2 Famous Ukulele Songs ... Brought Back to LIFE!
In the ukulele world, what's new is old, and what's old is new (and we like it that way!). In an industry that has undergone multiple "waves" of popularity, where "vintage" means "really good," and where cover songs of old tunes are the standard, we are no strangers to bringing things back to life. So this month, while much of the Western world celebrates Easter, here in the Underground we're celebrating 2 famous ukulele songs that always seem to come back to life!
Guava Jam (1969) - The Sunday Manoa
During the late 1960s, Hawaii-born slack-key guitarist and ukulele virtuoso, Peter Moon formed a band called The Sunday Manoa. After several lineup changes, the band settled on Moon along with brothers Robert and Roland Cazimero and released Guava Jam in 1969. The album was an ambitious experiment in contemporary Hawaiian music - honoring the musical traditions of Hawaii's past while fusing with and developing the modern sounds of Hawaii's musical future. Under the title track, the album's liner notes explain: "The Sunday Manoa breathes new life into the music of the past, enhancing the flavor of old with the influences of today. Guava Jam means that true Hawaiian music is definitely a local product, and is disciplined and rich with feeling as any other folk music."
While the original recording of Guava Jam was primarily a slack-key guitar instrumental, legend has it that Peter Moon would often play the tune on ukulele in his signature virtuoso style. This would come into play many years later when an up-and-coming ukulele player would bring this tune back to life.
Guava Jam (1991) - The Ka'au Crater Boys
Growing up in Palolo Valley on the island of Oahu during the 1980s, Troy Fernandez was among a cadre of young musicians who surfed, jammed music together, and gigged around the island. For aspiring players at the time, Peter Moon was their ukulele hero. Eventually Troy began a steady gig with fellow Palolo Valley musician Ernie Cruz, Jr. When the duo released their first album as the Ka'au Crater Boys in 1991, it contained two Peter Moon cover songs: "Kawika" and "Guava Jam." But while Moon's "Guava Jam" was originally a slack key song, the Ka'au Crater Boys version cemented it as an ukulele classic.
Troy Fernandez most likely took notes from Peter Moon's live ukulele performances of the song, but with this Ka'au Crater Boys take in 1991 he kickstarted a wave of ukulele popularity in Hawaii that continues to this day. Today you'll find many "Guava Jam" covers online that are basically carbon copies of the Ka'au version. (And if you would like to learn it - check out the UU tutorial HERE: Guava Jam - UU+ Solo Ukulele Arrangement).
Bodysurfing (1986) - Ohta-San
Herb Ohta, musically known as Ohta-San, started his ukulele career in the 1950s and became wildly popular in Hawaii, nationally, and internationally throughout the 1960s and 70s. By the time his self-titled album Ohta-San was released in 1986, he'd had several hit songs, recorded over a dozen records, and toured the world many times over. Side 1, Track 1 of Ohta-San was a much overlooked original song called "Bodysurfing" - essentially a "Wipeout"-esque instrumental tune, if "Wipeout" had been written on the uke and scored using 80s MIDI synth.
The album ended up winning the Na Hoku Hanohano Award for Instrumental Album of the Year, but most likely for Ohta's arrangements of "Tequila," "Let's Dance," "Summertime," and "Whiter Shade of Pale." "Bodysurfing" would take a backseat to these much more recognizable tunes, at least until it was resurrected by a young ukulele virtuoso more than a decade later.
Bodysurfing (1999) - Pure Heart
Long before Jake Shimabukuro became the internationally-recognized internet ukulele celebrity we all know and love, he grew up in Hawaii and took ukulele lessons from Roy Sakuma Studios. Roy Sakuma was protégé of Ohta-San, so naturally young Jake looked up to Ohta-San, among other Hawaii ukulele heroes (including Eddie Kamae and later Troy Fernandez). After high school, Jake started a band called Pure Heart with his friends Jon Yamasato and Lopaka Colón and the trio cut their first album in 1998. The band became an overnight success in Hawaii and released Pure Heart 2 the very next year. This second album contained five instrumental songs, including both "Wipeout" and "Bodysurfing." Surprisingly, the once overlooked "Bodysurfing," as reimagined by Jake, was the standout hit.
Funny enough, long after Jake became a solo ukulele artist, gaining internet fame for his cover of "My Guitar Gently Weeps" & "Bohemian Rhapsody" and inspiring a whole new generation of ukulele players, "Bodysurfing" was resurrected yet again. In 2013, the female ukulele duo Honoka and Azita uploaded a video of themselves covering Jake's version of "Bodysurfing" on YouTube which went viral. As of this publication, it has over 24 million views.
As we have seen, in the ukulele world, what's new is old and what's old is new. When reflecting on your own musical journey, ask yourself: What songs have inspired me in the past? and With the skills and knowledge that I have now, how can I put a new spin on these old songs? Or maybe you haven't picked up your ukulele in awhile. You now have the opportunity to revisit some of the songs, techniques, or concepts that you've learned before. Who knows? You may see them in an entirely new light. As the world of ukulele (and your own playing) expands and evolves, it is certain that we will continue to discover even more ukulele gems waiting to be brought back to life.
P.S. For more interesting ukulele history featuring Ohta San, Troy Fernandez, and Jake, check out our article, "Ukulele Origin Stories."