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A Brief History of the Ukulele: Part 2

October 2009 82,449 views No Comment

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An excerpt from the book “Famous Solos & Duets for the ‘Ukulele” edited and arranged by John King

One Hawaiian who believed the ‘ukulele was “not an invention but rather a creation” was Ernest Ka‘ai (1881-1962), the “most eminent of Hawaiian musicians” and arguably the most influential musical figure in Hawai‘i in the first quarter of the 20th century. A gifted performer on many instruments including the mandolin, guitar and ‘ukulele, Ka‘ai was also an impressario, teacher, publisher and recording artist and he owned an ‘ukulele manufacturing company. Known in Honolulu as the “Father of the Ukulele” Ka‘ai was said to have been the first musician “to play a complete melody with chords” on that instrument. He also wrote the earliest known ‘ukulele method. Although its location is now uncertain, Hawaiian music authority Amy Stillman catalogued the (presumed) first edition of Ka‘ai’s The Ukulele, A Hawaiian Guitar and How to Play It in the 1980’s. It was published by Wall, Nichols Co. of Honolulu in 1906. An advertisement for the “Kaai Music School” from the 1909 Honolulu telephone directory stated that Ka‘ai taught the ‘ukulele “from Method.” In addition to these references, ‘ukulele historian Tom Walsh owns an original receipt dated 1906 from the Kaai Music Studios (and signed by Ka‘ai) for several lessons and an “ukulele book”: undoubtedly the 1906 “ghost” imprint.

In 1909, the Oliver Ditson Co. of Boston published a Method for the Ukulele (Hawaiian Guitar) edited by T.H. Rollinson. Thomas Rollinson (1844-1928) was a cornet player, band leader and composer of over 400 original works and 1,500 arrangements for band. In 1887 the Oliver Ditson Co. employed him as an arranger for the publication department, a position he held until his death in 1928. There is no evidence that Rollinson had any experience with Hawai’i and its language, or Hawaiian music and musical instruments. It is likely his method is based on the earlier work of Ernest Ka’ai; unfortunately, beyond the descriptive subtitle “Hawaiian Guitar” mentioned in the Stillman citation, it is not possible to compare the Ditson method with Ka’ai’s 1906 tutor. Why Ditson would not have simply reproduced the Ka’ai method is a matter for speculation, but there had been a working relationship between Ditson and Wall, Nichols Co. since at least 1901, when both published Charles Hopkins’ Aloha Collection of Hawaiian Songs. Probably produced to support sales of ‘ukulele at Ditson’s stores in Boston, New York and Philadelphia (a 1910 Ditson advertisement for “Odd Musical Instruments” in the New York Times included ‘ukulele), the Ditson method was 16 pages long and included 8 solo pieces in standard notation, none of which were Hawaiian. One piece was to be “played in the native style with sweep strokes [strums]” and despite stating that the ‘ukulele was used “principally for accompanying songs,” Rollinson included none. The pedagogical material was confined to scales, “double-stops” and directions for playing three different “strokes”. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this primer was its early appearance in the mainland market, pre-dating other similar publications by 5 years.

Several observations can be made regarding the Ditson method and the relatively common Ka’ai Revised Edition published by Wall, Nichols Co. in 1910. The Revised Ka’ai method, which also used the “Hawaiian Guitar” subtitle, contained forty pages featuring at least a half dozen different notational conventions including chord frames, rudimentary tablature and a hierarchical chord nomenclature which has become associated with Hawaiian music; there were also detailed instructions for playing “strokes”, or in the strummed style. Of the thirty plus songs and solos all but three were Hawaiian. In common with Rollinson’s method were an identical graphic of an ‘ukulele, obviously related introductory material describing the instrument and its history, and a setting of ‘Worral’s Spanish Fandango complete with scordatura in the manner of the famous guitar piece. While much of the text is relegated to didactic explanations of the various types of notation, it is clear the author was an accomplished musician and imaginative, though pragmatic, educator who was struggling to convey his burgeoning ideas in print.

In 1914, R.W. Heffelfinger published a Self Instructor for the Ukulele and Taro-Patch Fiddle by George Kia Nahaolelua (1877-1929), an Hawaiian musician living and working in Los Angeles. One of at least five instruction books published for the ‘ukulele that year in California, Kia’s 48 page method included chord frames and directions for strumming as well as eight non-Hawaiian songs with accompaniment for ‘ukulele in standard notation, and two ‘ukulele solos (Hawai’i Pono’i and Aloha Oe). While the publisher used the same graphic of an ‘ukulele as the earlier Rollinson and Ka’ai methods and the historical text was merely a paraphrase of the latter, the instructions for tuning were different. According to Kia, the instrument was to be tuned a full step higher than the tuning espoused by Ka’ai and Rollinson; the lower “C” tuning was to be used only for the four-course taropatch fiddle. The higher “D” tuning, which has come to be known, somewhat inaccurately, as the ‘mainland’ tuning, may have been introduced by Mekia Kealakai (1867-1944), a celebrated Hawaiian musician of the generation preceding Ka’ai, who led the musical delegation from Hawai’i to the Pan- American Exposition at Buffalo in 1901. Kealakai apparently authored two ‘ukulele tutors: a book of chords for ‘ukulele published in 1909, which has been catalogued by the Library of Congress (not seen) and a Self Instructor published in Los Angeles by Southern California Music Co. with the dual copyright dates 1912-l914. The later publication also recommended the high and low tunings for the ‘ukulele and taropatch, respectively.

The year 1915 ushered in no fewer than six new ‘ukulele books, published in both C and D tuning. One publication from Hawai’i, co-authored by A. A. Santos and Angeline Nunes, a granddaughter of Manuel Nunes, advocated yet another, different tuning, that of the ‘ukulele’s predecessor, the machete: D g b d. While this original tuning is still used in Portugal and Brazil, it may have been revived too late and without enough proponents to catch on in Hawai’i and the U. S. In 1916 the number of new ‘ukulele publications doubled, to at least twelve and the tuning duality persisted, so much so that Sherman, Clay & Co. published a collection of pieces entitled The Ukulele as a Solo Instrument in both C and D tuning written by N.B. Bailey and George Awai. Little is known of Bailey besides his publishing credits with Sherman, Clay & Co, which included a Practical Ukulele Method, a collection of songs with ‘ukulele accompaniment entitled Songs from Aloha Land, and a steel guitar tutor based on the playing style of J. Kalani Peterson. George “Keoki” Elama Kaelemakule Awai (1891-1981), steel guitarist, composer and performer, was the leader of the Royal Hawaiian Quartet when they performed at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. Awai was also the instructor at the ‘ukulele display in the Hawaiian Building at the P. P I. E. and was the director of the Royal Hawaiian Glee Club. Immediately following the P.P.I.E., Awai was an instructor in the San Francisco branch of Ernest Ka’ai’s School of Hawaiian Music. In addition to his publications for ‘ukulele, Keoki Awai published the Superior Collection of Steel Guitar Solos through Sherman, Clay & Co. in 1917. Containing “Full Instructions for Playing” and 48 solos in its 71 pages, The Ukulele as a Solo Instrument represented a landmark in the publishing history of the instrument. Acknowledging the ‘ukulele’s role “as the ideal instrument for furnishing accompaniment” Bailey and Awai felt that the little guitar had been “overlooked as a solo instrument and appreciating its possibilities in this direction … compiled this work.” In addition to popular Hawaiian pieces and standard 19th century repertoire like Home Sweet Home the authors included college medleys, the Yale Boola of Sonny Cunha, and pieces by Gounod and Rubinstein! Perhaps the most striking aspect of this 87 year old book is its modern appearance: the music, which combines both strumming and plucking, is presented on a sophisticated dual staff in both standard notation and tablature.

Another outstanding method from 1916 was that of Ernest Ka’ai, The Ukulele and How It’s Played, published in Honolulu by the Hawaiian News Co. This second method was the crowning achievement of Ka’ai’s career as a pedagogue and conveyed clearly those ideas which he had struggled to elucidate in his earlier work. The method was 58 pages long, containing 27 songs with accompaniment, one duet for ‘ukulele & guitar, and fifteen solos in modern tablature, eleven of which included musical notation to address what Ka’ai called the “advancement and progression” in the level of play by professionals. All but two of the pieces were Hawaiian and included several arrangements and original compositions by Henry Kailimai (1882-1948), who is remembered mostly for his hapa ha’ole tunes such as the still popular On the Beach at Waikiki. However, recent revelations about Kailimai’s activities on the mainland after 1915 place him at the forefront of Hawaiian music evangelists in the first half of the twentieth century. A protégé of Ernest Ka’ai, Kailimai was selected to lead the Hawaiian musical delegation to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. When the industrialist Henry Ford visited the Expo in the fall of 1915, he hired Kailimai’s Hawaiian Quintette to come to

Detroit and perform for Ford Motor Company promotions and social events throughout the Midwest. The Hawaiian Quintette, renamed the “Ford Hawaiians,” went on to record for Edison in 1916 and from 1923 to 1925 made some of the earliest mainland broadcasts of Hawaiian music on Ford’s Dearborn radio station, WWI. In addition to his duties as the leader of the Ford Hawaiians, Kailimai directed the Detroit branch of Ernest Ka’ai’s School of Hawaiian Music and in 1930 patented an improved guitar “steel.”

No doubt referring to the works of Bailey, Awai, and Ka’ai, the Harvard Dictionary of Music remarked that “the notation for [the ‘ukulele] follows the principles used in the lute tablatures of the 16th century but was invented independently.” As amazing as this statement is on its own, it takes on new significance given the re-emergence of tablature in the notation of printed guitar music in the last half of the 20th century. Largely abandoned and shunned as inferior in the 19th century, the venerable system of tablature, which had served as the sole means of conveying printed guitar music since the mid 1500′s, was ‘reintroduced’ as an acceptable notational language for the guitar only some years after, and in recognition of, the sensationally popular work of the ‘ukulele pioneers. Tablature, with its simple “road map” graphic style, was easy for beginners to comprehend and was well suited for conveying musical ideas on the ‘ukulele, which was promoted as both an instrument “anyone can learn to play” and one which had “all there is necessary to make and cover an accompaniment for the most difficult opera written … if one would give it complete and thorough study.” Not surprisingly, the belief in the limitless potential of the ‘ukulele as both a solo and accompanying instrument was not universally held, and the use of tablature was simply not acceptable to some musicians.

In 1920, the Oliver Ditson Co. introduced its second ‘ukulele method, this one by the husband and wife team of string instrument luminaries Vadah Olcott Bickford and Zarh Myron Bickford. Vadah Olcott Bickford, née Ethel Lucretia Olcott (1885-1980), performer, teacher, author, editor and mentor, was the pre-eminent American guitarist of the early 20th century. She gave the first U.S. performances of Mauro Giuliani’s 3rd Guitar Concerto. Boccherini’s quintets, and Paganini’s quartets and in 1923 she was a founding member of the American Guitar Society. She contributed articles to Cadenza, Crescendo, B. M. G., and other journals, and her biography appeared in the important dictionaries of Philip Bone (1914 & 1954), Fritz Buek (1926), Josef Zuth (1926), and Domingo Prat (1934). Bickford’s legacy lives on through her music library which forms the core collection of the International Guitar Research Archive at California State University, Northridge. Zarh Myron Bickford (1876-1961) was a “highly educated and capable musician” (Bone, 1954) who excelled in performance on numerous fretted instruments, particularly the mandolin, as well as the violin and viola. Bickford was President of the American Guitar Society and American Guild of B. M. G. and a member of the Board of Directors of the Musicians’ Union of Hollywood and Los Angeles. He contributed numerous articles to musical journals including Cadenza and Crescendo; his four volume mandolin method was published by Carl Fischer. Bickford’s Concerto Romantico, written for his wife, was the first guitar concerto published in America. At 74 pages, the Bickford Method was the longest of the early methods and contained instructions for “all of the various styles of playing which are of practical use on the instrument, these including the ordinary Stroke Method, as commonly used by the Hawaiians, the guitar, or picking style, and the use of the plectrum or felt pick, the latter being the latest style to be developed.” Flaunting their 19th century prejudices, the Bickford’s made no secret of how they felt about the use of tablature, stating “any instrument which is worthy of having an instruction book written for it, is of course worthy of being written for in the legitimate musical notation, hence the diagrams so frequently given in connection with ukulele music and methods, have been eliminated from the technical part of the Method. The authors have, in their private teaching, proven to their complete satisfaction, that the diagrams are a great detriment to the musical advancement of the pupil, and that where the diagrams are readily available, the pupils invariably depend upon them, to the neglect of note-reading, with the natural result that they never become good readers. This applies not alone to those who wish to use the instrument for solo purposes, but also to those who merely take it up in a superficial manner for accompanying popular songs.” However, the Bickford’s were not entirely dogmatic in their approach: they notated the re-entrantlv tuned fourth string of the ‘ukulele an octave below pitch “to avoid confusion in reading, particularly in connection with chords employing all four strings.” The difficulty inherent in notating music for a re-entrantly tuned string instrument in “legitimate musical notation” was non-existent in the tablature system, and this was probably the most important factor in the latter’s widespread acceptance and use in notating ‘ukulele music. While not the first to have done so, the Bickford’s notational sleight of hand belied their elitist pronouncements, revealing them to be somewhat pragmatic after all, and not above bending the rules if it suited their purpose. As to the potential of the instrument, Mrs. Bickford may have found the temptation to pass judgment on the guitar’s small cousin too great to resist, the guitar (and guitarists) having been mocked for generations by pianists and music critics. “No attempt has been made to make more out of the ukulele than its capacity warrants,” she wrote in the Foreword. “To attempt to make it take the place or do the work of an instrument with greater power, tonal and harmonic possibilities would be to call down ridicule upon an instrument which, within its limits, is effective and has given pleasure to thousands in the past and will continue to do so in the future.” Such statements were no doubt in response to authors who enthusiastically compared the ‘ukulele to the organ and harp “in the front rank of legitimate musical instruments worthy of serious study.” In spite of their goal not to make more out of the instrument “than its capacity warrants” the Bickford’s compositions and arrangements are some of the most charming and sophisticated pieces in the early repertoire of the ‘ukulele.

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