Andrew Molina: Rising Ukulele Star
Raised in a musical family, Andrew Molina had never thought about becoming a professional musician until the life-changing day when he saw ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro perform in concert. He was mesmerized. He had no idea the humble ukulele could play such a prominent lead role.
“I was about 13 years old and a friend brought his ukulele over and we would just play like a local jam,” he recalls. “But I never took it seriously until Jake Shimabukuro. I saw him live and I told myself ‘I want to do that when I grow up.’ Every time he would come here, I would go and see him. I would learn all of his songs and practice for hours and hours every day. The ukulele as an accompanying instrument never really interested me, but once I saw it as a main instrument that could play any genre of music, that’s when I knew it was really special. He’s influenced my career and life.”
This rising ukulele star is among the musicians performing on Sunday at the 12th annual Maui Ukulele Festival at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center in Kahului. The lineup also includes Willie K, Paula Fuga, Richard Ho’opi’i, Kamakakehau Fernandez, Derick Sebastian, the Hula Honeys, Arlie Asiu, Nelly Toyama-Baduria, Nick Acosta, Rui Okawa, the Aloha Picking ‘Ohana, the Kalama Intermediate ‘Ukulele Band, Kamehameha Schools Maui Ukulele Band, and Honey Bun & the Coconuts.
“I love the Maui Ukulele Festival,” says Molina. “I’ve done it twice in 2013 and 2014. Unfortunately, the past couple of years I’ve been on tour when they’ve had it. I’m excited to represent Maui.”
Featured in Ukulele Magazine’s spotlight on “The Next Jake: 5 Up-and-Coming Hawaiian Artists to Watch,” — “they’re young, they’re phenomenally talented” –Molina also credits his dad, bassist Jay Molina, with guiding his career path.
“I was always around music, but he never forced it on me,” he explains. “When I picked up the ukulele, he was telling me to practice, practice. He wanted to see if I was going to take it seriously. After high school we started playing together with me on ukulele and him on bass and guitar. That was a turning point. He makes sure I don’t slack.”
Playing a mix of pop, Hawaiian, rock, Latin and a dash of jazz, besides Shimabukuro as a formative inspiration he cites the flamenco style of the Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela.
“My main influence is them and Jake, and I like some classic rock too,” continues Molina.
The fiery rocking title track of his debut CD, “The Beginning,” announced him as a major talent, ready to stretch the boundaries of the instrument. Featuring solo originals interspersed with band works, where he was joined by his dad, along with drummer Mike Kennedy, keyboardist Gilbert Emata and guitarist Alan Villaren, Molina included delicate instrumentals like the evocative “Journey to Kapalua” and a cover of Maroon 5’s “Pay Phone.” The striking album was nominated for a Na Hokuhanohano Award in 2014.
He followed up this year with the even more impressive “A New Journey,” which once again features primarily original compositions that showcase his expressive playing. Standouts range from the sublime, moving title track embellished with a cello accompaniment, to “Surfing at Jaws,” where he teams with fellow ukulele artist Kalei Gamiao to evoke the thrilling joy of big-wave surfing.
Notable covers include Guns N’ Roses’ ballad “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” the theme from “Game of Thrones” and Michael Jackson’s classic “Beat It,” where Molina lets rip on his uke.
“It’s one of my favorite Michael Jackson tunes,” he says. “It was a lot of fun. I put ‘Game of Thrones’ on there because that’s something you don’t expect on ukulele. I wanted to see if it could be done on ukulele.”
It’s a duet with his idol, trading solos on the flamenco-flavored “Dancing Strings,” that he’s most excited about.
“It was pretty incredible,” he says. “It was like a dream I had when I was 15 years old, ‘Maybe Jake can play on one of my tunes one day.’ For the dream to come true was pretty amazing. I was so happy how it came out. It was unreal. I have to pinch myself.”
Looking forward to Sunday’s festival, he says, “I like to show the ukulele is a serious instrument. People expect it to be a toy and I can show them all the things it can do. It’s like, then my mission is complete.”
In conjunction with the festival, an ‘Ukulele Workshop will be held from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday in the McCoy Studio Theater, with registration beginning at 9 a.m. Conducted by Roy and Kathy Sakuma, it is geared for all ages, beginning to intermediate players. Students must be able hold C, F and G7 chords and bring their own ukulele, notepaper and pencil. Attendees will participate in Sunday’s festival playing a song learned in the workshop and someone will win a new ukulele. Admission is free. No reservation is required. For more information, call 242-7469 or visit www.mauiarts.org.
When it came time to make a follow up to their debut album “Soulfire Radio,” the Freeradicals Projekt’s leader Rama Covarrubias was adamant it had to sound great.
“The main thing was the sound,” he emphasizes. “We wanted it to sound really good. That’s why we recorded it to analog tape. With this one, we wanted it to sound like we do live.”
Known for its high energy performances, the Maui band has advanced on “Sonic Particles for the Open Mind,” evolving beyond its earlier roots to craft an intense punk-funk sound on tracks like “Aboukoua” and “Panic.!” that recalls the crunching fusion of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Living Colour.
“We definitely have a punk attitude and energy,” explains Covarrubias. “People call it afro-punk because of the syncopation. Some people call it funk punk or reggae funk. As far as the music, the vision was to be as free as possible with no constraints. It was ‘Let’s make songs we all like, make it sound the best we can, and try to go as far as we can from the box within pop culture and what’s listenable.’ No one was telling us what to do, it was completely free artistically.”
All the songs were composed collectively by the band members.
“All the music came from us four, in a room playing and jamming,” he notes.
After years of revolving formations, the band has finally settled with Covarrubias on lead guitar, James Bowersox on drums, John Michael Jelliffe on bass, and reggae star Mishka on lead vocals.
Mishka has been performing with the band for about four years. It’s a radical shift for the reggae musician from Bermuda, who has made Maui his home.
“This is completely out of the box for him,” says Covarrubias. “The music he does (on his own) and what he does with us is so different. It’s really cool. It all started with a jam. He’s been doing his thing for 15 or 20 years, and it’s easy to fall into something that people expect. With us there were no limits. We were like, ‘Do whatever you want to do.’ It was very liberating; he could be free and creative.”
On funky rockers like “Fela’s Dream,” they draw inspiration from the hypnotic approach of Nigerian Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti.
“It was totally inspired by that and then it veered into a little Bad Brains,” says Covarrubias. “All our influences are peppered around the record, from funk to punk, to prog rock, to psychedelia and reggae.”
You can hear elements of The Police’s style of reggae on the reflective “Melancholic.”
“We found out we all love The Police, but we had never talked about it,” he says.
Originally formed in 2010, the band’s unique name was crafted by Covarrubias on a flight to Indonesia.
“I was reading in a magazine about free radicals and their function in the body,” he recalls. “I thought it was such a cool name. To be free and radical is pretty cool.”
And the Projekt?
“Every band is a project so I threw it in — with a ‘k.’ No one’s going to think of this name.”
Playing Charley’s Restaurant & Saloon in Paia at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, they’ll feature some songs from their latest album, joined by Gretchen Rhodes, who often sings with Mick Fleetwood at his Lahaina restaurant.
“Gretchen will jump in on a bunch of songs,” he says. “She’s played with us in the past. We reconvened a couple of months ago and she’s been wanting to do some stuff with us. She and Mishka will share the stage singing together. It’s going to be fun.”
Comedian Chino Laforge will open the show. Admission is $15 at the door. This is a 21 and older event. For more information, call 579-8085 or visit www.charleys maui.com.