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Jake Shimabukuro speaks to generations through the ukulele

23 Comments
By Dan Grunebaum

With all the trendy bands that traipse through Tokyo, it’s rare to sit down with a certified instrumental virtuoso. But listening to Jake Shimabukuro whip off a rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” on his ukulele, it’s clear the Hawaiian-born Japanese-American is the real thing.

While bands often try to capture the zeitgeist of the moment and speak for the hopes and dreams of their generation, Shimabukuro’s motivation seems to be more about the notes themselves. “I love problem solving,” says the musician during a Tokyo stopover, hinting at the competitive spirit poised beneath his laid-back, aloha demeanor. “So trying to deal with the limitations of the ukulele is something I like. When I tackle a song that is very difficult or has a range that exceeds the ukulele—which is most songs—it allows me to think outside the box. I appreciate that because it makes each piece unique.”

Queen’s monumental rock-opera opus provided the perfect challenge. “There were a lot of problems with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’” he explains. “You have almost 100 vocal tracks, and everything from guitar to gong and timpani. It’s that David and Goliath thing: you’ve got this monstrous piece, and then you’ve got this tiny four-string instrument. I liked that idea of trying to scale the song down but keep the listener feeling like they can still hear it. The real challenge was what to leave out, because you have an ocean of notes happening but I can only take four. I listened to it over and over and honed in on different parts. It was great—a lot of sleepless nights, but well worth it.”

The worldwide evangelist for the ukulele—a Hawaiian adaptation of a Portuguese instrument known as a bagina—may now play for Queen Elizabeth and, in an upcoming tour, rapturous thousands at Tokyo’s prestigious Orchard Hall, but when Shimabukuro first parted ways with the simple Hawaiian ukulele traditions, his teachers had a different reaction. “There were a few people—some of my mentors—who said, ‘You should play the guitar’,” he recalls. “But my take was, ‘Well, it’s already been done on the guitar.’ I think in different styles of music like rock and pop, there is a place for the ukulele.”

Whether cause or effect, Shimabukuro is part of an ongoing ukulele boom. “Look at Train’s [2009] hit song ‘Hey, Soul Sister,’—it’s all ukulele,” he notes. “I think there is definitely a change. You now hear ukulele in the background of commercials. When I talk to music stores like Sam Ash, they say ukulele sales are skyrocketing and guitar sales are dropping. So it’s a good time to be a ukulele player.”

Shimabukuro’s upcoming Tokyo engagement will see him performing solo on an unaccompanied, unprocessed ukulele. For the “Jimi Hendrix of the Ukulele,” the return to basics was a process of self-discovery. “I went through the phase on my second and third albums when I did a lot of distortion and wah wah stuff, just rocking out,” he says. “But when those albums came out, people said, ‘So is this your new thing, collaborating with electric guitar players?’ It confused a lot of people, because they assumed it was electric guitar. So then I went back to the acoustic sound, because I felt like I was becoming an electronics person rather than an acoustic, organic instrumental person. One day I closed up the pedal case and put it in my closet, and haven’t taken it out since. It was like rediscovering the instrument again, and now that’s all I carry.”

Shimabukuro may not be the voice of a generation, but through the ukulele he does try to speak to his generation. “I really believe that the ukulele is the instrument of peace,” he states. “It makes people feel good, and I tell people if everyone played it, the world would be a better place. I want to show people that the ukulele is, first, a lot of fun and, second, affordable, and [encourage them] to just give one a try.

“People don’t have time to take piano lessons, and the benefits of learning an instrument and creating music is amazing. It’s such a great stress releaser to come home at the end of a day and strum a few chords. I tell people it’s an entire yoga session in three strums. It does something to the mind, body and spirit, and people need that now at a time when they are overwhelmed with life. The ukulele is the answer to bring us back to center.”

Jake Shimabukuro will perform at Bunkamura Orchard Hall, Shibuya, on Aug 28 at 6 p.m., and on Aug 29 at 3 p.m. Tickets are 6,500 yen.

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp)

© Japan Today

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.


23 Comments
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Jake's sure come a long way in five or six years. I can remember seeing him play (for free) at Willow's Restaurant in Honolulu, and I know he still does charity concerts in Hawaii, and of course he's since toured the U.S. with Jimmy Buffet and the great Bela Fleck, not to mention playing Europe, performing with Bette Midler (another of Hawaii's notable artists), even hitting blues clubs in New York City. His annual summer tours of Japan have crept up in price though, over the years, and his handlers (Sony Music Entertainment) have really pushed him to tailor himself to Japanese audiences, which has led him in a rather bland direction of late. Still, he remains a humble, hard-working, versatile, and extremely talented performer!!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snPQ1z5FoqQ

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEqzV3ysPEg

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Great artist!

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If you ask me, Jake is just another kid from Hawaii that has become successful through Hawaiian Music. If you take away his Ukulele, he is just another wimpy kid on the block. But I surely have to say that he is very brilliant with that ukulele and he has come a very long way from sitting at home thinking of what do do with his life. In a way, he is a star, but in another way, he is just another musician that thinks about money more than he traditional roots which is a very sad thing.

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alladin--if you think that, you've probably never met Jake or seen him perform (and while his success comes from what is traditionally considered a Hawaiian instrument, it has little to do with Hawaiian music per se, as he seldom plays Hawaiian numbers).

I've met Jake numerous times, talked to him, seen how he interacts with his audience, and I think he would have been a success at whatever he decided to do--with or without the ukulele. He's got character.

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sk4ek, with you 100%. Very talented performer but an even better person. Alladin just loves to hate.

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Saw him perform Jimi Hendrix tunes in Hawaii and he was amazing.

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alladin - you act like you know jake personally. i don't think you have the right to say that kind of stuff. take away his ukulele and he's just a wimpy kid? well i can take away your job and you're just a wimpy homeless guy. what kind of logic is that? i'm from hawaii and i'm proud of this guy. at least he's doing something...unlike my friends still stuck on the rock.

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Jake played 2-3 numbers at TedxTokyo this year (all of them are on Youtube), and was one of the highlights of the show. His own interpretations of songs such as 'Let's dance', 'While my guitar gently weeps' and 'Ave Maria', were excellent, he had great rapport with the audience, and he came across as a very modest guy, just enjoying playing music. You don't really notice the instrument, it's just good music...

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he's a great player and a true talent but it's not unfair to say the number of hawaii-o-philes in japan have been his biggest push.

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I've listened to one of his CDs once, I borrowed it or something. It was good but a bit bland, but then Hawaiian music is kind of bland.

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I actually think he has family roots in Okinawa. Shimabuku or Shimabukuro are popular Okinawan names. Maybe his ancestors left Okinawa and searched for work and settled in Hawaii.

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sk4ek, with you 100%. Very talented performer but an even better person. Alladin just loves to hate.

I second that.

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Jake is a cool guy, very down to earth, met him several times. Aside from being a fantastic musician, he is also a runner, marathons.

He may have started in Hawaiian music long ago but his repertoire covers everything from classical to jazz to rock.

He is a professional and enjoys performing live and for his fans. You get enamored just watching and listening to him play live.

to Alladin, it is always easy to criticize someone who has become successful behind the anonymity of the internet.

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I've seen him on youtube and agree that he's amazingly talented and a very pleasant guy, but I can't help wishing he'd taken up the guitar instead. Imagine if Bach had composed only for the recorder or if David Beckham had settled for dodgeball instead of football... nothing against the ukulele in itself, but a true master deserves the right tool.

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Jake is the Man!! His fingers are like magic playing the ukulele!

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When I think ukelele, admittedly I usually first think of that little kid on youtube who does Jason Mraz's song in his adorable cover. But I just watched some videos of this guy - awesome! he is in complete control of the instrument.

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Noted in the calendar: Orchard Hall, Shibuya, August 28!

This guy is good! @alladin: he earns more money than you.

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Alladin, rebuttle?!

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There seems to be a lot of "Hating" on most of these forums. As someone who plays the uke and knows Jake personally (well not so much anymore since he left Pure Heart), I can say that he is a truly wonderful person inside and out. The only knock on him is that he has taken the soul of the ukulele in a direction that it was not meant to go. Actually the world was not ready for a "Jake" at the time his musical mind exploded into the genius that he is now. There are still many of us that try to combine the old with the new, but guys like Jake, Troy Fernandez, Peter Moon, and James Hill have been leading the way for years and will continue to do so. All of you guys out there hating on the uke and Jake, I just want to say, give it a try, post a video of yourself, then comment on how "simple" our little four-stringed instrument is.

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Oh, and I almost forgot Benny Chong. This man actually made Jake's jaw drop.

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@JapaHaYn

All of you guys out there hating on the uke and Jake,

I really hope you're not including me among the "haters". Like I said, I've got nothing against the ukulele, but a talented musician can achieve so much more with a guitar. Proof? Go to youtube and watch/listen to Jake's ukulele version of Bohemian Rhapsody, and then try the Edgar Cruz version on guitar. Both supremely talented musicians pushing their instruments to the limit, but one's kind of novel while the other's superb. It's just a question of the tool you give the maestro.

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@kyushujoe- no not really at you, more at guys like alladin (though I did take some offense to the "Bach-Recorder" metaphor :P). I actually agree with you somewhat in that Jake had at a point used the uke like a guitar, and many of us felt that he belonged on another instrument. I think he even realized that to a certain extent (as alluded to in this article). But, therein lies the genius, what he can do on four strings and with less that 3 octaves is purely amazing. The sound of the ukulele is its own, and does not belong with the processed sounds that the guitar uses and is meant to use. Saying one is "novel" and the other is "superb" I think is somewhat subjective. For far too long people around the world have trivialized the ukulele as a toy, portrayed campyly (sp.) in movies, and overall misunderstood. I applaud what Jake has done in bringing some notoriety and respect to the instrument that I have loved and played for most of my life. The "tool" he has chosen is the Ukulele, and he is truly a master.

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kyushujoe:

I do agree with you that the ukulele is made for some types of music while the guitar is better suited for others. It would be unfair to say that one instrument is better than the other, since they are simply made for different types of music. Jake has just been a master at pushing the envelope in what he can do with a ukulele. Watching his fingers move on the instrument really does look like "jumping fleas".

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