Langley Ukulele Ensemble,
Pacific Ukulele Connection
(self-produced, 2004)

For the past 20 years, Vancouver-area high school music teacher and principal Peter Luongo has been nurturing rotating bunches of talented students into what is quite simply an amazing ongoing ukulele orchestra and choir. Pacific Ukulele Connection, the latest of several CDs from succeeding incarnations of this ensemble, is the best effort I have heard from them; it focuses on Hawaiian style music, which works well with Luongo's self-confessed retro, Ray-Coniff-Singers approach.

For those of you too young to remember, Ray Coniff was quite popular (on my parents' favourite radio station, for example) in the late 1950s and '60s. He was known for giving the romantic, light choral treatment to everything from classics to disco to some of the most inane of pop songs. When it worked, it worked, as on his most popular number, "Somewhere My Love," a vocal re-do of "Lara's Theme" from the blockbuster film, Dr. Zhivago. But even at its best, it's not a style I particularly warm to.

So I have to confess to some surprise about how much I like this CD. It took a while, as my natural aversion to the Ray Coniff schtick warred with my interest in all things ukulele (omit Tiny Tim from this list please). But in the end Luongo and his young performers won me over. A lot of it has to do with the sheer quality of the performances: crisp, sweet vocal harmonies (mainly female), backed by some tight ukulele playing that sometimes rises to a multi-instrument crescendo like a balalaika orchestra and sometimes skips along with the sprightliest of jazz solos. It's impressive, what Luongo and these young people have accomplished together. What I wouldn't give to be able to play or sing this well -- and to have learned it in high school? Wow.

But the other reason it works is related to the choice of material, mainly Hawaiian standards, with one Maori song from New Zealand, the Japanese pop classic "Sukiyaki" and Luongo's own composition, "Waikiki Aloha," thrown in for good measure. Hawaiian music, too, has a deep hole of schmaltzy affiliations to crawl out of, thanks to a long sad history of catering to the worst of tourist sensibilities. But the fact is that the real music of Hawaii has made vital contributions to American roots music (viz., steel guitar, slack-key guitar, a rich melodic approach that reflects the benign climate, vocal harmonies that marry indigenous Hawaiian chant traditions with church hymnody and, of course, the ukulele itself, an adaptation of the miniature Portuguese guitar known as the braguinha).

The Langley Ukulele Ensemble treats these songs with dignity and feeling, singing the original Hawaiian, Japanese and Maori lyrics (in addition to English) with practiced accents that have been praised for their accuracy by native Hawaiian speakers who have heard them. And Luongo's arrangements and direction are clearly superior. The quality of the performances, both vocal and instrumental, is all the more astonishing as these are what Luongo describes as "live off the floor" recordings -- no overdubs to improve individual parts, in other words -- an approach that no doubt also contributes to the energy and infectious enthusiasm that shines through in each cut. To my ear the performances are near flawless.

The selections range from traditional folk-tunes like the snappy "Henehene Kou Aka" and the almost funky chant "Kawika" -- with some fiery uke playing by both Paul Luongo (son of Peter) and an obviously flamenco-influenced James Hill -- to the more humorous "Royal Hawaiian Hotel," and the rather overexposed but still beautiful "Hawaiian Wedding Song." Also included are the gentle "Hawaiian Lullaby" and the jumping instrumental "Guava Jam," two songs by Peter Moon, a seminal figure in the renaissance of traditional Hawaiian culture.

I would definitely class this album as easy listening -- but miles ahead of Ray Coniff -- with a cross-reference to Hawaiian traditional. It's fine background music for those warm, lazy summer days when you want to kick back and relax, as well as for those sleepy winter evenings in the den when you close your eyes, sip your rum punch and dream of warm breezes and tropical isles. If your kids catch you listening to it, you are definitely going to lose "cool" points. But who cares.

- Rambles
written by John Bird
published 25 September 2004

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