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02-28-06, 05:06 AM
Ukulele master
The Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts is honoring "Ohta-san," a legend whose influence spans generations
By John Berger

Herb Ohta, Pan American Airlines executive. It could have happened, if Ohta hadn't experienced some high-frequency hearing loss while serving in the Marines. If he hadn't flunked -- twice -- the hearing test when applying for an airline job, Herb Ohta might never have become the ukulele virtuoso known as "Ohta-San," and the history of the ukulele might have turned out quite differently.

Roy Sakuma might never have heard "Sushi," the song that introduced Ohta-San in the mid-1960s, and never become one of Ohta-San's top disciples and Hawaii's foremost instructor and promoter of the ukulele.

And what of Herb Ohta Jr., a virtuoso in his own right? Would Herb Jr., and untold other ukulele players, have been inspired to take up the instrument if there had been no Ohta-San?

True, many talented musicians work full-time day jobs and still find time to record, but would Herb Ohta have had time to make more than 70 albums if he'd been working a 40-hour week?

Probably not.

But Ohta did leave some of his hearing with the Corps, he didn't pass the physical for that airline job and he did become the most prolific ukulele recording artist of the 20th century.

Thanks to all that, Herb "Ohta-San" Ohta will be honored Saturday by the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts as one of five recipients of this year's HARA Lifetime Achievement Awards.

The show starts at 11 a.m. and, if previous year's shows are any indication, will include performances by those influenced by Ohta and this year's other recipients: Dick "the Giant" Jensen, Leila Kiaha, George Naope and Palani Vaughan.

Ohta said he had no idea he was being considered until HARA board member Lea Uehara invited him to lunch and asked if he could bring some vintage photographs.

"I didn't expect it but it's not a bad thing, it's a good thing," Ohta said, soft-spoken as always during a late-afternoon telephone interview.

At least two previous recipients of this award -- Kahauanu Lake and Eddie Kamae -- have also been important in the history of the ukulele. Ohta, however, built on the precedent set by artists such as Bill Tapia, Jesse Kalima and Kamae in showing the world that the ukulele could be more than part of the rhythm section in Hawaiian string bands.

Ohta estimates that he made about 10 albums for Hula Records and another 10 for the Poki recording company in Hawaii, and maybe another 30 in Japan. He also recorded for labels in Europe, for the U.S. label Decca and for "Jumpin' Jim" Beloff's Flea Market Music label in California.

"I've recorded a lot of Hawaiian (music), but a lot of screen soundtracks and stuff like that. I even did a Bach album in Japan," Ohta said.

Ohta's four Na Hoku Hanohano Awards barely touch the surface of his work. They consist of awards for his instrumental arrangements of "E Ku'u Morning Dew" and "Honolulu City Lights," another for his 1981 album, "Island Favorites," and a fourth for his 1987 album, "Ohta-San," one of the first released by Roy Sakuma's label.

There was a time before he started recording, Ohta said, when he thought he and Kamae were going to work together in promoting the ukulele outside the familiar context of Hawaiian music. Kamae, however, decided that his heart lay with perpetuating traditional Hawaiian folk music as leader of the Sons of Hawaii.

"We're very close friends, although I don't see him that often, and we played together several times together at the (Waikiki) Shell -- Eddie, myself, Sonny Chillingworth and some other people."

Upon his return from the Marines, Ohta said, he and Kamae had planned to tour the world with the ukulele, "but he was already hooked on Hawaiian music. ... He told me, 'Herbert, the field is wide open. You just play whatever you want. I'm going to do Hawaiian.'"

A friend introduced Ohta to Don McDiarmid Jr., president of Hula Records, and Ohta recorded "Sushi."

"The thing caught on," he said. "In two weeks it was No. 1 (in Hawaii) ... and I thought, 'If I'm not going to work (for the airline), I'd just as well keep practicing and see what else I can do.'"

Ohta also signed a recording contract with Decca, embarked on a parallel career with the New Hawaiian Band and earned a college degree.

The rest is music history.

Looking back on his work -- including some long-forgotten recordings discovered and released recently in Japan -- Ohta said that although he can't play as fast as he did 40 years ago, the fundamentals don't change.

"As far as sophistication goes, as far as playing something with simplicity but with elegance, I don't know how to explain that."

Now, he said, he plays with a "sophisticated simplicity -- because you know a little more and you can feel the music. I've always told people that you have to feel the music or you can't play it. Just because you play 1,000 notes, it doesn't mean a thing if it doesn't say anything."