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This Ukulele Duo Nails It

The dynamic duo of Honoka Katayama, left, and Azita Ganjali has won over legions of ukulele fans from here to Japan. Andrew Agcaoili photo

The dynamic duo of Honoka Katayama, left, and Azita Ganjali has won over legions of ukulele fans from here to Japan. Andrew Agcaoili photo

Thrilling audiences has become the norm for teenage fingerpicking sensations Honoka & Azita

When you play the ukulele as fast and with as much energy as plucky teenagers Honoka Katayama and Azita Ganjali often do, something is bound to go awry every now and then. That something may be an unannounced sour note, a nylon polymer string that suddenly breaks, or even a fake fingernail that unexpectedly goes airborne.

The latter situation, in fact, is exactly what happened to Katayama during a recent performance with Ganjali on the Perry & Price radio show.

“We were at a restaurant, the people were eating and I was playing a solo for Wipeout,” Katayama recalls. “It was toward the end of a song when everything gets really intense and climactic, and suddenly my nail was gone. It just flew off!”

Used for picking and strumming purposes, the false fingernail is believed to have avoided landing in some unsuspecting guest’s soup.

Still, it’s unclear whether anyone ever found the final resting place for the acrylic-polished projectile. Katayama is certainly unaware of the plectrum’s current whereabouts.

“That was pretty embarrassing,” admits the musician, giggling at the memory. “I had to apologize to the audience.”

Fortunately for Katayama, 16, and Ganjali, 13, better known to music fans from here to Japan as the sizzling-hot ukulele duo Honoka & Azita, much of their days are spent thrilling audiences rather than apologizing to them. And ultimately, the only “nail” these girls are concerned with is nailing their ukulele parts with melody and precision, and making listeners break out into the kind of ear-to-ear smile commonly found on Ganjali’s button-cute and content face.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of viewing this next generation of exceptional uke performers live, you should. Their considerable instrumental skills are on display every Friday night along Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki. There, the girls put on a show for kamaaina and visitors alike, playing familiar tunes such as Hawaii Five-0, Bodysurfing and Misirlou while deftly alternating between blistering solos, heavy chord riffing and toe-tapping percussive rhythms.

The Waikiki gig happens to be where the girls’ friendship first took root, thanks in part to Ukulele Hale founder Jody Kamisato, who not only instructs the girls on the finer points of ukulele playing but manages their careers as well.

“Before there were a couple of other friends, students of Jody Kamisato’s, who would play with us in Waikiki,” explains Katayama, who moved to Hawaii from Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, when she was 6 and has since adapted well to the island lifestyle, in part because she’s gotten the whole surfer girl, young Grace Park look down pat. “But after a while, the others left and it was just me and Azita. So we started making ukulele duets together and one of the first ones we did was Hawaii Five-O.”

Their feverish rendition of the Five-0 classic netted them division and MVP honors at the 2013 International Ukulele Contest, and led to an invitation from Japanese pop-rock band members Begin to perform in front of thousands at the Uta no Hi concert in Kadena, Okinawa, last summer. Since then, the girls have been asked to join a slew of well-known ukulele artists, including Brittni Paiva, Bryan Tolentino, Herb Ohta Jr. and Kalei Gamiao on the compilation CD Island Style Ukulele Vol. 2, scheduled for release next month. On the album, Katayama and Ganjali put their stamp on the Maroon 5 hit Payphone.

They’re also eagerly awaiting a repeat live performance at the sixth annual Ukulele Picnic, scheduled for this Friday at Hawaii Prince Hotel Waikiki, Mauna Kea Ballroom; Saturday at Ala Moana Center centerstage; and Sunday at Kakaako Waterfront Park.

“As individuals, the girls have very distinct personalities and different playing styles, but together they have a great synergy and dynamics on stage that is very special,” says Kamisato of his protégés. “The girls have the musicality, showmanship and confidence to one day be world-class entertainers.”

Here’s what else these talented and young uke stars told Musical Notes:

MN: At what age did you first pick up the uke and what was the first song you learned?

HK: I was 6, and got mine from Santa during my first Christmas in Hawaii. I believe the first song I learned was Stand By Me.

AG: I was 4. I had a friend whose dad owned an ukulele store and I got one. Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star was the first song I played.

MN: Payphone represents your first recording as a duo. How many takes were required before you got a satisfactory rendition of the Maroon 5 hit?

HK: Just one. We had to practice with a metronome for about month before we got to the studio, just so that our timing would be right. Uncle Bob St. John (Neos Productions’ owner, producer and engineer) was so impressed with how quickly we got through the session that he gave each of us four jellybeans afterwards. But we were still pretty nervous throughout the recording.

MN: Do you get nervous playing in front of live audiences?

AG: Yes, like when we were invited to play at the Uta no Hi concert. We had to play in front of 10,000 people, and the concert was on nationwide TV, so the adrenaline was intense! We were shaking, but it felt really good afterwards.

MN: Besides playing a mean ukulele, what else do you enjoy doing?

HK: I paddle, dance hula, go to the beach, surf. Basically, I like anything outdoors.

AG: I like swimming, taking pictures and hanging out with Honoka. Oh, and eating. I love acai and poke bowls!

MN: Do you plan on releasing an album in the near future?

HK: Eventually, but there’s no firm date yet. We’re working on some original music right now and just having fun.