When it comes to musicianship, "virtuoso" is not a word you often hear paired with "ukulele player." It's easy to think of the diminutive instrument as little more than a prop—a decoration hanging on a restaurant wall to invoke an island aesthetic, or swaying side to side along with the bobbling hula girl figurine in a car.
But there is no better way to describe Jake Shimabukuro—a lanky, 34-year-old with a gift for coaxing dynamic rock, pop, jazz, and classical arrangements out of an instrument most often used for background strumming in Hawaiian tunes and twee indie-pop songs.
Shimabukuro, who is bringing his one-man show to The Rio Theatre on Feb. 11, plays solo ukulele versions of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Bohemian Rhapsody," as well as "Ave Maria." Without accompaniment, he fleshes out his renditions of these classics through a combination of strumming, sweeping arpeggios, careful finger picking and dexterous fret tapping.
Shimabukuro was born and raised on Oahu, in the Hawaiian capital city of Honolulu, where he began playing the ukulele at a young age.
"My parents never thought much about it," he explains, noting that it is common for Hawaiian boys to pick up the four-string, two-octave instrument. His folks were always supportive of his playing, but were also quick to remind him that he would have to "find a real job someday."
But for Shimabukuro, the uke was more than just a hobby. The boy who would race home from school just to strum on his ukulele grew into a young man who would ultimately drop out of college to pursue music.
It was not passion alone that drove Shimabukuro to develop his unique approach to the ukulele. The musician explains that he first began looking at the "uke" as more than just a rhythm instrument out of necessity.
"I'm a horrible singer," he admits. As a kid, Shimabukuro would figure out the chord changes of popular songs by strumming along with the radio, but unless he then performed the song with a singer, his audiences wouldn't be able to tell what he was playing. "In order for me to make the song identifiable, I needed to incorporate the melody."
Once he figured out how to bring one melody into the mix while simultaneously playing the chords, he had another thought: "I can make it even more interesting if I have another layer of melody under the main melody."
After a while, Shimabukuro started visualizing his instrument as a compact string quartet—with the two higher strings being his violins and the two lower strings being his viola and cello.
Shimabukuro played semi-professionally for years—in coffee shops and bars around Oahu—
before catching his break serendipitously.
His cover of George Harrison’s tune, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” was uploaded to YouTube back in April 2006, during the site's infancy. Recorded by a New York public access program called "Ukulele Disco," the video was filmed on a whim (Shimabukuro can't even recall why he was in New York at the time).
Upon returning to Hawaii, a few months later, he started getting phone calls from some of his friends attending college in New York. “You gotta check out this site called YouTube,” he remembers them saying. "There is this video on there of you going around our campus."
He followed his friends' directions and discovered that his performance already had 2 million views. Shimabukuro was amazed, and so was the rest of the country. “When that YouTube video came out, my manager started getting emails and calls trying to get me to come out and perform in their city. It was really exciting.”
Interest in the ukulele has grown, along with Shimabukuro's rise in popularity. A CNN piece profiling the musician features a New York music shop owner, who credits Shimabukuro with increased sales of the instrument. Though the musician shrinks from taking credit for the trend, at the same time, embraces it. "I think young people especially are starting to see the ukulele as a very serious instrument," he says. “It’s absolutely fantastic. I think it’s a good time for the ukulele and I think it is only going to keep growing in popularity.”
Jake Shimabukuro plays at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 11, at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $26.50. For more information, call 423-8209. Photo: Hideo Oida
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