"What I wanted to prove was that (the ukulele) can be a solo instrument," says Ohta-san, who began his music career 40 years ago.

Like father, like son

The Ohtas share a humble nature
and ukulele mastery

Musical talent has passed from generation to generation in the Ohta family in a way that is as understated and low-key as the music that Herb "Ohta-san" Ohta and his son, Herb Ohta Jr., play so well. Herb Jr. recalls the process as a combination of heredity and environment.

Family Tree logo "He started teaching me when I was 3, and I listened to him play every day when I was growing up, but he never forced it on me. I think if he had, I wouldn't be playing today," Herb Jr. said Thursday, calling from Oregon in the midst of a tour promoting Hawaiian music and his recently released album, "Ukulele Breeze."

Ohta is performing with two other second-generation recording artists, Keoki Kahumoku and David Kamakahi, as part of a quadruple-star show that promoter Patrick Lendeza has titled "Hawaiian Music's Next Generation." (David's father, Dennis Kamakahi, is performing as "tour chaperone" and to represent previous generations.)

"The fun thing about it is that all of us get along together and we can all play together. When I play my set I call David up, and we do "Sir Duke" and "Europa" together. I think it surprises a lot of people that anybody would try to play "Sir Duke" on an ukulele," Herb Jr. said.

27th annual na hoku hanohano awards

Where: Hilton Hawaiian Village

When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow

Tickets: For dinner and show, are $95 per person

Call: 235-9424

On television: Live coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. on KFVE-TV

His new album was released here after he left for the mainland so he hasn't been available to promote it locally. That's same the type of self-effacing modesty that makes Herb Jr. and his father a bit conflicted about competing as finalists in the "Best Instrumental Album" category in the 2004 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards. Neither will be attending the Hoku Awards show tomorrow night at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

They're not snubbing the awards. Father and son agree it's an honor to be on the final ballot, but Herb Jr. says it's "kind of weird" to be in a situation where he appears to be competing with his father for public acclaim.

"We congratulate each other and wish each other luck, but the awards thing is not a big thing for me. I'm grateful and thankful that I'm appreciated in that way by the members of the academy, but I just like to play music," he says.

"I don't like to compete with my son," Ohta-san said, calling after his son. Ohta-san is already a four-time Hoku Award winner in the "Best Instrumental Album" category -- the catch-all category for albums of all genres that do not feature at least one vocalist on a majority of the songs.

Beyond the competition thing, Herb Jr. won't be back in time to attend the ceremony anyway, and Ohta-san leaves early Tuesday for a four-city tour of Japan with Bruce Hamada Jr. and Bob Albenese. The three are so comfortable together that rehearsals are not necessary, and Ohta hands out the set list when they meet in Tokyo. This time, he'll be demonstrating Yamaha's new ukulele synthesizer for Japan fans.

"When I first saw it, I thought it was just another toy, but it really sounds good," Ohta-san says.

"It's a standard-size ukulele (and) has four strings that will never go out of tune, and you can tune it just by a twist of wrist of the peg to low G, high G, tenor sound, soprano sound. And with a turn of the peg it will sound like a violin, a Hammond organ, a trumpet," he said, adding that the instrument can also be programmed to show a novice the correct fingering for up to eight songs.

"It's not on sale yet, but they're going to sell it for under $300. I'm going to play, like, two songs in each concert."

Herb Ohta Jr. started learning to play the ukulele from his dad when he was just 3 years old. It was a cassette by the Makaha Sons of Niihau that got Herb Jr. hooked on Hawaiian music.

OHTA-SAN has no immediate plans to record with the ukulele synthesizer, but he is no stranger to experiments that involve adding electronic gizmos to the basic tried-and-true acoustic uke.

"Years ago, when it first came out, I got one of those Van Halen-style (guitar effects) set-ups in a suitcase and brought it home. I was with A&M Records at the time, and (label owner) Jerry Moss said, 'Herb, I don't doubt you can play rock 'n' roll, but can you compete with an 18-year old guitarist who knows nothing but rock 'n' roll?' I couldn't say anything so I sold it to some gal who wanted to play rock 'n' roll music. You can't compete with someone who knows only that kind of music."

"If you want to make an ukulele sound like a guitar, it's better to play a guitar."

Herb Jr. also eschews electronic hotrodding. At a time when virtuosity is often equated with showmanship and rock-style stage moves, Herb Jr. is going his own way.

"I just consider myself an ukulele musician. I play the kind of music that I want to play. If people appreciate that it makes me happy," he says.

"I respect anyone who even tries to pick up an instrument and play. I don't consider myself better than anyone. I learned that from my dad. He's probably the most humble person I've ever met. I just like to play, and I'll play how I feel. If people appreciate it it's like icing on the cake. I'm not a quote-unquote 'entertainer,' I just try to make the music express how I feel."

That approach appeals to many who enjoy hearing the ukulele played nahenahe (sweet, melodious). Asked to describe his style as a musician, Ohta says he prefers to describe it as a "feeling."

"My dad grew up listening to classical, jazz ... and I listened to pop music, and when I really got devoted into Hawaiian music I listened to everyone, so I think the feel is different. "

The importance of feeling the music is one of things that Ohta-san started teaching Herb Jr. at age 3. The importance of clean, precise technique was another.

"The ukulele is not like a piano, where you can play the melody with the right hand and the chords with the left hand. With the ukulele you have to do it simultaneously, and there must be a method in order to do that" Ohta-san explains. "I told him to hold the chords while you're playing the melody notes. That way when you do have time between the melody to play the chords, you don't have to go look for it."

On The Cover: Herbert Ohta Jr. is following in his father Ohta-san’s footsteps. The father-son ukulele masters are competing in the same Hoku category this year.

HERB JR. enjoyed playing ukulele with his father, but as he got older he became "sidetracked."

"It wasn't that I didn't want to play, but it was more like a hobby to me (and) he never forced it on me. He actually told me to quit taking lessons from him (but) that when he'd leave town I'd have to teach (his students) for him -- so he never pushed me to play professionally, but he knew I could help him."

Ohta-san let him go his own way. KIKI's long-running "Brown Bags to Stardom" contest got him back into music when some friends asked him to play in their band for the contest.

"(They) gave me a cassette by the Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau with "Wasted on the Way" on it and I didn't give back the tape for three or four months. That's what got me hooked on Hawaiian music and I've never stopped. When I graduated from high school I took the money I got for graduation and asked my dad to buy me an ukulele. He was totally shocked. He didn't know that I was playing again."

Ohta-san says he was "kind of disappointed" when Herb Jr. announced he was dropping out of college to become a full-time musician.

"I did not expect him to tell me that he wanted (music) to be his livelihood. I was telling him that it's not all whipped cream and ice cream, because he didn't see me when I first started (and) I wanted him to finish college."

THE MORPHING of soft-spoken Herb Ohta into ukulele virtuoso Ohta-san had been as much the result of desperation and luck as career planning. He had retired from the Marines after being offered a job that didn't come through, and a high school friend who remembered his ukulele playing put him in touch with Hula Records' Don McDiarmid Jr. Other local record producers had already told him there was no interest in ukulele records, but he figured he had nothing to lose.

He'd learned a lot about ukulele technique from the age of 12 on by hanging out with Eddie Kamae after a chance meeting forged a friendship. ("When I first heard him play I was shocked because I didn't think with that instrument you could play like he did," Ohta says.)

He played professionally as a teenager, but quit and left the UH after a year to join the Marines during the Korean War. Eleven years later, his sister suggested he take a job with PanAm hosting visiting VIPs. It sounded so good that Ohta retired from Marines and returned to Hawaii, but flunked a required hearing test. (Ohta believes the problem was caused by exposure to gunfire and other loud noises during his years as a Marine.)

"Getting out (of the Marines) was a gamble. ... Whether I was going to be a success as a musician was beside the point (but) Don McDiarmid recorded me and thought of a gimmick, and that's how it started."

McDiarmid marketed Ohta as Ohta-san and decided his first single would be entitled "Sushi." Who cared if people outside Hawaii had no idea what sushi was? The song was a hit and Ohta-san has been a professional musician, teacher and prolific recording artist ever since.

"Once I recorded it was hard to get out of it," Ohta-san says of his 40-year career. "What I wanted to prove was that (the ukulele) can be a solo instrument other than being a chord and rhythm instrument -- which is what it is to begin with," he says, adding that one of the unexpected benefits of his musical career was having the time to go back to college and graduate with a degree in sociology -- something that pleased his parents.

Herb Jr. says his father supported his decision to put music ahead of a college degree. "He understood that it was something I loved to do ... and he never told me that he didn't think I should do it. He let me test the waters on my own and experience it on my own.

Herb Jr. appeared as a guest on one of his father's albums in 1990, then released his first solo album in 1997, after local record producer Freddy Von Paraz showcased him -- along with Kelly DeLima and Troy Fernandez -- on an "Ukulele Stylings" compilation. He has been active since then, recording as a solo artist, and as a duo with Keoki Kahumoku.

Now he's stepping forward as a vocalist.

"I consider myself an ukulele musician that sings -- not a singer who plays ukulele, but I was singing basically all my life ... but I never really took it seriously. Once or twice when I go to Japan or perform in the Pacific Beach Hotel they'd request for me to sing and one thing led to another. They know that I play instrumental music, but sometimes when I sing it comes as a surprise to them. It may not be the most perfect vocal you'll ever hear but its surprising to them because they don't expect it."

A father-and-son tour would seem like a natural project, and both say they'd like to work together, but scheduling is a problem.

"He knows it's something I want to do someday," Herb Jr. says, "either perform on stage or do a recording together. It would be exciting for me more than anything, and a lot of people have requested it."

"I don't see why not, depending on what he wants to do," Ohta-san said. "I don't like to compete with my son, but now is an important part of his career and I want to help him. I'll be glad to be the accompanist.

"(Eddie Kamae) taught me that you play the music from your heart. You have to feel it, and when you're young it's so hard to do that. When finally it comes, it's so rewarding," he adds. "I think that's what they call your maturity in music. You learn every day. Music is endless. Just when people thought Prince was had it already, he comes out with his new record."

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