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As they used to say of Othello—the board game, not the Shakespearean star turn—the ukulele’s a minute to learn, a lifetime to master. Although the uke is one of the easiest instruments to pick up, its short scale makes for a cramped fret board and its limited range challenges the arranger. So The Art of Solo ‘Ukulele, one of very few discs to focus on the unaccompanied instrument, is a rare pleasure. Collecting performances of concert showpieces from four Hawaiian virtuosos, it deserves to be shelved alongside such pinnacles of ukulelism as the Bach transcriptions of John King and the collected works of Herb Ohta. The disc represents the recording debut of Gordon Mark, who painstakingly crafts by ear his own inventively voiced versions of light-classical favorites such as the love theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet and Hawaiian classics such as Princess Likelike’s “Ku’u Ipo I Ka He’e Pue One.” Although four decades Mark’s junior, the fleet-fingered Jake Shimabukuro has already attracted a cult following through his recordings with Colon and Pure Heart. With a free hand on the throttle, he tears through the witty accelerations of “Crazy G (in F),” then pulls back and gives a tender, easy reading of George Harrison’s “Something.” Older standards are the specialty of Benny Chong, whose deft, swinging interpretations of “The Way You Look Tonight” and “I’ll Take Romance” are indebted to Lyle Ritz, the jazz ukulelist who cut two albums for Verve in the late ’50s. Opposite ranges attract, it seems: Ritz was also an upright bassist, as is Byron Yasui, whose vibrant tremolo on the smaller four-string burnishes “Waikiki” and “Ku’u Pua Mae’ole.” If The Art of Solo ‘Ukelele secures the instrument’s concert-hall bona fides, Manuia!, by the Ukulele Club de Paris, explores anew the jumping flea’s purchase on daffy pop. Celebrating the cross-cultural cocktail of the hapa-haole song by spiking it with the “Polynesian” flair that comes to the French by way of Tahiti, the polished septet splits its disc between tropical chestnuts such as “Honolulu Baby” and “Hong Kong Blues” and worthy originals, from Cyril Lefebvre’s lilting, Indian-flavored “Bollywood Slack” to Dominique Cravic’s briskly samba-fied “Chigadaging.” The Ukulele Club’s stylistic range runs from the traditional to the gleefully impure, and its instrumentation does likewise: A slide guitar gets wiggly on “Ma Princesse des Mers du Sud,” a Francophone version of King Bennie Nawahi’s “My Girl From the South Sea Isles,” and what sounds like a theremin takes the march-time solo on the English-sung “Teddy Bear’s Picnic.” The questionable politics of “No Huhu!,” whose grass-skirted femme fatale still proves quite the charmer, are likely responsible for the liner notes by ethnologist Roger Boulay, who comes across like Jacques Lacan after several pitchers of mai tais: “[T]his exoticism comes from our dreams and our human nightmares of warmer climes, and the wahine only exists through its cannibal opposite, its ugly counterpart and foil. While the former wriggles in a languorous hula-hula, the latter cries and gesticulates in a diabolic pilou-pilou with all the cries, screams and terrifying sounds that come from the Devil himself.” Before we accuse the French of taking their island kitsch too seriously, we should note that what proves the scholar’s undoing actually behooves the novelty act: Eschewing the smug, labored nuttiness that is the downfall of many a light-hearted performer, the Ukulele Club succeeds because it handles levity with all due respect, taking a true believer’s approach to just fooling around. —Glenn Dixon