I started with the ukulele, and (although) I'm a jazz guitarist, I'm going to end my life with the ukulele."

Bill Tapia, Musician


Duke goes back
to roots

Bill Tapia eyes his future
and plays his past

Bill Tapia doesn't look to the past where his music is concerned. Even though his newly released album, "Duke Of Uke," contains three rare recordings he made in 1936, if it had been up to Tapia, they wouldn't have been there.

Bill Tapia

Where: Paliku Theatre, Windward Community College

When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow

Tickets: $25 general; $20 seniors, students and military

Info: 235-7433 or etickethawaii.com

"(The producer) left out about three or four good tunes that I made ... and replaced it (with the old recordings). He didn't tell me he was going to do that," Tapia said when reached by phone in California earlier this week.

Never mind that those recordings are musical treasures that document Tapia's importance as an innovator and pioneer in establishing the ukulele as more than just a rhythm instrument in Hawaiian music.

While players have been using "The Stars and Stripes Forever" to show off their picking and strumming skills for decades, Tapia was playing it for American soldiers back in World War I. The "drum roll strum" technique? As far as is known, he originated that, too, and could do it while playing the instrument behind his head.

As for those early recordings, they were made by Shigeo Yasui in '36 on an early wire recorder while Tapia was jamming with two other musicians during some informal jam sessions at the Metronome Music Store in Downtown Honolulu. The 69-year-old recordings confirm what Tapia was doing with the uke at that moment in time.

But Tapia would rather people hear what he's playing in 2005.

"When I asked (producer Mike Spengler) about them, he said people are going to enjoy it ... (but) that style of playing on those days was different, you know, although it's nice music," he said.

Tapia's album "Duke of Uke" reached stores Tuesday, and it's those acoustic jazz tunes contained therein that he's looking forward to playing at the Paliku Theatre tomorrow night.

As if having Tapia back in concert isn't reason enough for ukulele aficionados to show up, he'll also be working with three other virtuosos, Lyle Ritz, Byron Yasui and Benny Chong. The official lineup will be Ritz playing tenor ukulele, Yasui on acoustic bass, Chong on guitar, and Noel Okimoto completing the ensemble on drums and percussion.

But there's always a possibility that the four stringmen will do a number or two as an impromptu ukulele quartet, like they did at the 1st Annual Ukulele Exhibition and Conference at the Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort in 2002. Keep in mind that Yasui and Ritz have been known to trade off on ukulele and acoustic bass when performing as a duo, and the concert could feature some great jams.

Whatever may happen, it'll be great to catch Ritz (who's returning to his former island home from Oregon), another pioneer in applying the ukulele to jazz, playing duets with Tapia.

PLAYING IN a theater takes Tapia back to his childhood performances in the local palace-like venues Downtown that used to feature live entertainment as well as silent movies.

"I played in all the theaters. I played in the Hawaii Theatre ... I played in the Princess Theatre ... and I get a kick out of playing the ukulele. I thought I'd quit (it). I didn't play it for about 56 years until it came back and I grabbed one and I played as good as I did before."

Tapia was born in 1908, not quite 29 years after the first braguinha -- the Portuguese stringed instrument also known as machete, that evolved into the ukulele -- is known to have arrived in Hawaii. He grew up while some of the first-generation of ukulele players were still around. Tapia became good enough to play for pocket money at the age of 10, and bought his first ukulele from Manuel Nunes, one of the first Portuguese craftsmen to manufacture the instrument here.

Tapia grew up in a Hawaiian neighborhood in Liliha and recalls that "they used to play every night out there and sit down on logs and broken boxes and play and sing (and) I'd sneak out of the house and go over there. The ukulele player fascinated me ... and I'd watch him, and when they took intermission, I'd grab the guy's uke and I managed to learn two chords, G and F."

The leader of the group noticed Tapia's interest and offered to teach him more, but Tapia needed a uke of his own, and the man didn't have one to spare. Tapia had collected 75 cents in a coffee can and the Hawaiian suggested he go see Mr. Nunes.

"I was 7 years old and he was a cranky old guy. His place was just about a block and a half away from where I lived. I told him I wanted to buy a ukulele that don't cost too much money -- an old one -- and then he went and found some. He played a couple (and) he say 'How you like this?' I didn't know nothing about the ukulele, but I told him, 'Good' ... then he said 'Give me one-dollar-and a quarter,' and I said, 'No, I only have 75 cents,' and he said 'Give me that 75 cents and get the hell outta here,' and that's it!

"It was an old ukulele, the finish was kind of flaky and everything, but it had a good sound. I'm sorry I didn't keep it. If I had kept it, it would have been worth a lot of money."

Tapia says his Hawaiian mentor gave him two lessons, and from that point on, he taught himself.

"I figured everything out by myself. As I went on and started growing up, I played with the best players in the country, and I asked questions and things like that and I put it all together."

ALTHOUGH HIS musical skills are sharp, Tapia is facing a serious and unanticipated problem. For several months, he's been suffering from macular degeneration, and it has become severe enough that his vision is being impaired.

"At first, (the doctors) didn't want to operate, but now they want to take a chance. ... He asked me if I wanted to take a chance. ... I told the doctor, 'If you was my age and everything, and you had this problem, what would you do?' He said he would do it, so I told him to do it.

"They wanted to do it before I came to Honolulu, but I was afraid I might get some complications, so we'll wait until I get back. When I get back, I'm going to make a tour of northern California. I'm all booked up to play.

"I hope they can do something about this. I pray night and day because I don't want to be like this. I know I'm selfish, I'm up in years, but I'm in my right mind. ... I get around, and I still want to work until the end.

"I started with the ukulele, and (although) I'm a jazz guitarist, I'm going to end my life with the ukulele. I haven't been touching my guitar for about three years now because I began to like the ukulele even more than ever."

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