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This article by Sally Friedman was prepared for the May 14, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Moonlighters: The Beauty of Island Strings

It’s not that Andrew Hall consciously set out to form

a musical ensemble that would become known for Hawaiian music. This

serious graduate of the New School’s jazz program knew that he would

be a bass player, and that music would be his life.

But Hawaiian music? Therein lies a tale.

Seems that this founder and spokesman for the Moonlighters, the group

that will be performing on Saturday, May 17, as part of the new "It

Takes A Village" Concert Series at the Kingston United Methodist

Church in Kingston, was making music in a more mainstream way until

1998. That was the year when Hall came into contact with Bliss Blood,

who, like her name, turned out to be unforgettable.

Blood was already a veteran of the Tin Pan Alley genre, where the

ukulele, the instrument so closely associated with Hawaiian music,

had earned its rightful place. She had also moved through the punk

rock scene, and was ready to leave it behind.

Through Blood, Hall also met Henry Bogdan, whose "15 minutes"

had come via the heavy metal band Helmet. Bogdan, like Blood, had

had it with what Andrew Hall called "loud music being played for

drunken teens." And Bogdan played several different kinds of guitar,

including those that create the sounds associated with Hawaiian music.

"I guess it was fate," said Hall, who was intrigued by what

he heard from Blood and Bogdan. "We were somehow destined to come

together." That fate was sealed when Carla Murray, a friend and

colleague of Blood’s, entered the picture with her acoustic guitar

and vocalizing. This somewhat unlikely foursome was ready to tackle

Hawaiian music as a kind of trademark specialty, and was poised to

see whether their audiences would like it.

Audiences surely did. The band became a favorite in New York’s Lower

East Side, and then began a residency at a New York club that lasted

nearly a year, through July, 1999. Through it all, the group has been

doing club gigs and composing original music.

"Frankly, this kind of music had fallen out of public consciousness,

but it was so truly beautiful that we were all excited about trying

it," said Hall. "We knew it might be a challenge, but we saw

it as a challenge we were willing to take on."

Hawaiian music has its own checkered history, but its major contribution

is generally acknowledged to be the ukulele. It’s not that Hawaiians

discovered it — a Portuguese immigrant was credited with bringing

to the islands the predecessor to the ukulele in 1879, according to

George Kanahele’s classic reference work, "Hawaiian Music and

Musicians."

The first Hawaiian name for the ukulele was "pila li’li’i"

or "little fiddle." The leap to the name "ukulele"

is lost in the mists of time, but the prevailing theory is that the

name evolved from another Hawaiian instrument, the "ukeke,"

a bow instrument. The official translation of ukulele, "jumping

flea," doesn’t offer much enlightenment.

However it came to be named, the ukulele would go on to the big leagues

when it was introduced in 1915 at the Panama Pacific Exposition’s

Hawaiian exhibit in San Francisco. That event marked the instrument’s

debut on the world stage, and audiences in the United States fell

in love with the new sound. The Roaring Twenties saw such a demand

for the instrument that manufacturers couldn’t keep pace and orders

went unfilled.

Inexpensive, portable, and easier to play than other

stringed instruments, the ukulele became the particular darling of

college students — and Princeton undergraduates — who were

often photographed in their raccoon coats and straw hats holding their

beloved ukuleles.

The Great Depression permanently altered so many aspects of American

life, and not even the ukulele was spared. The little instrument languished

through the 1950s when an unlikely hero — television pioneer Arthur

Godfrey — resurrected it briefly, strumming tunes between acts.

It enjoyed a brief, ironic renaissance when the tall and gangly Tiny

Tim brought the little instrument under the spotlight again with his

famous rendition of the vaudeville favorite "Tiptoe Through the

Tulips."

While the ukulele still resonates in Hawaiian music, its popularity

in other parts of the world has waned, and like beleaguered Rodney

Dangerfield, it has been getting little respect.

Until the Moonlighters.

"We think there’s a place for this kind of music," says Hall

of the Moonlighters’ penchant for playing sweet Hawaiian sounds, complete

with Bliss Blood’s ukulele and Henry Bogdan’s lap steel guitar, the

kind that’s held flat on the lap and also provides the Hawaiian sound.

"It’s possible to mix in a lot of styles with our instruments

and vocals, but the Hawaiian sound is definitely a major part of it."

Hall is pleased that reviews from the Village Voice, the New Yorker,

and other publications have emphasized that the Moonlighters’ music

is not just listenable; it also cuts across the great age divide.

"Take your grandmother or your sweetheart," advises the New

Yorker review. "Either will leave humming."

At its Kingston concert, the group will be performing some of the

works from its "Hello Heartstrings" CD, which includes original

selections that range from "Mighty Fine," a paean to connection,

to "A Farewell to the Blues," a plan to "get me a ticket

across the ocean."

Moonlighters’ sounds mix lots of melodies and lots of harmonies, according

to Andrew Hall. "We like to think that our music is beautiful,

mostly happy, and definitely accessible."

For Hall himself, who divides his time between Brooklyn and the Berkshires,

it’s also something else, something easier felt than explained. "After

we rehearse sometimes, and I walk out into the streets, I look around

at the craziness of New York and I’m somehow beyond it. It can’t touch

me because the serenity of our music is still in my soul," he

says. "And that’s the exact gift that we hope to bring to our

audiences."

— Sally Friedman

The Moonlighters, Kingston United Methodist Church,

Church Street (off Route 27), Kingston, 609-921-6812. "It Takes

A Village" benefit concert series opens with the Moonlighters,

New York’s ukelele and steel guitar ensemble. Proceeds go to preserve

the historic Kingston United Methodist Church. $12 at the door. Saturday,

May 17, 8 p.m.

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