Santa Cruz Good Times

Monday
May 04th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Big Sound, Little Instrument

music JakeShimabukuroHow Jake Shimabukuro has rekindled interest in the ukulele with his innovative style

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

Comments (0)Add Comment

Write comment
smaller | bigger

busy
 

Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share

 

Mountain Mystic

When Cora Evans died in Boulder Creek in 1957, her thousands of pages of religious writings hadn’t yet been published. More than a half a century later, Evans’ fiery visions and spiritual devotion have inspired a crusade within Catholicism to make her the Santa Cruz Mountains’ first saint

 

Wesak (Water) Taurus Solar Festival, Buddha Blesses the Earth

A most important celebration occurs Sunday, May 3—the Wesak Taurus Buddha Solar Festival/full moon. At the moment of the full moon the Buddha’s presence enters the Earth plane for eight minutes. He brings the Will-to-Good from the Father, which, when reaching humanity becomes goodwill (Mother Principle). Held yearly in a valley hidden deep within the Himalayas, the Wesak festival is prepared for for months in advance (beginning at Winter Solstice). On festival day, amidst pilgrims, disciples and Holy Ones gathered in the valley, the Buddha is invoked through movement, symbols and mantrams. At the moment of the full moon, hearing the words, “We are ready, Buddha, come,” the Lord of Illumination (brother of the Christ) appears in the clouds above the altar to emanate forth the will and purpose of God to earth. The blessing of the father is then held in safekeeping for distribution at the June full moon Goodwill Festival. The day of Wesak (May 3, 8:42 p.m. West Coast) all disciples (east and west) place crystal vessels filled with pure water outside (in gardens, on rooftops, porches and steps) under the heavens. As the Buddha blesses the world, all waters, including waters within our bodies, are blessed. The Buddha is accompanied by the Forces of Enlightenment to illuminate humanity’s minds. Humanity then begins to express new constructive, productive and beneficial ways of the Art of Livingness. Wesak covers five days—two days (before) of dedicated preparation, the actual festival “Day of Safeguarding,” and two days (after) distributing goodwill (the NGWS to humanity). Join us in the Valley by reciting the Great Invocation, mantra of direction for humanity.

 

The New Tech Nexus

Community leaders in science and technology unite to form web-based networking program

 

Film, Times & Events: Week of May 1

Santa Cruz area movie theaters >
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments

 

Hole in the Wall

Popular Aptos spot opens for dinner

 

How do you connect with the natural world?

My connection to the natural world is through my art. I totally feel it there very physically in nature and even right here on the street. Jonathan Rosen, Felton, Pastor

 

Hess Collection Winery

My friend Emma from London came to visit for a few days in early March, so I took her wine tasting in the Santa Cruz Mountains—a rare treat for her, as there aren’t too many vineyards in the middle of London. Her visit reminded me how fortunate we are to live in this paradise of ultra-fresh produce, with grapes growing in wild profusion.

 

Springtime Walkabout

May Day Flower Festival, free tours of the UCSC Farm, and a nondairy chocolate indulgence