Herb Ohta Jr. is one of the more gifted ‘ukulele players out there today, and for good reason. His father is Herb “Ohta-San” Ohta, whose music continues to be heard on the radio everyday with his mainstream hit, “Song For Anna”. Jr. has gained a following for not only following in his father’s footsteps, but for simply playing good music, regardless of genre, and ‘Ukulele Nahenahe (Lele) is a celebration of Hawaiiana.
On the surface, people will hear Jr. play an instrument that has gained a renewed awareness because of the use of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. There are countless commercials that will feature someone playing the ‘ukulele but to my ears, most of them aren’t playing with heart and soul. Jr. is someone who does, there is a big different between someone playing and plucking just to make noise (something I heard countless times by my parents as a kid) and someone who knows how to play, and go in, out, around, and over the music. He’s not an adventurist like Jake Shimabukuro, but what Jr. lacks in flash, he makes up for it in style, his own unique style. For the malihini, these songs may make you want to travel to Hawai’i and hear these songs in person and discover the islands for the first time.
For the kama’aina, what he does with these songs is simplify them to its core and turn them into lullabies that make you feel like they’ve been around for years. The song that moved me the most is his cover of Sean Na’auao‘s beautiful “Ka Pilina”, but along with renditions of Iva Kinimaka‘s “He Aloha Mele”, and The Lim Family‘s “Pua Olena (The Flower Song)”, you may not only remember where you were the first time you heard the originals, but perhaps it’ll take you to the spot where you first heard them too. A good amount of Hawaiian songs are namesake songs, so when I hear “Ka Wailele O Nu’uanu”, I am reminded of one of the areas in Honolulu I used to live (Nu’uanu), how innocent that time of my life was and while numerically it may seem like years, it still doesn’t feel that way. The best Hawaiian songs are very vivid, and even though these arrangements are all instrumental, hearing the melodies and perhaps knowing the lyrics will immediately set you where the songs want you to go. The slide guitar by Jeff Au Hoy in The Brothers Cazimero‘s “Pane Mai” will bring back memories of the days when Gabby Pahinui didn’t so much feel like a king of Hawaiian music, but more like uncle, if not a father. If you are away from Hawai’i as I am, this is an “instant homesick” album.
‘Ukulele Nahenahe is beautiful music played by a musician who I hope will continue do this for years to come, just as his father did since the 1960’s. To Herb Ohta Jr.: mahalo nui for making this transplanted kama’aina feel like I’m home, 3000 miles away.