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Bill Tapia: Uke’s Duke

Bill Tapia
Bill Tapia

Bill Tapia may very well be the oldest active musician in the United States. Born in 1908 in Honolulu, Tapia remembers playing his ukulele for American doughboys heading off to fight in World War I. But what’s amazing about this 97-year-old isn’t so much his longevity as his resurgence-on the ukulele, an instrument he plays with uncommon grace and facility. It’s a late-blooming career that Tapia certainly didn’t expect, as he spent most of his life as a swing-loving guitarist.

By the early ’20s Tapia had figured out how to play pop and Hawaiian tunes on the uke in a lilting jazz style, but his love of swing soon led him to the banjo and guitar. It’s only in recent years that he returned to the ukulele, a move that has brought him more acclaim than ever before. “Everybody went crazy all over the country, crazy about ukulele,” Tapia says from his home Southern California, the pidgin twang of the islands still in his voice. “I’ve been playing concerts all over.”

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