.Instrumental Peace

Jake Shimabukuro wins over fans with a mix of original music and attention-grabbing cover

Jake Shimabukuro doesn’t want to take any credit for the ukulele boom that, over the last decade, has seen thousands pick up the four-stringed Hawaiian instrument.

But the “Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele,” who not so coincidentally broke through to the mainstream with a viral video of his performance of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in 2006, literally sees his influence on generations of ukulele players at every show.

“Whenever we play in a new venue, the people there will be saying ‘There’s so many people that brought their instruments to the show tonight. Are they going to play along or something?’” Shimabukuro said in a recent interview. “No, they don’t play along or come up [on stage]. They’ll bring them to the signing booth after and I’ll sign them. They’ll say, ‘We’ve never seen that before.’ It’s just kind of a fun, fundamental thing that happens at the shows. I love that.”

Born in Honolulu in 1976, Shimabukuro had been a star in his home state and Japan for more than a decade before “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” garnered widespread notice , launching him on the path to becoming the world’s most famous ukulele player.

But his journey with the four-stringed instrument began decades before anyone heard him play.

“I first picked it up when I was four because my mom played,” Shimabukuro said. “She taught me a few chords and I just loved it. But I was always so shy, I would never play in front of people. When I got older, I took lessons. I always loved playing, but I would only play for my mom and dad. I never dreamed of being on stage. I never even wanted to.

“But it was my passion. I would try to get home from school as soon as I could, so I could practice,” he said. “Back then, I never thought of it as practice. I just wanted to play. That was like my equivalent to video games or whatever. I just wanted to play the ukulele.”

In high school, Shimabukuro met some other ukulele players and began to play with them. But he resisted those who urged him to play at school assemblies and talent shows.

“I was like, ‘No, no, no.’ But somehow, eventually they talked me into it,” he said. “Then I started doing some of those things. And I just really enjoyed performing in front of people, which was a big surprise to my family and even myself, because I was always very shy.”

Talked into making a record by his high school music teacher, Shimabukuro heard himself on the radio shortly after graduating from high school and became the ukulele player in Pure Heart, a trio that, with its 1999 debut album, won four Na Hoku Hanahano Awards, the Hawaiian equivalent of a Grammy.

When the band broke up in 2002, Shimabukuro went solo, signing a deal with Sony Japan. Then, just before posting “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which got more than 15 million views, he moved into the U.S. market, opening for Jimmy Buffett and seeing his albums climb to the top of the Billboard World Music Charts.

Those albums contain a mix of Shimabukuro original compositions, cover songs and collaborations with the likes of Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes, Dolly Parton and, on the recently released Grateful, many of Hawaii’s top musicians.

The songs from Grateful figure prominently in the show that Shimabukuro and electric bassist Jackson Waldhoff are bringing to venues around the country.

“We’re definitely playing a lot of the music,” he said. “They’re the instrumental versions because I can’t sing to save my life. We definitely do all the instrumental stuff. But we also try to do a lot of the vocal tunes as well, some of the other classics on there like “Kawika.” Hopefully one of these days, we’ll be able to bring a lot of the artists on the album, you know, and we can perform these songs live. We did that in Hawaii, not all of them, but we got a lot of them, for a [fire] relief effort. But it would be great to be able to take them out with me on the road. It would be really special.”

The rest of the show is split between Shimabukuro’s original compositions—which he says he’s becoming ever more confident in performing—and his attention-grabbing covers.

“Maybe 40 percent, if not 50 percent of the show is original songs, but I like to mix in the covers because, for me, when I’m listening to new artists, it’s always so exciting when I hear something that I’ve already heard before and I can hear their interpretation of it,” he said. “It makes it a lot easier to connect with the audience, so I love throwing those in.”

Those covers are selected because they’re personal to Shimabukuro, who grew up listening to his mother’s collection of records from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s before discovering songs on his own, often while working at a record store.

“Whenever I do a song like ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ or if I get to do something like [Queen’s] ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or [Leonard Cohen’s] ‘Hallelujah,’ to me it’s the equivalent of a sports fan wearing their favorite player’s jersey,” he said. “I remember growing up, you know, you would wear your number 23 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan jersey, or my son loves Steph Curry’s and wears his jersey.

“As a musician when you cover another song of another artist, it’s like putting on your George Harrison jersey or your Queen jersey or your Leonard Cohen jersey,” Shimabukuro said. “You’re kind of celebrating your appreciation and admiration for these amazing artists that inspired you and influenced you.”

So how do you turn an iconic song from a rock band into something that can be played on the ukulele?

“It’s hard to explain,” Shimabukuro said. “I cover, of course, the melody because I do an instrumental version of it. Take ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’—I kind of worked out a fingerstyle way of playing it. So you’re covering chord movements and there’s a lot of counterpoint in that piece too. I try to cover as much as I can with the counterpoint melodies while keeping whatever Freddie Mercury’s voice, his melody lines. You’ll just have to come to the show to get it.”

Jake Shimabukuro plays June 30 at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave, Santa Cruz. $40. riotheatre.com


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