Strings that plumb the tonal depths inspire a quirky, close-knit fraternity
Let us imagine the instruments of an orchestra as a bunch of dogs. The flute would be a Chihuahua; the violin, perhaps a beagle; the tuba, a Doberman. And the string bass would be a pony.
OK, a pony is not dog, but that serves to illustrate the point.
A big, booming bass exists apart -- to the back or the side of whatever group it's in, providing a steadfast beat for the glory instruments that carry the tune. Sort of like the dutiful pony pulling the cart as the Chihuahua and the beagle yap about and get all the attention.
But enough of the tortured metaphor. This is important -- why? Because Sunday begins the Hawaii Contrabass Festival, a week of concerts and master classes celebrating the lowest of the low among string instruments.
The festival was founded in 2000 by the late George Wellington Sr., a contrabassist and educator, and continues every two years under the direction of his daughter Fumiko, a violinist with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra.
The festival draws an international roster of top bassists, among them the legendary François Rabbath (the event is dedicated to Rabbath's 75th birthday).
The string bass lives among the notes at the bottom of the musical staff -- and below. If you don't read music, think of it this way: If the bass could sing, it would be Barry White.
It's 6 feet tall and 21 inches wide and can be plucked by hand or strummed by bow. Its job is to provide the foundation, in tone and rhythm.
"The bass is the heartbeat," says Bruce Hamada, a professional bassist and singer. "We're the root; we play the time and the beat."
And yet, their work often passes unnoticed. "You're invisible in a sense because everything sounds right," says John Kolivas, bassist with the Honolulu Jazz Quartet and the symphony -- and a teacher of future bassists at Punahou School.
If the bass stops, the other musicians flounder, Kolivas says, "because the bottom falls out."
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
John Kolivas, center, plays a string bass made in 1910 in Czechoslovakia. He has owned it for 20 years. Bruce Hamada, left, and Steve Jones also have long-term relationships with their instruments, Hamada for at least 15 years, Jones for 29.
These bassists definitely suffer no lack of self-esteem. "Piano players are all wacky, and drummers just like to make noise," Kolivas says. "The bass player has to be responsible."
Adds Hamada, "We get there, and we decide how (the music) is going to be. We just let them think they're running the show -- you can print that."
The word "contrabass" actually refers to the lowest-pitched instrument in any family. There are, for example, contrabass trumpets and trombones, as well as octo-contrabass clarinets. Not to mention the B-flat sub-contrabass tubax, a 4-foot-tall instrument that plays like a saxophone but is pitched more like a tuba.
The Contrabass Festival, however, focuses on the string bass, which is the most familiar among these unfamiliar instruments.
You know you're a contrabass maniac if:
People come up to you and ask, "What is that thing?"
... And after you tell them, and they still don't understand,
... And it's your band director who's asking.
That particular bit of wisdom comes from Grant Green, a patent lawyer in the Bay area who has an interest in contrabasses that borders on obsession. He plays contrabassoon with the San Jose Wind Symphony and maintains the Web site www.contrabass.com, an immense collection of facts about deep-voiced instruments, few of which the normal person has ever seen, heard or heard of.
Green also has a collection of 40 or 50 of them, mostly winds, and can play them all to some degree.
He started out on clarinet in the fourth grade, then kept moving to lower and lower instruments, fascinated by their tonal qualities and what they contributed to the music.
"There are parts where you have the root of the entire orchestra. There is an indescribable thrill that goes with this."
COURTESY EBB AND FLOW ARTS
Nobuyoshi Ino, left, and Tetsu Saito will perform at the Hawaii Contrabass Festival.
You know you're a contrabass maniac if:
Your instrument eats smaller instruments when you turn your back
... including euphoniums and bass clarinets
... and tubas
... and pianos, if it hasn't been fed for a while.
Playing an instrument the size of a string bass requires some accommodation. Your car, for example. Bassists require vehicles at least the size of station wagons, although Hamada says he used to strap his bass into the front seat of his Honda.
At home -- "I stick it in the bathroom or the garage, wherever my family let's me," says Steve Jones, a bassist and music producer.
"I keep mine in the corner next to the piano. ... My wife keeps trying to find another place for it," Kolivas says.
And these guys play three-quarter-size instruments. A full-size bass is wider and deeper (smaller sizes are also available, for younger players).
Traveling is another issue. For neighbor-island trips, some bassists will buy a first-class seat for their instrument and belt it in. But mainland travel requires packing it in a trunk that is inevitably oversized and can result in extra fees. Total weight exceeds 100 pounds, quadrupling the weight of the bass itself.
"The trunk is like a coffin -- you need pallbearers to carry it," Jones says. "Airlines can get farty about it."
You know you're a contrabass maniac if:
You donated your old instrument to the local high school, and they were able to re-equip their entire band just from the scrap proceeds.
Hamada, Kolivas and Jones all were assigned low instruments as preteens in school music programs. For Hamada it was the trombone; Jones, the tuba; Kolivas, the cello (based on the size of his hands).
They gravitated on the side to the electric bass guitar "because of Paul McCartney, I think," Hamada says, and quickly found that the instrument gave them entree into bands.
As adults they immersed themselves in the vibrant musical stew of Waikiki in the '70s and eventually learned how much more the standing string bass offered, able to straddle genres from classical to jazz to Hawaiian to blues.
They remain part of a small community -- they count fewer than a half-dozen among them. "If you play bass you'll always work," Kolivas says. "Every group needs a bass."
Add to this the basic importance of the instrument. "Technically, I don't care how you analyze it -- everything rests on that lowest note," Jones said. "That harmonic series runs all the way to the top."
Do other musicians realize this?
"They do," Kolivas says, "as soon as they hear a bad bassist."
To hear the bassists quoted in this article
Bruce Hamada performs with pianist Jim Howard from 8:30 to midnight Thursdays and Fridays at the Halekulani and 7 to 10 p.m. Saturdays at the Pacific Beach Hotel. John Kolivas performs with the Betty Loo Taylor Trio from 7:30 to 11 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays at the Kahala Mandarin Oriental. Steve Jones plays with pianist Tennyson Stephens from 9 p.m. to midnight Thursdays and 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturdays at the Bistro at Century Center.
HAWAII CONTRABASS FESTIVAL
The Contrabass Festival begins Sunday on Maui, then moves to Oahu.
The Maui concert, "Music and Art Extravaganza," is a multimedia presentation featuring featuring bassists Tetsu Saito and Nobuyoshi Ino with the Maui Jazz Quartet. Percussionist Emil Richards will present his "The Eyes Hear, the Ears See," which features the creation of a visual art piece, set to music. At 5 p.m., The Studio Maui, Haiku. Tickets are $8.
All shows are at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $22; $15 students and symphony musicians. Ticket package for all four Oahu concerts is $75; $50 students and symphony musicians. Tickets are available at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, 532-8700, and at the University of Hawaii-Manoa Campus Center, 956-7235. Or reserve tickets online, www.cbfest.org.
Tuesday: "New Music for Contrabass" with bassist/composer Frank Proto with Jeff Peterson, Sam Wellington, Darel Stark and Terra Nova; Doris Duke Theatre, Honolulu Academy of Arts.
Wednesday: Solo recital by Francois Rabbath, with pianist Robert Pollock; Doris Duke Theatre.
Friday: "Jazz and Free Improvisation from Japan" with Nobuyoshi Ino and Tetsu Saitoh; Doris Duke Theatre.
Saturday: "Father and Son Jazz Glitterati," John Clayton Jr., bass, and Gerald Clayton, piano; UH Orvis Auditorium
All concerts are at 4 p.m. at the Kamehameha Schools Arts Complex, 1887 Makuakane St.
Monday: Jazz works by Ernie Provencher, bass; Jeff Peterson, guitar; Bruce Hamada, bass; Jim Howard, piano
Tuesday: Chamber music trios by Terra Nova; plus performances by Nobuyoshi Ino and Tetsu Saitoh
Wednesday: Classical and jazz pieces by Shawn Conley, bass; Abe Lagrimas, drums; plus jazz and Hawaiian music by Byron Yasui, bass; Benny Chong, ukulele
Thursday: Duets by Bartok and Gliere featuring John Gallagher and Geoffrey Stone, bass; Maile Reeves, violin; plus the Honolulu Jazz Quartet
Friday: 2004-2005 Merit Scholars Kaleo Ha'o, Kiyoe Wellington, Nakana Wong, Katherine Schulmeister and Peter Valenti, contrabassists
FOR STUDENT BASSISTS
For information on workshops, festival mentorships and scholarships, visit the Web site, www.cbfest.org.