CD: Novella: Ukulele Mosaique
Artist: Andre Feriante
The mention of a ukulele often conjures up images of swaying palm trees, sandy beaches, and women in grass skirts dancing the hula. However, the instrument far transcends this stereotype and is actually quite versatile in the right hands – in this case, the hands of guitar virtuoso Andre Feriante. Interestingly, while the instrument is identified with Hawaii, the fact is that it was originally brought there by Portuguese immigrants in the nineteenth century and its popularity spread internationally over the years. The instrument bears some resemblance to a smaller nylon stringed classical guitar, although the ukulele “generally” has four strings and comes in four sizes, classified by its sound (soprano, baritone, etc.) This similarity to a classical guitar makes it a natural for exploration by guitarist Andre Feriante, whose music is a sensual contemporary blend of classical, flamenco, and Brazilian styles. Born and raised in Italy, and currently living in Seattle, Andre began playing guitar at the age of 13 and by the time he was 16 was already performing the works of Bach, Vivaldi, Albeniz, and Scarlatti. Within the next few years, Andre was playing concerts in Europe as well as North and South America. But perhaps one his most impressive credentials is that of having studied with world-renowned classical guitarist Andres Segovia.
Since moving to Seattle in the 1980’s Andre Feriante has performed at concerts and festivals in far too many places to go into detail here, as well as sharing the stage with an impressive list of well-known artists. He has also recorded 11 albums that have consistently made their mark on the charts. Although Andre generally plays a traditional six-string guitar, his venture into the world of the ukulele has an interesting story. In his words: “About a year ago I bought an tenor ukulele, kind of on a whim. The instrument has been popping up everywhere you look these days so I thought I should give it a try seeing that it’s basically a very small guitar. A month or so later I was playing a concert at the Port Angeles Fine Art Center, where I debuted my first ukulele songs. After the show a Hawaiian man named David Poplar approached me. We talked for a bit and then he proceeded to offer to make me a handmade ukulele. Now a year later, David has made me five different types of ukuleles. A six string that has a ukulele body and a traditional guitar neck, a tenor four string, a one of a kind three string instrument that looks and sounds like an ancient Celtic instrument and a very traditional little concert model.”
Now with all those exquisite custom-made instruments, it was only natural that Andre would do some recording with them. Although, when he took the instruments into the studio to experiment with, he “accidentally” in three hours wound up making an album from his improvisations. Andre calls the album “an exploration of musical storytelling,” and the songs draw inspiration from a diverse number of world music influences. The first track, entitled “Rio By Night” is, obviously, a Brazilian-flavored tune that Andre describes as “taking you to a night in Brazil, the calm on the beach after an adventure has ended.” It is hauntingly beautiful with a romantic air about it. One of the things I found most striking about this song, and the music in general is that many listeners, if they didn’t know that it was being played on a ukulele, might assume it was a nylon string flamenco guitar. Perhaps it is because of the aforementioned stereotype of Hawaiian music associated with the instrument, but as I said, in the right hands, it can be quite diverse.
Although a track called “Of Wind and Wing” was inspired by the water and exotic birds of Hawaii, according to Andre, its certainly not the sound commonly associated with the islands, but is quite lovely nonetheless. Drawing from a very different culture is “Arabesque” with its Moorish influence. It was interesting to hear Andre applying legato guitar techniques such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, and trills, to the ukulele, providing a different dimension to the instrument. On a tune called “Durango,” as the title implies, the music evokes the feel of the old west. In an interview, Andre mentions the inspiration of Italian film director Sergio Leone, who is commonly associated with the “spaghetti western” genre. The song, which is played on the three-string ukulele, starts off sparse and spacious like the western plains, but picks up momentum midway through. Hearkening back to the roots of the ukulele, is “La Portugesa,” and with its Spanish influence is closer to some of the flamenco style heard in other of Andre’s recordings. One of my favorite songs is a light airy piece called “Easyheart,” which he describes as: “the feeling of Sundays in Italy where leisure, food and wine are endless.” Drawing from another time and place is “Othello’s Dream,” which evokes Shakespearean England. The album closes with “Eyes in the Forest,” which Andre calls his “darkest exploration.” Played on the six-string ukulele, the minor feel of this piece is a bit different than most of the music on the recording, and features some intriguing progressions and arrangements.
All I can say is that if you think you know what ukulele music sounds like Novella will be a revelation. It certainly was for me. I’ve never heard the instrument played with such a variety of styles and influences. Although it is not surprising, given the diversity of Andre’s musical catalog over the past couple decades. Having listened to some of his earlier recordings, I had no idea how his distinctive style would translate to the ukulele, but what he does on these instruments is impressive, to say the least. There is no denying that his technique is stellar, although the creativity and feeling behind his playing is stunning as well. Andre Feriante is a masterful musician who has made a name for himself with his guitar virtuosity, yet continues to experiment and expand his horizons with new and innovative sounds. Ultimately for Andre, though, it is all about storytelling. On this point, I’ll leave it to him to provide the last words: “To me, playing the guitar is not so much about playing the guitar, as it is about communicating – telling the story and allowing those sweet moments of agreement to happen in our collective unconscious.”