Fishman Artist // Jake ShimabukuroIt’s rare for a young musician to earn comparisons to the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis. It’s even harder to find an artist who has entirely redefined an instrument by his early thirties. But Jake Shimabukuro (she-ma-boo-koo-row) has already accomplished these feats, and more, in a little over a decade of playing and recording music.
Yes, the ukulele. In the hands of Shimabukuro, the traditional Hawaiian instrument of four strings and two octaves is stretched and molded into a complex and bold new musical force. On an album like his new ‘Peace Love Ukulele,’ Jake and his “uke” effortlessly (it seems) mix jazz, rock, classical, traditional Hawaiian music and folk, creating a sound that’s both technically masterful and emotionally powerful…and utterly unique in the music world.
For Shimabukuro, his life has always centered on the ukulele. He started playing the instrument at the age of 4, at the urging of his mother (who also played). “Everyone plays in Hawaii,” he says. “But I just immediately fell in love with it.” Showing talent, his parents enrolled him at Roy Sakuma’s Ukulele Studios.
Originally raised on Hawaiian music, Shimabukuro soon became entranced by the sounds of top 40 and rock. “I’d turn on the radio and just play my ukulele along to pop tunes,” he remembers. “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. And, I’m a horrible singer so I couldn’t fake it with vocals either!” (Shimabukuro also developed an interest in playing other instruments during this childhood, but only to improve his uke skills. “Playing drums helped me develop some strumming techniques and patterns with my right hand. Classical guitar helped with music reading and notation. Piano helped with arranging.”)
Interestingly enough, his two biggest influences during his formative uke days weren’t musicians. Sure, he looked to the likes of Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Yo-Yo Ma and Pat Metheny for inspiration, but Shimabukuro actually credits Bruce Lee and Bill Cosby for creating the foundation of his art. “Bruce Lee’s philosophy on martial arts was that it’s a form of human expression,” he says. “And he didn’t believe in having one ‘style.’ He studied all forms and was open to everything. That really stuck in my mind as far as music goes. And Bill Cosby – here’s a performer who can just sit in a chair with a mic, tell stories and entrance millions of people. I wanted to tap into that energy, of just performing alone and connecting with an audience.”
Shimabukuro began his music career in earnest performing at local Honolulu venues and coffee shops. “I loved just playing those little places, and I was happy with it at the time,” he remembers. “But when Sony Music Japan showed interest in signing me, I think it made me take my music seriously as a career.” Although a few several well-received solo releases helped the musician earn some fame on the island, his career really skyrocketed during a TV appearance in New York, where the producers of a local TV show called “Ukulele Disco” asked him to play a cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in Central Park. It was an exhilarating performance – and one that quickly went viral, as the six-million-plus page views it’s received on YouTube can attest. “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,” says Jake.
The clip certainly opened the world’s eyes to the ukulele, and broadened Jake’s audience. In the years since that clip aired, Shimabukuro has performed with the likes of Jimmy Buffett, Bela Fleck, Bette Midler, Yo-Yo Ma, Cyndi Lauper and Ziggy Marley. He’s played on shows like “The Late Show with Conan O’Brien,” “The Today Show” and “Last Call with Carson Daly,” as well as NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “World Café.” Live, he’s landed slots on the Monterey and Playboy Jazz Festivals, performed at the Google campus and the influential TED conference, and played in front of the Queen of England at a benefit show (alongside Bette Midler). And next Valentine’s Day, fans can see Shimabukuro performing in a scene in the new Adam Sandler movie “Just Go with It.”
As his stature grows in the music world, Shimabukuro continues to impress and stretch boundaries with each new release. While all the tracks on ‘Peace Love Ukulele’ were arranged as solo uke pieces, he utilizes a band for the majority of the songs, adding some orchestral touches on songs like “Five Dollars Unleaded” and marching drums on “Go for Broke,” a stirring tribute to Japanese American soldiers in World War II. “So many of those soldiers were based in Hawaii,” he says. “I wanted to show my appreciation for what they did – as a Japanese American, I have a better life today because of the sacrifices they made. ‘Go for broke’ was their motto, which means to risk everything on one great effort to win big.”
It also showcases Jake’s lightning-fast skills and dexterity with the ukulele (“Bring Your Adz”), some humor (“143 (Kelly’s Song),” a title based around a pager code for “I love you”) and a couple of choice covers, including Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the only solo ukulele performance on the album.
“Covers on the ukulele are hard!” Jake says. “You can simplify any song, but to actually come up with an arrangement that’s respectful to the composer is quite a challenge. With ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ I tried to differentiate the vocal line from the piano line and guitar…It was tough, but really paid off. When I play it live, people usually just shake their head and laugh.”
As his career continues to blossom, Shimabukuro is also busy giving back to the island community, using the ukulele as his tool. He’s currently the head spokesperson for “Music is Good Medicine,” a living healthy community program that tours schools, hospitals and senior centers around Hawaii. “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 be music – just something people can be passionate about.”
Despite the success, Jake remains humble and admittedly “awestruck” by how his love of the uke has propelled him to such great heights. For that, he gives full credit to the instrument he’s played with a passion since he was 4. “The ukulele is the instrument of peace,” he says. “And if everyone played one, the world would be a better place.”