Think “solo ukulele” performer and you might have to think for awhile. Who or what comes to mind? Tiny Tim perhaps?
Let us introduce you, then, to Jake Shimabukuro, a 33-year old native of Hawaii who is being called “the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele.” Wielding an instrument that has only four strings and two octaves, Shimabukuro can evoke an awe-inspiring range of sounds and styles, from ballads, folk and country, international music, to rock and jazz. On his forthcoming album, “Peace, Love, and Ukulele,” (due for release in January, 2011) he even gives Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” a treatment — yes, even the “opera” section.
Shimabukuro will perform a solo show — no backup musicians or singers — at McCarter Theater on Friday, October 22. It will be his first time in Princeton and caps a tour that has taken him from his home in Honolulu around the world.
The amiable Shimabukuro reflects that it’s just been a few years since he was playing the ukulele in small coffee houses and at friends’ weddings. “Playing was always fun, but I never dreamed of it as being a career,” he says. “I was actually trying to figure out ‘what am I going to do with this?’ Music was always my passion, but there was no such thing as a solo touring ukulele player. It’s been a dream come true, and I want to pinch myself every morning when I wake up.”
How Shimabukuro got to the worldwide stage from small gigs in his hometown is a bit of an “oh wow!” story in itself. He had been playing the ukulele around Hawaii and was popular in Japan, signing to Sony Music Japan and releasing a couple of well-received albums. Then in 2004 he was invited to come to New York and perform on a local TV show, “Ukulele Disco.” Shimabukuro had been practicing the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and gave a stellar live performance, which he thought would just be seen locally and regionally.
Then it got posted on YouTube, and went viral to say the least, with more than six million page views. “It was supposed to air once, but it somehow ended up on YouTube — which had just started out at the time — and suddenly people started asking about the Asian guy who plays the ukulele,” Shimabukuro says.
“I chose ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ because it’s a George Harrison song, and I love George Harrison because he loved the ukulele,” he says. “So, that launched my career as a touring ukulele performer on the mainland. I’ve been so fortunate to work with other artists, and do my own thing at the same time. I’ve worked with people like Yo Yo Ma, Bette Midler, Jimmy Buffett, Bela Fleck, and I’m just enjoying it so much. All the traveling, trying really interesting and good food — it’s like my real college education.”
Shimabukuro, a fifth generation Japanese-American, says his last name (pronounced she-ma-BOO-koo-row) may be unusual and unwieldy for some, but it is common on the island of Okinawa. Born on November 4, 1976, he started playing the ukulele at the age of four, at the urging of his mother, who also played.
“Everyone plays ukulele in Hawaii, but I just immediately fell in love with it,” he says. His parents recognized his talent and enrolled him at Roy Sakuma’s Ukulele Studios in Honululu.
Although he was raised on Hawaiian music, Shimabukuro soon became entranced by Top 40 pop and rock, and played along to the radio. “Since the ukulele was the only instrument I had, I had to figure out how to bring out the melody and make it recognizable, which is hard to do because it’s just a four-string, two-octave, instrument,” he says. “I started by playing the traditional ukulele, but then as I got older, I shifted to the concert uke, then the tenor as my fingers got bigger.
“I started to find my own style when I began to listen to different musicians, and by the time I was in middle school, I got turned onto Jimi Hendrix, then Van Halen, then it was classical music, then jazz,” he adds. “I thought, ‘wow, there’s so much great music out there.’”
British guitarist Jeff Back has also been a huge influence on Shimabukuro’s playing, and for a specific reason. “There was a time when I played with a pick, because I wanted to play fast, but then I heard Jeff Beck play,” he says. “He doesn’t use a pick, and he manages to get these amazing colors and tones out of the guitar. I have to say that I threw all my picks away the day I heard Jeff Beck play.”
At least one influence in his life was not a musician, though: the late martial arts master Bruce Lee played a large role in shaping Shimabukuro’s attitude toward his craft. “Bruce was one of my early heroes,” he says. “I loved his philosophy, the way that he was open to all styles of martial arts, so I took that approach with music. I’m open to all different genres, whether it’s Spanish or Japanese music, pop, folk and rock — I love it all.”
More formal studies came in the late ’90s when Shimabukuro attended the University of Hawaii in Honululu. “I studied music theory, composition and whatnot, and then I started putting things together, started to understand the ‘why’ of everything, what makes a C Major chord, for example,” he says.
He’s been putting this knowledge of composition to good use, contributing original music to a couple of feature films. “The first score I did was ‘Hula Girl,’ a Japanese movie, and it was a lot of fun. They were open to anything, whatever I wanted to do,” Shimabukuro says. “It was pretty amazing to put music together for a movie; it’s 10 times harder than planning a concert.”
He is also involved with the upcoming Adam Sandler movie “Just Go With It,” set for release in February, 2011, and also starring Jennifer Aniston and Nicole Kidman.
About the only other instrument that caught Shimabukuro’s attention was the snare drum, which he played in his high school’s marching band. “I loved the rhythms,” he says. “Since I’ve always liked to keep my mind open to different sounds, I’ve tried to apply the drum sounds we played to the ukulele. Same with guitar and violin. I’ve tried mimicking the same notes and techniques.”
Another one of Shimabukuro’s major (non-musical) influences is Bill Cosby, a fellow who is also able to get up on stage by himself and mesmerize an audience. “I saw his HBO special when I was a kid, and it was amazing,” Shimabukuro says. “I saw a performer who has the ability to sit on a chair and tell stories and entertain people, keep them on the edge of their seats. I must have watched it 100 times, because he brings so much laughter. I always wanted to tap into that energy. Bill Cosby inspired me to be a solo performer, to play songs, tell stories and bring that kind of joy to people, do something very positive with music.”
In keeping with his philosophy of positivity, in his spare time Shimabukuro often visits schools in Hawaii to talk with and play music for the children, hopefully inspiring thousands to put their energy into learning about and playing music. “I share my music with kids, and I tie in the message of living a healthy life and staying drug-free,” he says. “I’m trying to share something positive and show how music helped me make good decisions in life. But it doesn’t have to only be music — just something people can be passionate about.”
The title of his upcoming album (“Peace, Love, and Ukulele”) really resonates for Shimabukuro. “It’s such a peaceful instrument, and it’s easy,” he says. “People can pick it up and learn a song in about 10 minutes. It’s an instrument that brings a lot of joy and happiness. Just say ‘ukulele’ and the word makes you smile. There’s something magical about it, and I like to say that if everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place.”
Jake Shimabukuro, Berlind Theater at the McCarter, 91 University Place, Princeton. Friday, October 22, 7:30 p.m. “The Ukelele: Reimagined” includes pop tunes, American songbook standards, and originals. Jake Shimabukuro on the Web: www.jakeshimabukuro.com. $45. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.