Phranque adds new chapter to the radical history of the ukulele

photo by Andrew Bisdale

People tend to think of Hawaii as this idyllic laid-back paradise full of hula dancers in grass skirts and coconut bras where everyone get sloshed on Mai Tais nightly at sunset lūʻaus on beaches full of chiseled surfers and letting-it-all-hang-out ukulele strummers where the worst thing you’re likely to face is a cursed Tiki idol that’ll cause you to smash your souvenir ukulele and throw out your back hula dancing before being attacked by a big hairy spider and a spear-wielding Vincent Price archeologist—impressions formed by decades of deliriously kitschy Hawaii-themed pop-culture exotica ranging from Brady Bunch family vacations to Elvis playing the girl-happy scion to a Hawaiian pineapple fortune to Tom Selleck’s garish private dick wardrobe and magnum-sized mustache to an alarming number of cheese-laden rom-coms set on Hawaii half of which star Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston

But hey, don’t get us wrong, we here at The Deli are hardly averse to kitsch (this writer proudly owns an autographed photo with Don Ho!) and could listen to twee-pop ukulele covers of the Misfits’ “Last Caress” for hours on end. Still, it’s perhaps telling that no musical instrument has been so relentlessly kitsch-ified as the ukulele has been in the USA—which is why the Misfits covers are so pleasing, playing off the contrast between the lyrics about baby-murdering-and-mommy-violating and the cutesy associations of the "uke" kinda like if Glenn Danzig’s kitty litter meme came to life. 

So it’s a nice change of pace to hear a ukulele-based song that dispenses with these associations, instead going for a haunted, hauntingly celestial vibe—the song in question being “The Haunted Mask of Lono” by the artist/entity known as Phranque. And it totally works, alternating between apprehensive pinprick arpeggiations and cresting-wave-of-nervous-tension choruses—the latter helped along by the spectral cello of Jane Scarpantoni (who makes all manner of spooky, shuddering atmospheric sounds) and the steadily churning rhythm section of Josh Davis on drums and Jason Smith on bass (see the top of this page for the video) all of which enhanced by the crystalline production work.

Lyrically, the song opens with the line “stranded here under starring skies” going on to describe a mask that once you “put it on, can’t take it off” culminating with yearning vocal overdubs in the uneasy, etherial choruses. And wouldn’t you know it, singer-songwriter-ukulelist Frank Gallo (better known as the longstanding frontman for Karabas Barabas, a hard-rocking Zappa-esque band known for its songs about “Connecticut” and “Brighton Beach”) not only wrote this song while “on vacation” in Hawaii (not the “scare quotes”!) but he wrote it about literally being masked and stranded—because after a few days of long scenic runs (fun fact: Frank runs triple-marathons in his downtime!) he developed a persistent cough and sure enough tested positive for Covid.

As a result he spent the rest of his Hawaiian trip in self-imposed “tropical prison” in his hotel room overlooking the beach. But hey, when life gives you rotten avocados why not make Rolie Polie Guacamole which is the name of Frank’s children’s music project. So he called up the local musical instrument store and had them leave a ukulele on the hood of his car and resolved to work on kids’ songs but his creative impulses struck out in other directions (as they will!) composing an entire LP’s worth of music inspired in part by a recent read of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s The Curse of Lono and its “bad trip” (in multiple senses!) illustrations by frequent artistic collaborator Ralph Steadman, a book that relates the pair’s trip to Hawaii to cover the 1980 Honolulu marathon for a runner’s magazine and then proceeding to have one of the worst vacations ever.”

Which is fitting on multiple levels because if you dig a little deeper, far from being “laid back” or “kitschy,” this tropical archipelago has had a pretty gonzo history itself. For instance, when English explorer Captain Cook first landed on the Hawaiian Islands at the end of the 18th century, he was assumed to be the fertility deity Lono in human form (also the god of music, and he’s into surfing and rainbows!) due to some lucky happenstance. But after his naval crew spread tuberculosis and venereal diseases among the native population, and after Cook shot and killed a local chief, his luck unsurprisingly ran out, soon after being attacked and dismembered and with his ass literally delivering on a platter back to his countrymen (but still the name he gave to the islands stuck for over 50 years, i.e. “The Sandwich Islands” named after the actual guy who invented the sandwich).

Anyway, by the time six days passed in the hotel Frank had written ten new songs inspired by his unusual circumstances that, after being recorded months later at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio in Chicago, with finishing touches applied at Moon Studios in Brooklyn, will be made available to the general public on 5/27 under the title Mahalo Chicago (available for pre-order now, fool!) an album that according Frank/Phranque "reimagines what a ukulele album sounds like and falls somewhere in the realm of Pinkerton, Plastic Ono Band, The Eraser, Morning Phase, with a dash of Blood Sugar Sex Magic" and I would tend to agree.

Beyond its uniqueness in the present day, I would submit that Mahalo Chicago is actually a throwback of sorts that implicitly calls back to the more radical, experimental roots of Hawaiian uke music such as, for instance, the first big hit in Hawaii’s ukulele repertoire (also its first big “crossover hit” in the US) which is a song called “Aloha ‘Oe” (“Farewell To Thee”). "Aloha ‘Oe" was written in 1878 by no less than the reigning monarch of Hawaii at the time who also happened to be a prolific songwriter, namely Queen Liliʻuokalani, who was both the first female to rule the territory and its final monarch

Placed under house arrest in 1893, Liliʻuokalani was dethroned by a coup d’état engineered by colonial interests that resulted in US annexation of the archipelago five years later (full statehood wasn’t granted until 1959). Ironically, it was while under house arrest in the royal palace that the queen transcribed “Aloha ‘Oe," with the notation sent to Chicago for publication in sheet music form and ergo its subsequent crossover popularity was born.

According to sociologist Evelyn Chow, while "Aloha ‘Oe" was "initially composed…as a mele ho’oipoipo (love song) between a man and a woman, over the years it has been socially, politically, and culturally redefined by Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) into a song of melancholic farewell between the Queen and her realm." And with Hawaiian cultural practices in general—from hula to the Hawaiian language itself—all but banned from the islands after the U.S. overthrow, to even perform "Aloha ‘Oe" on the island was viewed as a form of protest. And likewise for other music where “the ‘sweet’ local songs, unintelligible to most visitors, often were anthems of protest against the new rulers.”

It was only with the rise of the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance and the parallel civil rights movement of the late 1960s and ‘70s that these cultural taboos were removed, leading to a new resurgence of slack-key uke music (a key part of the movement itself) along with the revival of other indigenous practices and, concurrently, new musical fusions (Hawaiian psychedelic folk music, anyone?) and a new wave of overseas Hawaiian exotica (full circle) with the Hawaiian struggle for self-determination persisting to this day so keep it in mind next time you hear to that cool ukulele cover of “Skulls” cuz it gives the song a whole new resonance! 

For more on some of the key musical artists of the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance you can check out names like Eddie Kamae, Gabby PahinuiPalani Vaughan, Leah & Malia, and Edith Kanaka-ole. And when you’re done with that you can check out the sister EP to Mahalo Chicago comprised of three straight up rock songs recorded by Phraque at the same Electrical Audio sessions called 101.3 Krock New York and it’s embedded for your convenience below. (Jason Lee)