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February 19, 2014IM -
He’s played big-name festivals like Bonnaroo and the Montreal Jazz Fest, toured and collaborated with banjo innovator Béla Fleck of Local 257 (Nashville,N), and recorded with cellist Yo-Yo Ma of Local 802 (New York City) . “I love the ukulele and I’m very passionate about it,” says Shimabukuro. “I’m so lucky that I am able to do this, I can commit my whole life to it and not have to do anything else.”
Having been lauded as a “ukulele god,” “Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele,” and the “world’s greatest ukulele player,” Shimabukuro, 32, has many high expectations to live up to, despite the fact that the instrument itself, has very low ones, if any at all. “When people see you come out on stage with a ukulele, they aren’t expecting much,” he says. “Whereas if you came out with an electric guitar, people would automatically start comparing you with other players.”
The reasons behind the low expectations range from the tiny instrument resembling a toy, to flashbacks of the flamboyant Tiny Tim fluttering his eyes and whinnying his sky-high falsetto rendition of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” However, Shimabukuro wields his tenor, two-octave ukulele ax like the rock stars he idolizes—Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen of Local 47, and Pat Metheny of Local 34-627 (Kansas City, MO)—and uses the traditional Hawaiian instrument for musically complicated pieces.
Blending rock, jazz, funk, classical, bluegrass, flamenco, and folk, Shimabukuro rejects the notion that the ukulele is merely a starter instrument or that it isn’t a serious musical force to be reckoned with. “When I was younger and I started plucking out little riffs from ‘Stairway to Heaven’ or ‘Sunshine of Your Love,’ people would freak out and ask, ‘How can you play that?’” says Shimabukuro. “It’s a tiny instrument but it has basically all the same notes as other instruments, just on a smaller scale.”
Shimabukuro, a fourth-generation Japanese American, began his fascination with the uke at the tender age of four. Growing up in Hawaii, playing the traditional instrument wasn’t unusual. “My mom was the one who got me into it,” says Shimabukuro. “She would play traditional Hawaiian songs and every time I would hear or see it, I was so captivated. I would reach over and grab it—I just loved it from the very beginning.”
His first tune was a traditional Hawaiian vamp, with a chord progression turn around between the verses. Shimabukuro continued his music education in school. In Hawaii, fifth-grade curriculum includes a history class that requires all students to play the ukulele, similar to learning the recorder in the mainland US. It wasn’t until high school that Shimabukuro learned to read music and studied theory.
“I got really fascinated by the science behind music and I started learning by reading books and picked up lessons here and there from piano and guitar players,” says Shimabukuro. “I just tried to learn as much as I could and picked up different concepts from people who played all kinds of instruments like singers, string players, and horn players.”
Many of Shimabukuro’s influences were guitar players. He points to the energy and expressiveness of Hendrix, Van Halen, and Page as the musicians who made playing music look like fun. “I liked seeing them jump around the stage and really get into what they were playing,” says Shimabukuro. “When I was much younger, I would mimic their moves and jump off the bed pretending it was a stage. As I got older, I think I just found myself doing it naturally, just dancing with my instrument trying to flow with the music that I was expressing.”
When watching Shimabukuro perform complicated licks, deftly racing his fingers up and down the fretboard, it’s obvious he learned from the great guitar shredders that came before him. Shimabukuro doesn’t use a pick. Instead, he files his nails before performances to mimic a pick and he doesn’t use rubber cement or acrylic substances to strengthen them. “The guy who inspired me most to go back to my fingers was Jeff Beck,” Shimabukuro says. “You don’t hear anybody else get sounds like that out of the guitar, and I thought, ‘Hey, it’s all about the fingers.’”
After high school, Shimabukuro played in two successful bands—one of which garnered several awards from the Hawaii Academy of Performing Arts—and he eventually went solo. But it wasn’t until a video of him playing George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” in Central Park’s Strawberry Fields, reached millions of YouTube viewers, that Shimabukuro received worldwide attention.
Four years ago, Shimabukuro visited New York City for the first time and agreed to do an interview with the local TV show, Ukulele Disco. Against the background of a rock formationin Strawberry Fields, Shimabukuro played the song by Harrison, one of his favorite songwriters.
About six months after the recording, which took place on a handheld camera, Shimabukuro started getting e-mails from people who saw that four-minute video clip on YouTube. Shimabukuro didn’t even know what it was. “I guess people just started e-mailing it to their friends,” says Shimabukuro. “The Internet has really helped me out a lot as far as getting exposure and promoting what I do.”
Just as Shimabukuro’s music career started taking off, he was encouraged to join the AFM. He started seeking soundtrack gigs for commercials, TV, and film, and saw the opportunities union membership offered. “I found out there was a musicians union here in Hawaii and I contacted a lot of my friends and found out they were in the union,” says Shimabukuro. “I signed up because I thought it was the right thing to do.”
One of the many benefits Shimabukuro sees to being a part of the AFM is its expertise in the business and copyright aspects of a music career that many musicians don’t have time to keep on top of. “They are always looking out for artists like myself and a lot of times we don’t really know any better,” he says. Without the union looking out for him, Shimabukuro believes he probably would have been taken advantage of many times. “I’d probably be in debt or I would have to declare bankruptcy,” he says. “I just want to play. I can continue to do what I want comfortably. I think sometimes musicians get too bogged down and stressed with the business and numbers aspect, then the creative end suffers.”
Soon after the YouTube video’s popularity grew, Shimabukuro had the opportunity to tour with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones and Jimmy Buffett of Local 257. Shimabukuro has performed on national TV shows like NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien and was profiled on NPR Morning Edition. Demands for the Hawaiian ukist spread and he started performing in Canada, Europe, and Japan—where he is a big hit.
As a part of Hawaii’s campaign to bring in tourists from Japan, Shimabukuro was appointed a goodwill ambassador in the marketing initiative. His song, “Rainbow,” is Hawaii Tourism Japan’s theme. Shimabukuro recently returned from a three and a half month tour of Japan, playing 40 shows in more than 30 cities. Loyal Japanese fans quickly fell in love with Shimabukuro’s warm personality, low-key humor, and boyish good looks.
Following Japanese custom, Shimabukuro received hundreds of gifts at each show. Usually it’s something as simple as a keychain or a touristy t-shirt, but one time, Shimabukuro received black, silky men’s underwear with little pink electric guitar prints. “I never put them on but it was a pretty cool gift,” says Shimabukuro, in his usual gracious manner.
Currently working in the recording studio, Shimabukuro is set to release his latest album, Jake Shimabukuro-Live, in April. Tracks were taken from various concerts in Japan, Chicago, and New York. “Each place has a different vibe,” says Shimabukuro. “It’s like you’re traveling between each track.”
Despite a rigorous road schedule, Shimabukuro stays healthy by swimming, training for marathons (he participates in the Honolulu event), and eating organic foods. He even brings his own blender and juicer on tour to make nutritious juices and smoothies from beets, celery, and various fruit. “In the long term, I just want to stay healthy so I can continue to play and tour,” says Shimabukuro. “I hope to live to be 100 years old.”