations gentlemen and hopefully this will turn into a Northwest tour? If so we hope you stop in Eugene!