Thursday, December 21, 2006

more ukulele videos

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a few links to some Japanese ukulele videos. Today, I will add a couple of more to that list.

Someone posted what looks like most of a Kuricorder Quartet concert on YouTube. The link here will take you to the first song. They are all numbered, so following from there should not be a great trauma.

Tsuji Ayano has a couple of videos there as well. This is for her Fly High song. This video starts out with an interview and a contest for sorting cards(?!). The song comes later on. This is a music video for Sha La La.

Here is a rather odd rather non-pro piece.

Watanababy makes an appearance in this one.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Some ukulele videos

This week, I will let some pictures say a thousand are some ukulele videos from Japan.
These first two are from the Ukulele Ultraman project.
The Ultraman Theme song
and the Ultraseven Theme

The second two I found are commercials featuring ukuleles
A candy commercial featuring an ukulele playing girl
and an old commercial with another (at-the-time) girl

Here is one on a resourceful duo.

As you can see, all of these came from YouTube. I will add a few more after YouTube comes back from the maintainance it has just started.

Friday, December 01, 2006

T.T. Cafe

T. T. Cafe is a man-woman duo who's visibility has picked up in the past few months. This month they are on Channel 2 of Rolling Coconut TV.

Most of the publicity seems to be revolving around the release of their Cafezinho album. This album sports a variety of genres. The first song is Chattanooga Choo-choo, the second is the Pink Panther theme, and (skipping down a bit) fourth is Quiero Dancar Com Voce (plus requisite diacriticals). Going through the videos should give you sufficient idea of what sort of things they are up to.

This album follows their first release, which came in August, 2005.

A visit to their website will lead you to their video archives where you can see them perform as a duo or with others. You can also download their 2.4Mb profile pdf file if you have time to burn.

Ukulele Mozart

JVC Music will be releasing 20 December a new ablum of Mozart played on ukuleles. Samples of the songs are available on the website. Those interested will no doubt recognize the songs, so we will skip the ditty list this time around. There is a video clip of the fourth song of the album, the first movement of the 25th symphony. It is entertaining if nothing else. (The Salieri voice is apparently that of Ukulele Eiji.)

Songs 1-7 are played by Kondo Kenji of Kurikorder Quartet fame. Matsui Tomotaka, who put together the Mozart tab book recently featured here, plays songs 8-14.

The website is taking advanced sales for 2,800 (tax included). I have no idea if they ship overseas or not, however.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Japanese ukulele advantage

An advantages that Japanese ukulele amateurs may have over players elsewhere is that it is generally easier to find fellow travelers.

Most places around the country have neighborhood community centers. These centers vary in terms of quality, but compared with what one is likely to find in, say, North America, they are on average pretty good. Most of the facilities offer different kinds of rooms, including music rooms, gyms or dance rooms, kitchens, or craft rooms. Groups can hold regularly scheduled cultural or educational activities at very little or no cost.

It seems that these venues play host to quite a few clubs and classes around the country. A quick survey of the Japanese Yahoogroups for ukuleles has just revealed that many of the Yahoogroups are centered around a group of people that practices at these centers. Almost all the larger Yahoogroups appear connected to groups that use these kinds of facilities.

The city here may well be an indication of what the rest of Japan is like also. I know of one teacher at a local music school that teaches ukulele, but there are at least three groups connected with the community centers. More or less the same can be said of the town next to us.

Ukulele players might be more gregarious than some other musicians. But, with these community centers, it is certainly a lot easier to spread the faith.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Latest Rolling Coconuts II

Continuing this week with an overview of issue #32 of Rolling Coconuts, we will touch on four articles.

The first of these contains two interviews--one with Katz.seiji and the other with Matsui Tomotaka. They are the repective compilers of "Toei Ukulele Festival" and "Ukulele Mozart". Both of these books of score come complete with tabs and CDs. The Toei book contains theme songs particularly of animations and character theme songs. Toei, as some readers know, is a film and TV production outfit. Matsui, the compiler of the Mozart books admits that the arrangements are definely not for beginners and that he would balk at playing some of the pieces in public due to their demanding difficulties.

The next article is the third installment of the "Ukulele on the Hill" series. This series focuses on the work of Canadian James Hill. This issue examines his latest tour around Japan, stopping into 10 places. On this tour, he offers workshops making use of "Sakura, sakura", probably the best know Japanese traditional song arranged in three parts.

The third is the 17th installment of "Ukulele Iwao Style". This article discusses some of his experiences while doing a series of series of events at record stores and a concert in Tokyo following the release of his "Hawaiian Morning" album. Perhaps the most interesting comment was one about his meeting a young boy. The boy apparently was quite good at playing the ukulele as the mother was eager to show him off. The comment noted that as a young kid starting out on an ukulele, he will have lots of potential. As more young children become interested in playing the ukulele, the intrument will gain more acceptance as a good, solid instrument in its own right.

The next article is another interview. This time with Owa Yoshio, who released his "Legend of Hawiian Guitar--Best Selection" album "featuring ukulele and resonator guitar". According to a description I found elsewhere, the songs in the album are:
01: Lag Rag
02: Kaupo Store
03: Lazy River
04: Uwehe Ami & Slide
05: Opihi Moe Moe
06: Ten Tiny Toes〜S-H-I-N-E
07: Ka Makani Ka'ili Aloha
08: I'm Livin' On Easy
09: Guava Jam
10: Maui Chimes
11: Harvest Of Rainbow
12: Ka'a ahi Kahului
13: On A Little Bamboo Bridge
14: 12th Street Rag
15: Lover Come Back To Me
16: Ukulele Blues
17: Yellow Roses
18: Come Stay With Me
The article mentions that he has recently been focusing on Hawaiian Blues.

After this, there are the two introductions of ukulele craftsment and an article about Miyaji-TIKI--a Japanese ukulele player that has been active in Germany for several years and a participant in Risa Ukulele's U'COOL'LELE festival there. I will skip those two for the time being.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Latest Rolling Coconuts I

After almost three weeks of turmoil, I am finally able to get back to this blog. Sorry for the absence.

Two months after it came out, the most recent Rolling Coconuts has landed on my desk. The #32 issue came out 28 August. If my math serves, the next issue should be coming out later this month. I hope I can snag one faster than this one.

This issue is essentially a compliation of interviews

The cover story is an interview with Tsuji Ayano. Her music has been featured in commercials, television programs, and in an Ghibli animation film. She as just but out her double-disc "Tsuji Best" ablum.

The second article is another interview. This one is with Toda Shinji of Toda Guitars. He has put out an ukulele commemorating the release of the Ukulele Ultraman album. They are available through Kiwaya.

The third atricle also relates to the Ukulele Ultraman album. Kiyoshi Kobayashi's interview discusses his involvement with the publishing of the score and tab of the album. It is put out by Doremi, but I have been unable to find it on their website.

Anyone interested in hearing some of the tunes on the ablum might try the web page of the music publishing company, Geneon.

More to come about this issue soon.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Kuricorder Quartet

These four gents are not strictly ukulele, but they do incorporate them.

Their latest ablum, "Ukulele Kuricorder", employs ukes liberally as one might expect.For samples, try the web page of their recording company, Geneon Entertainment.

Their music will probably sound fairly "novelty" to most Western listeners.Eine Kleine Nacht Musik, Darth Vader's Theme, Power to the People, and Bohemian Rapsody all performed with recorders and ukuleles no doubt go a long way to boosting that impression.They definitely are in their own orbit.

Being their most recent album suggests there have been others. Indeed, they have put in appearances on several of the Rolling Coconut-type omnibus albums like "Ukulele Star Wars" and "Ukulele Lennon". Additionally, their music has been featured in the movie "Quill". They also perform the music for a children's TV show, "Pythagoras Switch", on NHK. Their complete discography is available in Japanese on their web site.

Friday, September 29, 2006

About this blog

Work has begun piling up recently. It has begun to get more difficult to maintain this blog....a fate that probably befalls many of these enterprises.

I hope to continue this as long as I have something to write about, but, the frequency of postings will probably fall to about one a week for the next couple of months.There is just too much other stuff to do.

A couple of kind people have informed that they do read this. I am grateful that they have told me they read it. It removes the "barking at the moon" feeling that one can get.

I would like to take this opportunity to ask any reader if there is something in particular they would like to read about concerning ukuleles and ukulele music in Japan. With falling frequency, it would probably be a worthwhile strategy to focus on topic interesting for readers rather than go on ad nauseum about some trivial rummagings uninteresting to anyone.

Any constructive comments are welcome. (I do have moderator options switched on, so comments aren't just splashed out there for those who prefer some privacy.)

Ukulele House

I had an informal talk with someone at Ukulele House in Honolulu at the end of August this year. He told me that there were no ukulele shops in Honolulu when they got their start about 30 years ago.

I can't testify to the accuracy of that, but in some ways, I am not terribly surprised--at least not now. Before this most recent trip to Honolulu, I decided to check out music stores in general and ukulele shops in particular. What I found was a bit of a surprise. There are something like 180 albums of Hawaiian music put out per year; lots of school kids learn the ukulele in Hawaiian schools, there are endless musicians playing in bars, hotels, lounges, and parks. And yet, Honolulu music supplies do not seem to be a big retail commodity. Almost all the shops that I found were considerably more compact and down-home that I had anticipated.

I decided to ask local musician and shop people where the best place to get scores for uke/Hawaiian music. Interestingly, everyone pointed me in the same direction--including a winner of a Na Hoku Hanohano Award I was privileged to talk with! It seems Harry's Music is just about the big shop for music in Honolulu.

While Harry’s was worth the trip on the bus, it is not the sort of place one is likely to find on Japanese tourist circuit. It gave me more of the impression of a musical wizards shop than the sort of place the Kalakaua Avenue crowd would gravitate towards.

Ukulele House has shifted out of it previous location in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center. It now has four locations. Although it is not marked on their webpage, for reasons beyond me, they have two shops in the Ala Moana Shopping Center, which is the big shopping mall and transit center just off the west end of Waikiki. They also have a small shop in a shopping center just across from the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center. These three of the four are places accessible to many tourist, no matter where they may be from. They also have much more of a Hawaiian ambiance that tourist would prefer to Harry’s work-a-day paint and panel board atmosphere.

It is not much of a surprise to discover most of the staff in all the shops are either Japanese or Japanese speakers. Most of the customers are Japanese, probably by a large margin. Additionally, the owner is a man that immigrated to Hawaii some 30 years ago.

Perhaps as an attempt to balance out PuaPua’s web presence, Ukulele House has got their website going as well, but it doesn’t seem nearly as developed as their rival’s.

A large majority of the ukes hanging on Ukulele House’s walls when I was there were Tangis. The Hawaiian-made merchandise probably ships to their waiting list.

The Ukulele House also offers free ukulele lessons for tourists. These are aimed more at the beginner than more advance players. I had my daughter take a lesson at one of the shops. A very nice lady who has quite a touch with children taught her one-on-one. She managed to get my daughter more interested again than she had been for some time. However, when I quizzed her about a couple of ways to do triplets, she confessed ignorance. The purpose of the lessons is probably to launch the strumming careers of those who have just bought their first uke or are thinking of getting their first. I do have to note, however, that some of the staff do seem to play pretty well. It may well be that she taught the lesson given that the student was an eight-year-old.

Friday, September 15, 2006


As promised in the last post, this blog will start looking at the Hawaiian connection for ukuleles.

As may be expected, a lot of Japanese ukulele enthusiasts having the dough would like a Hawaiian-made, Hawaiian koa ukulele. Of course, buying one in Japan often implies selling off the house or an offspring on the black market. Prices are roughly twice what you might pay in North America for the same instrument. Kamakas in particular demand a human sacrifice at the rim of an active volcano.

In steps Puapua. A fellow from Japan, Nishimoto Ken, set up an ukulele shop in an upscale (at least for me) Waikiki hotel. While his shop, Puapua, caters mostly to Japanese tourist in Waikiki, it also sells Hawaiian ukuleles over the internet at slightly higher prices than perhaps Elderly Music, but considerably cheaper than what you are likely to find in Japan.As far as I can make out, it is really this business that keeps the cash flowing in. My visits to his shop have always been punctuated by stacks of wrapped ukes heading for the airport on courier trolleys.

Like Ukulele House (the subject planned for the next posting), staff will give newbies a free 30 lesson on playing some simple song. Even if the staff is not Japanese, they can usually handle enough Japanese to get through the lesson. Puapua also has lessons taught by Bruce Shimabukuro (Jake's brother), Jody Kamasato, and Hawaiian style ukulele lessons by Tyler. These are popular with Japanese tourists.

Although I have no proof or direct evidence whatsoever, I would be inclined to speculate that Puapua and Ukulele House might be partially responsible for lengthened waiting lists for Kamakas, Koaholas, G Strings, and other well-known ukuleles. These have helped linguistically challenged Japanese to buy ukuleles directly from the source in their own language, an avenue long closed to many.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Japanese ukuleles in Hawaii

This blog is returning to life after a month of downtime. It has been an eventful month for me, despite this (actually, because of this), this blog has been neglected. The time for revival has come.

Given the numbers of Japanese tourists going to Hawaii each year and Japanese enthusiasm for things Hawaiian, it is not surprising that there is a kind of Japanese ukulele circuit there.

Starting with the next post, we can take a tour of what this curcuit reveals.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Lessons at Ukulele Kingdom

There is a site run by "gambaole" called "Ukulele Kingdom" that offers free online ukulele lessons in Japanese. It has about 40 hints or lessons presently. These are arranged from introductory to pro-level. Most deal with a particular technique or trick eg., hammering or sweep picking. Some offer more general information, such as the "right way to buy music scores". It offers also different fingering exercises to limber up those stiff joints. There is a heavy emphasis on classical music, with Bach, Mozart, and Chopin putting in appearances, with other styles like swing popping up at various intervals.

All of the examples are accompanied by tabs rather than normal musical notations, easing access for those without notational knowledge or the right software to read notations.

"Right, well, that is nice, but, why should I bother if it is in Japanese?" peeps the cynical voice of the solitary reader of this blog.....

As an experiment, I ran the contents through an online translation software. As can be expected, the translation was horrid indeed. But, the point is learning how to do something. The main ideas of the lessons I mashed through the software were visible in the murk of garbled verbage. Accordingly, the logic is that if one wants to save a little dough, rather than buying a techniques book, one could presumably work one’s way through these lessons mangled by some translation software and still come out ahead. Taking the lesson on one at a time will probably be worthwhile, assuming the learner is not more advanced than the lessons.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Ukulele Picnic 2006

As far as I know Ukulele Picnic is about the biggest ukulele bash in or around Tokyo--and it cost nothing to get in. I would be going myself if I did not have previous events scheduled.

This year, the event will feature Sekiguchi Kazuyuki, Iwao, Ukulele Ultraman, Arizato Tomoka, Okamoto Yohey, Inoue Maki, Laula, the Kuricorder Quartet, Paniolo Yamauchi, Taupou, and Yanawaraba. It starts 10AM on 20 August. The day before, there will be some run-up events with others putting in performances. In past years, generally the lesser-knowns lead up to the big names....the usual state of affairs.

The Ukulele Picnic is an annual event held somewhere near/south of Yokohama (Yokosuka, if you are into naval history), having started in 2000. Overseas musicians in the past have included Daniel Ho, Herb Ohta Jr., Janet Klein, the Bruce Shimabukuro Band, and Troy Fernandez.

It seems a direct bus will be running this year between Misakiguchi Station and the enterance (for 300 yen apparently). It is an outdoor event, therefore the weather can be a factor.

Those in Japan who are interested but unable to attend might be able to order up a T-shirt or an original sticker.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Summer ukulele festivals

Summer is the time for ukulele/Hawaiian music in Japan. Accordingly, we will be seeing some ukulele music popping up over the next few weeks. I will try to research those in the unlikely case there is someone in Japan that would like to see them.

Also in the unlikely case there is a regular reader of this blog, I need to note that there will not be any postings over the next week. I will be spending the week researching something else. However, after 11 August, you can expect to see something of an upsurge in postings. Until then.

Friday, July 28, 2006

FT ukuleles

FT ukuleles get their name from a pretty obvious source--Famous and T's Guitars. Their logo mark on the head looks a bit like a paper airplane in flight, but closer inspection will reveal it is indeed an "F" and a "T".

FT ukuleles are upper mid-range to low high-range priced axes--at least for Japanese ukuleles. Remember, prices here can be substantially more than what people would pay for elsewhere.

They are very light instruments. They are made with the kind of strengthening inside that a classical guitar might have, which they would need given how light the things are. They are made out of mahogany and Hawaiian koa. They have lacquer finishes. The finish is supposed to be only 0.1mm thick in order to bring out the qualities of the wood.

A fellow I know plays one. It does have (to me anyway) that good-old days ukulele kind of sound. It would probably go well as a jazz instrument even though he plays mostly Hawaiian music on it.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Ohashi Hidehiko and publications

Last time I wrote about a chord solo book. Today I will touch on an author that has lots of books out. Probably almost anyone who has taken up ukulele in Japan has at some point seen, read, or used one of this guy's books.

Any trip to any shop that sells books about ukuleles and how to play them will put you in contact with Ohashi Hidehiko. His website has a page dedicated to the 15 books he's put out--14 on ukuleles or ukulele arrangements and one on lap steel guitar. He probably has more books out than anyone in Japan on things ukulele. I must confess to possessing four of them*.

In the order that he lists them on his site, the books are:
Solo Ukulele: from the Ghibli Studio
Solo Ukulele: Standard Songs that Forever Resonate in your Heart (sounds better in Japanese)
*Solo Ukulele: Famous Songs that can be played solo on one ukulele
Ukulele Solo Repatoire: Songs you want to play right now Volume 1
Ukulele Solo Repatoire: Songs you want to play right now Volume 2
How to Play Ukulele at a Glance
Ukulele Solo for Oldies Volume 1
Ukulele Solo for Oldies Volume 2
*Ukulele Solo: Bossa Nova Volume 1
*Ukulele Solo: Bossa Nova Volume 2
Ukulele Solo: Pop songs
*Jazz Standards Ukulele Solos
Solo Arrangements for an Ukulele Christmas
Lap Steel Guitar Method

(All the title translations are my own. There may be "official" titles, but I don't want to spend all afternoon in the music shop trying to find them.)

The Jazz Standard book is probably the most solid of the four that I have. It includes 35 songs such as "L-O-V-E", "12th Street Rag", "St. Thomas", and "Mona Lisa". That makes it a heaftier tome than most. It seems to have the entire notation for each of the songs (more on that below). It has regular musical notation with tabs below. Unlike many of his other books, it does not include a CD. It would not be a great surprise if that is because of copyrights and fees. Every third or forth song there will be a very brief comment about the songs, perhaps noting the level of difficulty or some particular point about the song.

It also includes 16 mini-tabs (four songs per page!) of old-time standards like "Old Black Joe", "Aura Lee", and "Danny Boy". The arrangements for the main 35 songs are not for absolute beginners. Perhaps after a couple of years of ukulele most of them become rather accessible.

The second book I have does come with a CD for the songs. There are 28 songs...sort of. These have been boiled down to one page--mostly one verse with no turnarounds. For example, "Every Breath You Take" has been distilled down to 35 measures.

There is a silver lining to the cloud, however. Most of the songs also feature a particular playing technique. "Happy Birthday" is done in a Blues style. This gives the user an opportunity to see how some Blues songs end. Other songs feature percussive strokes, arpeggios, or alternate pickings. Songs are also ranked according to level of difficulty. It is more a book to learn techniques than songs.

The two bossa nova books both come with CDs and (I think) pretty much the entire songs. Unfortunately, both of them are rather slim books with 10 songs each and about 30 pages. Probably the reason for dividing the books into two rather than put it all into one is the cost. At 2,300 yen ($21) each, the publishers probably realized fewer people would by a book at twice the cost.

One of the features of these two books is that the CD has two versions of each song. One to learn by and the other is a play-along karaoke version that allows the learner to play with the band.

Those interested in the kinds of arrangements he does might want to check out his "song of the month" page. Clicking on the title of the songs will start a Real Audio download.

As can be expected from someone who writes books of this sort, he also has a school going in Tokyo. He, himself, was a student of Haida Yukihiko, one of the Great Grandaddies of the ukulele in Japan.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Jaka Solo & Kamatetsu

Ukulele brands and models will get a rest today.

Jaka Solo means chord solos, particularly in the lively Roy Smeck vein."Jaka-jaka" is the onomatopoeia for the sound of rapidly played chords with that sort of rythm. You get the point, I hope.

One book that is beginning to make an impression here is on chord solos and written by a gent who calls himself Kamatetsu. You pretty much now find the book wherever you find ukulele books and music in Japan. The translation of the title of the book would be something like "Extreme Ukulele Solo: Jaka Solo."

The songs included are:

1. Menuett-A Lover's Concerto
2. Humoreske
3. Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue
4. Lover
5. Diamond Head-Slaughter on 10th Avenue
6. The World is Waiting for Sunrise
7. Astro Boy-Sazaesan
8. Stars and Stripes Forever
9. Symphony No. 9-Choral 4th Movement (Beethoven)
10. El Humauaqueno
11. El Condor Pasa
12. When The Saints Go Marchin' In
13. Crazy G (Version 1)
14. Crazy G (Version 2)
15. Grandfather's Clock (Country-style)
16. Grandfather's Clock (Hawaiian-style)
17. Under the Double Eagle (Wagner)
(It's a warts and all list. The spelling comes from the book--they are after all using a language foreign to them.)

The book is divided into several sections. Pages 8-13 are on general ukulele playing and the basics of chord solos. The second section, pages 14-33 are on the key points of each particular song. These include damping techniques, tricky fingerings, and rythm hints, etc.The rest of the book is pretty much the musical notation and tabs for the songs above.

The songs are all marked with 1-5 stars, one being the easiest to play, five being more difficult. "Crazy G" (Version 1) ranks a one, while Version 2 gets three. "Lover" lands five stars. I will probably never be able to play that tune.

Kamatetsu also did the recording of the included CD on his Martin. The CD is worth listening to on its own. When he does performances, he often includes songs from the CD.

The book came to my attention before it was published. Kamatetsu is a friend of one of the members of my regular ukulele group and they practice together in Tokyo. They have also put out a CD.

Our group member arranged a mini-ukulele festival here in town where a centerpiece was a Kamatetsu workshop not long after the book was published. I asked Kamatetsu whether it would be possible to publish a translation of the book. He said it was up to the publisher because of copyright issues. I haven't heard anything about it since.
Note: I debated with myself long and hard about which link to add for the book. I settled on Amazon because it might be possible to order the book from abroad through them and some people might get a feel for the thing. At least part of their page is in English. The publisher, Chuo Art Publishing does have a write up about the book and it can be found reasonably easily on their site. The problem there is that it is all in Japanese, in which case most anyone reading that would not be reading this. That held true with all the other Japanese bookstores I looked at as well.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

T's Guitar

Ever want a mango mini tenor with a red cedar top?

The plan was to bring up T's Guitars a couple weeks later than this. Two discoveries changed the plan.

First, a semi-pro/advanced amateur acquaintance left his T’s Guitar ukulele on a bench where I was sitting a couple of weeks ago. He had just finished his performance and went off to gather some of his gear. Hmmm….while he is not looking, I’ll just give this a quick once-around to see how it is. Oh, this is nice.

I don’t know the model, but it was very nice. It looked like their SD-100 model. Feather-light, it had a comfortably rounded neck and wonderful action. It was easy to play and sounded quite pleasant. I can see why he chose that soprano to play for his gig. (His other is a custom-made Kamaka with low-G tuning.) It was such a fun instrument that it piqued my interest.

After a little research, I have found that their ukulele was selected the BEST OF THE SHOW at the 2005 Ukulele Exhibition in Honolulu. Not just a clonker.

According to T’s website, the company was established in 1985 by a pair of brothers in Nagano, who were just into making guitars. They started out making handmade guitars using almost only hand tools. They have since expanded and now make guitars, basses, and ukuleles. They continued to make handmade and special-order instruments, but their business expanded past the two brothers and also include more precise tools for making their instruments.

They have a “web store” where photos are available for some models. If you click on this link, you will find different table just down the page offering their wares from sopranos to tenors. The columns of the tables/order form as of this writing read “model number”, “number in stock”, “price including case”, “body material”, options for “body top materials” and “number ordered”. There are links for some model numbers which will open up another window displaying photos of that model.

The woods they use can be anything from spruce or Hawaiian koa to redwood or cedar. Maple, walnut, rosewood, and mango are other examples. Their order form offers a kind of mix and match set-up.

Probably in line with the quality is the price. Sopranos start at over $400. Their most expensive soprano is a meager $2,500. Probably not something you want to start your neighbor's six-year-old off with or toss in your backpack as you hitchhike across the Sahara.

I did mention two discoveries, didn’t I? The second is that T’s seems to be the company responsible for bringing back the Luna brand. More on that soon.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Famous ukuleles

Probably the best known and most widely sold ukuleles in Japan are Famous.

The manufacturers of Famous ukuleles are based in Gunma, northwest of Tokyo, in an area known for furniture production. Mitsuba makes both ukuleles and furniture. The ukulele side of the operation produces the Famous brand and the Zephyr--a down-market "beginner" ukulele.

They started out manufacturing school instruments in the 1940s. When the ukulele and Hawaiian boom hit in the 1950s, Mitsuba began turning out ukuleles. I have read that at one point they manufactured enough to even export to the North America. However, when the craze bottomed out, Famous was the last brand standing. All other ukulele makers had called it quits.

Famous was apparently able to maintain its niche market. For a couple of decades, it survived as the only Japanese ukulele manufacturer. Famous is famous again. Almost any shop selling ukuleles in Japan other than toys is likely to carry Famous ukuleles. They seem to be almost a standard entry-level ax. A sizable portion of the beginners I have met here have them.

As far as I can remember, I have never played one personally, so I can't really comment on how they play. But, the company's motto runs something like "At a reasonable price with quality surpassing that".

The models they manufacture can be seen here.

Friday, July 07, 2006


The next several posts will introduce different Japanese ukulele brands. These postings will present a few challenges. Describing something that makes noise is difficult when the noise itself is absent. Let's give it a bash and see what happens.

While contemplating which Japanese brand of ukulele to introduce after Shimo Guitars, Kiwaya kept re-emerging.

Kiwaya itself is a small ukulele shop in a historic neighborhood of Tokyo. The ukulele shop occupies part of the ground floor of a building down a small side street several blocks from the nearest subway stations. The map on their website suggests getting off at the Inarimae Station on the Ginza Line. That was where I got off on the way there. It was a pretty straightforward walk. When heading home afterwards, I needed to get a different train, so a 15-minute maze journey followed.

If you go into the shop, you'll find the insides to be surprisingly small--but, let's be honest, how many ukulele shops of any scale are there in most cities? Tokyo does have several. There are a few cases containing new and use ukuleles and some counters and shelves with all sorts of ukulele CD, accessories, tools, and paraphanalia. For books and music scores, there are probably better places to go. Kiwaya, however, is more than what meets the eye. Inside their shop, there is very little clue to other goings-on. And I am not talking about their ukulele school that occupies the third and fourth floor of the same building, nor the small ukulele museum on the fourth floor either.

You won't find any ukuleles labelled with the Kiwaya brand, but there are lots of ukulele's that have Kiwaya to thank for their existance.

Like in the West, ukuleles have had ups and downs in their fortunes in Japan as well. In the late 1950s, there was a huge Hawaiian boom in Japan. Ukulele music was extremely popular then. Even in the 1960s and 1970s, grocery stores would pipe in Hawaiian background music. Several brand made their appearance and fortunes in the boom years. Famous and Luna are two Japanese brands that were particularly well known. Grandfathers of Hawaiian and ukulele music in Japan like Haita Yukihiko and Yamaguchi Ginji help boost Famous sales.

Then came Elvis Prestly...and the Beatles and other kinds of Western popular music. Luna bit the dust. Famous no longer was famous, though kept alive by Kiwaya. Dispair ruled the land. A dark evil descended....that's a bit over-dramatic. Suffice it to say that the Hawaiian boom was no more and the ukulele in Japan was headed for a nadir. (If memory serves, it was about this time also that Kamaka became the only remaining ukulele maker surviving in the US also.)

In the early 1990s, the light began to shine again. Interest in the ukulele was renewed. Kiwaya can probably be given credit for being behind Famous during the dark days and keeping it alive until the present hey-day. They brought Luna back to life and they have since been involved in tying up other makers to create new products.

I will start to look at some of these specific brands in the next several posts. However, if you would like to a feel for some of the Kiwaya-related brands before the journey begins, you can look at their online catalogue. Even if you can't read the Japanese, you can see what each instrument looks like. Prices are in yen, indicated by the y with the double crossbar. US$1=115yen more or less.

Saturday, July 01, 2006


Iwao is the stage name of Yamaguchi Iwao, one of the best known of the younger generation of uke players.

One of his themes seems to be getting a new Shimo ukulele and using that to create a new album. Most of the recent ukuleles he uses frequently appear to be baritones.

He is putting out his eighth ukulele album 21July.

Judging by song titles and the guests appearing on the CD, this upcoming album will have more of a Hawaiian sound than most of his previous work."Hawaiian Morning" will include such standards as "Blue Hawaii" and "Lei Pikake". But, it will also contain non-Hawaiian efforts such as "And I Love Her" and "Stella by Starlight".

The ablum will also differ from his previous works that I have heard as it will contain more vocals. Iwao is principally an instrumentalist and his offerings do normally include much in the way of singing. Judging from the write-up on this album, his guests will be handling the vocals.

Although he does sometimes play as a soloist, much of his music is featured with backup musicians. Two of his CDs that grace my collection "Post Card Summer" and "Natureza" flirt with some Hawaiian musical ideas--the former more than the latter. Both have heavy jazz infusions and "Natureza" has definite undercurrents of Brazilian influence.

In addition to his own works, he has also collaborated with quite a few compliations.

In Japan, original compliations of ukulele music are popular among fans. Several famous players may come together and add one or two songs each to create a theme driven CD. "Ukulele Beatles", "Ukulele Elvis", and "Ukulele Ghibli" are some examples in which Iwao has appeared. "Ukulele Force-Star Wars Best Covers" are another example, but as far as I can make out, Iwao didn't have anything to do with that one.

Iwao is probably known both for his playing and the learning material he puts out. He has a couple of DVDs out on how to play. Translations of a couple titles would probably be "If you are a little serious about the ukulele" and "If you are really serious about the ukulele". The first includes hints on how to play different styles. "Kona Sunset" (which is also on the CD coming out in July), "12th Street Rag", "Zinga" (which is included in "Natureza"), and Ka'au Crater Boys' "Tropical Hawaiian Day". The second DVD includes "Some day my prince will come" and "Silent Lagoon", but there is a heavy emphasis on Hawaiian vamps of various styles and in various keys. He also has a DVD out on how to play the baritone ukulele.

He also offers classes in Tokyo. A year or so ago he began offering baritone classes that filled up more than he imagined according to an interview with him I read.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Shimo Ukuleles

While there are obviously still lots of ukulele players to cover, today I will touch on an uke luthier.

Shimo Takahiro runs Shimo Guitars. He graduated from a well-known luthier school in Arizona. He makes guitars and ukuleles, some of which are used by well-known Japanese players like Takagi Boo (mentioned in a previous post) and Iwao (subject of a soon-to-be post). As far as I can make out, he makes custom instruments.

I have heard several of his ukuleles being played and they pretty pleasant little instruments to listen to. Iwao makes it a point for fans to know that he uses Shimo ukuleles. If you would like to hear what some of his ukuleles and guitars sound like, visit his website (link above) and click on the link to the Sound Library. You can listen to the various examples by clicking on whatever picture strikes your fancy.

Speaking of fancy, some of his work is pretty fanciful. He has come up with some pretty crazy designs, as well as some excellent ones. Anyone interested can look at his site (much of which is in English, incidentally) and enjoy having a look.

I would hesitate to guess what one of his handmade beauties would cost, but I imagine they would run at least $1,000 if not considerably more (I've seen one of his guitars going for $14,000). But, from what I have seen of them, they are probably worth much more than what you pay for them.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Kobayashi Kiyoshi

It would be tough to call Kobayashi Kiyoshi the most famous ukulele player in Japan, but he is fairly well known.

He is putting out fifth album, "Pacific Swing" this coming Monday. Obviously, I haven't heard it, but he did give us a preview at the Ukulele Super Jam, 1 April this year. (Pictures and write-up in English sans Kobayashi). Based on what I heard there, I will probably make the effort to get my hands on it soon. I have his previous effort, "Ukulele Swing 42", which is a fun compliation of jazz or jazzy standards played in a swing style (or did the titles of these two CDs give that away?).

His playing style is not flashy, but it is articulate and, precise. One could press the case that it is orthodox, but it is nonetheless entertaining to listen to. After hearing him play at the Super Jam, I seriously considered attempting enrolling in one of the ukulele classes he offers in Swing ukulele around Tokyo, but unfortunately, they are all at impossible times for me.

Kobayashi started out on guitar and still plays, but is now probably better known as an ukulele player. Part of the reason is that he also writes books on learning how to play as well as appears in instructional DVDs. It was with one of his publications that I got started on the ukulele...true confessions time, is it?

Born in 1955, he is considerably younger than the septugenarians I wrote about in my last posting. It is hardly surprising that he teaches ukulele as he was a jazz guitar instructor at a Tokyo university for eight years. He was the first Japanese to perform at the French Django Reinhart Festival (1985).

I haven't found an English web page on this particular Kobayashi Kiyoshi, though there are pages on the voice actor by the same name.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Who is most famous?

Who is Japan's most famous ukulele musician? Beats me, I'm no music business professional! But, that has never stopped me from guess anyway.

If we define "famous" as an ukulele musician than even non-uke fans would know, it probably boils down to either Takagi Boo or Maki Shinji. Ukulele players in Japan seem to occasionally echo the Tiny Tim or George Formby ambience.

Takagi Boo was something of a guitarist in days past. He was also a member of the comedy team "The Drifters", who had a Saturday night variety show on Japanese TV for years.Now in his seventies, he runs his own Hawaiian-style bar in Tokyo where he performs live a couple of times a week.Although his site is in Japanese, you can find performance information under the link marked "Live". He plays primarily Hawaiian music of the Kaimana Hila variety. His daughter seems to have more or less grown up in Hawaii.According to a recent TV program, she seems to live there still.

Maki Shinji is a comedian that uses the ukulele has a very integral part of his act. Maki's trademark is variations on Ta-Hu-Wa-Hu-Wai. He varies the lyrics to discuss surprises, disappointments, shocks, and vexations. You can hear one version on his downloads page. It is the top link. Below are also two MP3 of "scary stories" for download. Or at least that is what is there today.

He has also put out CDs that are available on the Internet. I haven't found any pages in English about Maki Shinji, so the link above is to his official Japanese web site.

According to the Japanese profile on Maki's site, he was born in 1934 and began a career in entertainment in 1957. A quick punch of the calculator reveals, like Takagi Boo, he's been at it a while.

Probably Japanese ukulele musicians most famous outside of Japan would be Petty Booka. They seem to be fairly active in the US and some of their music is available for download at the i-Tunes music store. If you have never heard of them, they have videos available on their web site.

There are--or were--many other famous and popular ukulele players in years gone by who have had their careers truncated by mortality. If I can ever get the time to work on a history write-up, they may put in their respective cameos.

Shortly, I will begin with individual uke players for uke fans.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Rolling Coconuts

And now for some content......

Rolling Coconuts is a freebie magazine available at some shops that sell ukuleles here in Japan. In some ways, the magazine is a bit like ukuleles--small, kind of fun, and it is mostly enthusiasts that take it seriously.

Physically, this little quarterly is about 12x16 cm and has about 26 pages per issue. About half of the contents is advertisements for the shops where you can lay your hands on it.

The other half has interviews with famous Japanese or international ukulele player. Interviews I have read include Herb Ohta, Herb Ohta Jr., Daniel Ho, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, and several others as well. Iwao, probably the most domestically famous Japanese uke player, pops up in all the issues I have seen. He is often the interviewer for international players.

There is at least one or two playing tips and a song of some sort included near the back. These can be anything from Japanese folk songs to "We are the Champions".

Yamaha ukulele schools also get some sort of write up. They are probably at least partially bankrolling the pubication.

Having a peek at their web site (link above) will reveal Rolling Coconuts TV. RC TV presents short ukulele videos, usually with some connect to the present issue of the magazine. In case you can't read Japanese, the "remote" for the TV is in the lower right corner fo the opening page. When I looked at it a few minutes ago, they had Channels 1-7. Just below that was a link that pops up previous videos. That link was in red just under Channel 7.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The logic behind this

A few months ago, a gent in Britain suggested that I set up a site on the ukulele scene here in Japan. There seem to be few that can relate to the outside world what is happening here in the land of the rising uke.

Being fairly busy at work, I just don't really have the time to run a full-blown HTML-type website--even with a content management system at my side. I am lucky to even get the time to practice let alone drone on and on to a computer where no one may be reading in the first place.

Be it synchronicity or what, I needed a couple of screenshots for a presentation I have to give in a few days to some educators on blogs. The birth of this blog ensued. With luck, it may be nourished occasionally with a bit of verbage, a link or two, and--in uncontrollable moments--a photo or other graphic.

There are some really good blogs out there with very dedicated writers. This is probably not going to be one of them for most. It is unlikely that I will be one either, but, if someone gets something out of it, at least it might be worth it.