Bill Tapia: Tropical Swing

Jamie O'Brien

Bill Tapia

Tropical Swing

Label: Moon Room
US Release Date: 2004-03-02
UK Release Date: Available as import

Honolulu native Bill Tapia was about 10 years old when he started playing ukulele in public at USO shows for World War 1 servicemen stationed on Oahu. Tapia is now celebrating nine decades as a professional musician with the release of his debut solo album.

By the time he was a teenager, he was already performing in vaudeville and on cruises. He worked on ships crossing the Pacific as a jazz guitarist until he eventually settled in California. The list of musicians he has worked with is a veritable Who's Who of jazz and Hawaiian music: Sol Hoopii, King Bennie Nawahi, Andy Iona to name but three from the Islands and Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Bing Crosby ... As a teacher, he numbers the likes of Clark Gable and Shirley Temple among his ex-students.

Such pioneers as Tapia helped develop Hawaiian jazz, with its sweet melody playing and fascinating sounds. (He was a member of the first jazz band in the Islands). Tropical Swing celebrates the style with 10 tracks, including two gems from the past, with Tapia playing ukulele and guitar mostly with the Essential Resophonics, a tremendous California-based trio adding steel and Spanish guitars and upright bass.

The album opens with a gentle "Mack the Knife". Tapia plucks the melody on uke along with Buck Giles's echoing chimes on steel guitar. Guitarist Eric Dyrenforth holds the rhythm with tight strums on the beat while bassist Jack Fire adds a deep foundation. Along with his inventive playing, Tapia also sings. His phrasing and intonation possess a vibrancy and swing that are perfectly suited to the melody.

This is followed by a number of tunes, including such classics as "Stardust", "Mood Indigo", and "Misty", with the quartet of players creating a gentle, warm sound. Tapia constantly moves in unexpected directions with his improvisation while his companions provide a compact setting.

"Hawaiian Medley" and "Paradise Isle" move the album into a Hawaiian mood, with the distinctive musical phrases and chord sequences typical of Island music. But while he pays respect to their origins, they still receive the Tapia treatment -- his ukulele constantly explores possibilities opened up by the tunes and the rhythm. In contrast, "Hapa Haole Hula Girl" is performed simply but as effectively, just voice and ukulele.

Although mainly a ukulele-led album, Tapia's guitar playing is also featured. He presents a lazy, laid back version of "Body And Soul", fingers easily dancing across the frets. Similarly, on "Paradise Isle", he slides across the strings and bends notes, a perfect foil for the ringing steel guitar.

The album ends with two classic tracks recorded in 1936. "Stars and Stripes Forever/Sweethearts on Parade" features Tapia playing intricately at breakneck speed accompanied by bass and guitar; and "Tropical Swing", featuring a five-piece band (bass, piano, steel, clarinet, and Tapia on guitar), Gordon Beecher on vocals, and harmony accompaniment, which also demonstrates Tapia's skills in arranging.

Bill Tapia played at the opening of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Waikiki, in 1927. He was also present at the 75th anniversary celebrations, the only person who attended both events. His career spans the modern era of Hawaiian music; he is a pioneer and innovator who demonstrates the incredible versatility and potential of the humble ukulele; a musician who stands as an inspiration to lovers of fine music and to fellow musicians alike. Please don't let it be another 96 years before the follow up is released!





PM Picks Playlist 4: Stellie, The Brooks, Maude La​tour

Today's playlist features the premiere of Stellie's "Colours", some top-class funk from the Brooks, Berne's eco-conscious electropop, clever indie-pop from Maude Latour, Jaguar Jonze rocking the mic, and Meresha's "alien pop".


Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.


Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".


Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.


Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.


The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.


Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.


For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?


Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".


Becky Warren Shares "Good Luck" and Discusses Music and Depression (premiere + interview)

Becky Warren finds slivers of humor while addressing depression for the third time in as many solo concept albums, but now the daring artist is turning the focus on herself in a fight against a frightful foe.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Fleet Foxes Take a Trip to the 'Shore'

On Shore, Fleet Foxes consist mostly of founding member Robin Pecknold. Recording with a band in the age of COVID-19 can be difficult. It was just time to make this record this way.


'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.


Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.


3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.