Ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro’s giant sound comes to town

Hawaiian artist, credited with revamping the uke’s image, performs at JCCC this weekend

03/07/2012 8:00 AM

05/16/2014 6:11 PM

The musician’s fingers fly across the four strings of the tiny instrument like the wings of a hummingbird — gently at first, then with so much gusto they could start a fire.

Intrigued, you scroll through the comments on his YouTube cover of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which has been viewed nearly 10 million times.

“This guy is a

god!”

gushed one fan. “How did the skin on his fingertips not tear off?” wrote another.

But with all due respect to the Beatles, it wasn’t his

guitar

that was gently weeping.

That’s because this guy is 35-year-old Hawaiian virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, widely considered the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele. He has used his uke to put his own twists on music ranging from Bach to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Now you can see Shimabukuro live when he performs at 7 p.m. Sunday at Johnson County Community College’s Yardley Hall.

The ukulele, made famous by performers including Arthur Godfrey, Don Ho and Tiny Tim, is enjoying a renaissance, especially with the young.

The group Train recently scored big with its ukulele hit “Hey, Soul Sister,” while high schools are starting ukulele clubs and music stores can’t keep up with orders. But no one has refined the ukulele like Shimabukuro.

In his hands, the traditional Hawaiian instrument is transformed from little more than a toy to a complex musical force with surprising power and emotional depth. His latest album “Peace Love Ukulele” mixes rock, jazz, classical and traditional Hawaiian music to create a unique sound.

Shimabukuro, who got his first ukulele from his mother when he was 4, has admirers around the globe. Recently, when an administrator at Johnson County Community College asked a group of students which artist they wanted the college to present in concert, there were unrealistic requests for superstars such as Adele. But there also was surprising support for Shimabukuro, who recently toured Europe, Australia, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Brazil. He is now on an 80-show tour in the United States.

Wrote one fan after a performance in San Diego: “Jake’s talent is unbelievable as his fingers dance across the strings. If you close your eyes while he plays you’d never guess all those sounds were coming from just one instrument, and that the instrument had only four strings.”

Recently we talked to Shimabukuro from his home in Honolulu.

Q. Quite a ride you’ve been on lately with all your tours.

A.

And that’s only in the last few years. I can’t believe everything that’s happening. I am so thankful. I would be doing this anyway in my bedroom.

You’re extraordinary on the ukulele. How did you get so good?

When I was a kid, I played all the time, but I never thought of it as practice. In fact, my parents had to pry (the ukulele) out of my hands so I would do my homework, eat dinner or take a shower. And late at night when I was supposed to be sleeping, I would have my ukulele in my bedroom and I’d have to play really quietly so my parents couldn’t hear me. That really helped me to develop a wide dynamic range.

Some people credit you with reinventing ukulele music. Is that what you’ve tried to do?

It has just evolved into a different style.

How?

It started because I couldn’t sing. As a child I would ask my Mom and Dad if they could recognize the song I was playing, and then I would strum the chords. But they couldn’t recognize it. So, because I wasn’t singing, I had to learn how to fully express the melody with the instrument to capture the essence and energy of a song.

Who are your musical influences?

Oh, so many. But a lot of my inspiration came from artists who are not musicians, such as Bruce Lee. I really got into his philosophy and how he approached martial arts. He was open to all different styles and he took what he liked to express who he was. I applied that to my music. You see what speaks to you, then use it to express who you are.

Many people don’t see the ukulele as a serious musical instrument. Does that bother you?

I embrace the fact that people don’t see it as a serious musical instrument.

I love that!

Because then people aren’t intimidated. People shouldn’t be afraid of music because it is one of life’s greatest gifts. And it’s not just listening to music, but when you create that melody yourself that is so fulfilling. I tell people all the time that it’s a complete yoga session in a single strum.

Why is the ukulele not as popular as the guitar?

The ukulele is a very young instrument, barely 100 years old. In the future you’re going to see a lot more people pushing the boundaries and being a lot more experimental with it. I’m really excited to see where this ukulele renaissance will go.

Why are more people discovering the ukulele now?

One reason is YouTube. But it’s also because, in this age of technology, everything is getting smaller and more compact. The ukulele fits in perfectly with that. It’s very easy to travel with.

You say on your Web site that the world would be a better place if everyone played the ukulele. Why?

The ukulele is an instrument of peace. You can’t possibly be angry or stressed when you play it.

What kind of ukuleles do you play?

I play one made of Koa wood, a beautiful hardwood native to Hawaii. And I play ukuleles made by the

Kamaka family

in Honolulu.

What new songs would you like to master on the ukulele?

The entire B-side of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road.” That would be tremendous.

Anything new on the horizon for you?

I have a full-length documentary that will be running on PBS. They’ve been following me for two years. It will premiere at the San Francisco Film Festival on March 14, but people will be able to see it on television in October of this year.

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