In Jake Shimabukuro’s hands, the ukulele is more than just a cute novelty to sedately serenade.
By Naila Francis
Jake Shimabukuro never set out to excel on the ukulele.
Never mind that the 31-year-old Hawaiian has been heralded a virtuoso in the vein of masters such as Bela Fleck, doing for the traditional four-stringed instrument native to his homeland what Fleck did for the banjo. Or that his quicksilver fingers, coaxing with radical technique just about every genre from classical and jazz to bluegrass and rock from the tiny two-octave ukulele, have made fans of the aforementioned Fleck, with whom he’s toured and recorded, as well as artists like Ziggy Marley, who featured him on his 2006 Grammy-winning album “Love is My Religion.”
Jimmy Buffet is an admirer, too, with Shimabukuro occasionally touring with the cultural icon and even contributing to the soundtrack for his film “Hoot.” And none other than Olivia Harrison, widow of George Harrison, traveled to Hawaii specifically to catch one of Shimabukuro’s performances with the Honolulu Symphony two years ago, given that it was the ukulele star’s version of her late husband’s classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that initially garnered him international exposure when a fan posted a video of his rendering from Strawberry Fields in New York on YouTube.
Yet Shimabukuro, who performs Friday at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in Upper Salford, speaks not so much as a master of his instrument as he does a master student, submitting to an earnest dedication and ceaseless curiosity as fuel for his inventive prowess.
“A lot of my heroes were guys like Michael Jordan or Bruce Lee. Guys like that, their level of concentration and ability to focus is so powerful that it doesn’t matter what they do,” he says. “I believe Tiger Woods could have been one of the world’s greatest classical pianists or the fastest runner or something. It’s not so much that they found the sport that’s right for them or the art form that’s right for them, but they have that concentration and focus that’s required for them to excel in whatever they do.
“I didn’t want to necessarily be a good ukulele player but get to a level where I could throw my entire self, mentally, physically and spiritually, into one thing, and the ukulele was the vehicle I chose.”
He grew up listening to his mom playing an expensive Kamaka ukulele and can still recall the first day she placed the instrument in his hands and taught him his first three chords.
“It’s almost like someone putting a newborn baby in your hands and you get so nervous and tense and you’re just holding it and you don’t want to crush it, but at the same time you want to hold it securely enough that it’s not going to fall,” says Shimabukuro, who was 4 at the time. “I was just so respectful of the instrument and every time after I would play it, after I was done, I would wipe it down and place it back into the case and close it up.
“My mom always told me that when I was a kid, I kind of had those ADD tendencies and I couldn’t focus on anything. From the first day I started playing the ukulele, she said it was the only time I would actually focus on something and keep quiet and wouldn’t be running around. I would sit down for hours and just practice and play. From the moment I picked it up, it grabbed my entire attention and focus.”
However, when he started taking lessons around Honolulu, where he still lives, he also explored other instruments, like the guitar and piano, hoping to somehow translate the techniques for playing them to the ukulele.
“In ukulele class, no one reads music; you just learn your chords and strum along. I wanted to get deeper into the whole music appreciation mentality, like someone who is more of a classically trained musician because I felt that was the kind of discipline you need in order to be a good musician,” says Shimabukuro, who has released six albums, including the most recent, “My Life,” an EP of covers by some of his favorite artists, on his own Hitchhike Records label.
His immersion in other art forms extended to orchestral music, with its expansive emotional palette and a dynamism that allows for excitement and spontaneity. Even visual art has served to inspire him, the medium teaching the importance of empty space — or for Shimabukuro, silence — to convey as much as what is readily apparent.
“When you’re a ukulele or guitar player, you’re not necessarily thinking about these things,” he says. “I was always thinking about speed and I want to rip through these notes and play all these cool things and all these blues riffs. … But I realized that, ‘OK, the silence in music or the spaces I leave are just as important as the notes that I play.’ I started studying painters, and wanting to understand how a great painter works, I saw how they utilize negative space, how the part of the canvas they don’t actually touch is something they’re creating as well. All those are artistic choices that you can take advantage of.”
And so while it would be easy for him to go the flashy route, especially when tackling challenging pieces such as Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” or Chick Corea’s “Spain,” or dabbling in bluesy funk or vibrant flamenco flourishes on originals like “Grandma’s Groove” and “Let’s Dance,” respectively, Shimabukuro has learned that restraint is the greater hallmark of artistry. It’s one of the reasons he’s devoted more time to playing solo in recent years, bringing a delicate intricacy and emotional sensitivity to his growing catalog, a shift especially evident on “My Life” and some of its more surprising covers, including Sarah McLachlan’s “Ice Cream” and the Jimmy Page/Robert Plant-penned “Going to California.”
“As I get older and the years go by, I find myself being more fulfilled by everything being simplified. And so sometimes when you just take a song and you strip it down just to its bare essentials, just to the parts that make a song recognizable or I’m just taking the notes that I could simply hum to a person just by itself and they would know exactly what I’m talking about, that is the soul or the spirit of the song,” says Shimabukuro. “When you can just close your eyes and grab any part of that song and show it to anybody, then you know that’s a great tune.”
He realizes that the ukulele strikes many as little more than a prop or novelty, the purveyor of the breezy lilting melodies that epitomize Hawaii’s tranquil beauty. And he’s OK with the stereotype.
“The instrument itself, the ukulele, everyone knows the ukulele. It’s a very, very popular instrument, but it’s just not a popular instrument for people to pick up and start learning. They may think of sitting at the beach in Waikiki sipping a Mai Tai or Tiny Tim singing ‘Tip-toe Through the Tulips’ or one of those old Elvis Presley movies. And that’s one of the great charms of the instrument — it has the ability to disarm you,” says Shimabukuro.
“I always think of it as the underdog of all instruments. You have very low expectations musically but that’s the best part about it. You can go from playing something very simple and almost silly to playing something very sophisticated and very complex. At the same time, the ukulele is a very peaceful instrument. When you hear it, when you play it, when you look at it, it just makes you smile.”
– The Intelligencer