STAR-BULLETIN / JANUARY 2007
Bill Tapia celebrated his 99th birthday at the rRed Elephant in January last year.
Old dog’s new licks
Bill Tapia, at 100, keeps his edge as an uke virtuoso and delights the crowds
With 90 years experience as a professional entertainer, Bill Tapia knows that it's good to have new material, especially when you play a town as often as he's been playing Honolulu.
Folks love him and with good reason. Not only is Tapia, at the age of 100, a living link to the Hawaiian music of a century ago, but he is also a virtuoso musician and a thoroughly engaging entertainer on stage. If nothing else, the chances are slim to none you'll find another entertainer anywhere in the world who can introduce a song as "something I learned during World War I."
From a historical perspective, Tapia's place in the evolution of the ukulele is a story in itself.
But as for the new material, when Tapia was here in December, celebrating his 100th with a backyard luau at Mihana Souza's home in Kailua, he entertained the crowd with a new one-liner.
It seems that after living on the mainland for 60 years, Tapia decided he wanted to own a home here, too.
What were the terms of sale? "A 30-year mortgage."
Tapia was hot on stage that afternoon, playing his uke as the guest of honor in a kanikapila jam that included Souza, Ledward Kaapana, Benny Chong, Byron Yasui and Jeff Peterson.
Souza and Peterson, who performed with Tapia at the rRed Elephant last year, will be on stage with him again on Saturday when he celebrates his birthday -- again -- with a one-nighter at Diamond Head Theatre. Ernie Provencher, who played bass for Tapia in both engagements at the Elephant, joins in the festivities, as well as special guest Raiatea Helm.
As for repertoire, expect anything from Hawaiian and hapa-haole standards to "Young at Heart," the song Tapia used as his finale at the Elephant last January.
The song describes Tapia's outlook perfectly.
It's a fact of life that when an entertainer reaches a certain age, there's a sense that they may not be around for much longer. There are also entertainers who continue on until they reach the point of being a novelty act, where loyal fans hope and pray their heroes can get through their show without forgetting where they are.
But that's not Tapia, no how, no way! For him, being 100 is maybe the new 50, in terms of playing music and entertaining a crowd.
"He was giving us the (chord) changes and calling the solos all through the show," Peterson said after Tapia celebrated his 99th birthday with a two-hour concert last January.
That night, Tapia also entertained the crowd with stories of old-time Honolulu, like how he became interested in the ukulele after hearing his Hawaiian neighbors on Sereno Street, or how he persuaded Manuel Nunes, one of the first ukulele makers, to sell him a used uke for all the money he had -- 75 cents -- back in 1915. And there was the time Tapia was arrested at the age of 11, or maybe 12, for playing in a speakeasy shortly after the advent of Prohibition.
And then there's the story that tops the list for those of us interested in the history of Hawaiian music. At the age of 10, when he was already playing for tips on street corners and entertaining American soldiers who were en route to the killing fields of World War I, Tapia heard a marching band play "The Stars and Stripes Forever" and followed it along until he had the melody memorized. He worked out an arrangement of the song for the ukulele, and it became an instant hit for him.
Although other ukulele players are known to have played and recorded the song, Tapia recorded it first. Shigeo Yasui, the father of multitalented musician and educator Byron Yasui, recorded Tapia at an informal session at the Metronome Music Store in 1936. The recording would eventually be released commercially on Tapia's first album, "Tropical Swing," in 2004.
To hear Tapia play is to hear a man who was born barely one generation after the ukulele evolved out of the Portuguese braguinha or machete, and whose first teachers came out of that first generation of Hawaiian ukulele players.
There is, then, a definite element of historical interest when Tapia takes the stage. He's older than most of the pop standards he plays, but over and above that, he's a delightful entertainer.
For Bill Tapia, age really is nothing but a number.
BILL TAPIA CENTENARY CELEBRATION CONCERT
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Diamond Head Theatre, 520 Makapuu Ave.
Tickets: $12 to $42
Call: 521-9699 or visit honoluluboxoffice.com