Ukulele on Fire
Jake Shimabukuro blazes a trail from viral sensation to star with staying power
The ukulele is sometimes dismissed as a curiosity, or a child’s toy with no innate musical value. However, ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro (pronounced she-ma-BOO-koo-row) has lifted the instrument to new heights on each of his 11 solo albums, including Travels, out Oct. 9. Though he routinely uses the four-stringed instrument to reinvent everything from rock standards to classical works, all by virtue of his imaginative instincts and extraordinary virtuosity, Travels sees him traversing new territory with a stirring collection of original compositions.
But Shimabukuro’s instrument of choice isn’t the only unexpected element of his story.
After years of pursuing music in his native Hawaii and even inking a deal with Sony Music Japan, he became a cyber sensation in 2006 when a YouTube video that captured him playing a cover of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on his ukulele in New York’s Central Park went viral. He became an overnight celebrity and followed the buzz into a career path that’s established him as an artist known for bridging multiple styles, often in the same composition.
“[YouTube] singlehandedly changed my life,” an affable Shimabukuro says over the phone while on a tour stop in Nashville. “It started a touring career that’s taken me all over the world. Even today, people come up to me and tell me they saw that YouTube clip. It’s still introducing what I do to a lot of people. I started playing places like Australia and Canada, Europe … My name wasn’t even on [the video] when it first came out. It was labeled ‘Asian guy shreds on ukulele.’ But so many people saw it that it eventually amassed some 12 million hits.”
Though Shimabukuro was already recording for Sony at that point, that chance discovery on YouTube ensured him a viable career in the States and elsewhere, one with long-lasting possibilities. No doubt part of the reason his video went viral had to do with his ability to realize the full potential of the ukulele itself. He is acutely aware that many music fans don’t consider it to be a serious instrument. And there’s no arguing that Shimabukuro’s music might, at first blush, appear to be a bit of a novelty. But when he delivers well-known rock standards on his simple four-string instrument, it brings the music into focus in a way that everybody can relate to. It’s certainly a lot less intimidating to watch him tackle a song like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which he’s known to do in concert, than to try to absorb the complex arrangements of an entire ensemble. And, that kind of musical skill is equal parts honed and innate.
“Honestly, when I was younger, I never thought I’d be a professional musician,” he admits. “I never thought I was good enough. I played in bands when I was a teenager and we mostly played a lot of Hawaiian music. I had just graduated high school and I was going to college near my house, and I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I thought maybe I’d become a schoolteacher. At one point I thought I’d go into politics.” He laughs.
“I just didn’t know what I was going to do. But I always loved music, so I’d take every opportunity to play somewhere or to sit in with a band.”
When he was in his early 20s, Sony Japan approached him to put out a solo record. “I had never played just by myself,” he recalls, “but they convinced me to do an album, and that was the start of my career.”
Hawaiian music roots
Shimabukuro’s journey from YouTube viral superstar to a credible recording artist was chronicled on a 2012 documentary titled Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings, but it’s his recorded legacy that best defines his ever-escalating career path.
That began back in 1998, when he joined a Hawaiian trio called Pure Heart. The group released its self-titled debut that same year, garnering honors from the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts (HARA). They took home trophies for Island Contemporary Album of the Year, Most Promising Artist, Island Contemporary Album of the Year, and Favorite Entertainer of the Year – the latter bestowed by a fan vote. Their debut was also named one of the Top 50 Hawaiian albums of all time by Honolulu Magazine. Two more albums followed, each earning similar praise.
Those early albums established a reputation for the budding instrumentalist that followed him as he signed with Sony as a solo artist. His solo debut, 2002’s Sunday Morning, received the 2003 Na Hoku Hanohano Award for Instrumental Album of the Year and the Hawaii Music Award for Instrumental Hawaiian Album of the Year, leading the public to vote him Hawaii’s Favorite Entertainer of the Year. It also included a stunning range of styles and genres that took him from rock and jazz to heavy metal and classical, not to mention several cover songs. Among them were the teary Celine Dion ballad “My Heart Will Go On,” the equally schmaltzy Burt Bacharach classic “Close to You,” and that popular instrumental standard “Sleep Walk” by Santo & Johnny. Not surprisingly, the disc soared to the top of Billboard’s World Music charts, where it remained for two years.
Considering that level of success, it only made sense for Shimabukuro to keep doing what was working. “I started out playing very traditional Hawaiian music,” he explains, “and until this day it’s still my passion. But there’s so much great music out there and the ukulele is just so interesting. When you hear a great pop song that you may be familiar with, played on a ukulele, it becomes so much more interesting and unique.”
Crosscurrent, his 2003 sophomore set, fared just as well as his solo debut, sweeping the Hawaiian Music Awards with wins for Album of the Year and Instrumental Hawaiian Album of the Year. This time though, the covers were less familiar, aside from a version of “Mrs. Robinson” that boasted as much punch as it did promise.
“I started out playing very traditional Hawaiian music, and until this day it’s still my passion. But there’s so much great music out there and the ukulele is just so interesting.” - Jake Shimabukuro
Succeeding albums Walking Down Rainhill (2004), Dragon (2005), and Gently Weeps (2006) found Shimabukuro following the same generally consistent formula, integrating well-known standards with ever more fastidious arrangements. The accolades continued; Shimabukuro had unquestionably nailed his niche.
The year after his YouTube exposure, Shimabukuro released the EP My Life, which capitalized on his success with standards, boasting no fewer than six of them, including Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” a pair of Lennon and McCartney numbers – “In My Life” and “Here, There and Everywhere” – and a version of “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” This last tune was of particular interest, since the song had previously garnered attention from YouTube’s audience when it was covered on ukulele by another Hawaiian musician, the late Israel Kamakawiwo'ole.
The fact that Shimabukuro chose to perform “Somewhere over the Rainbow” on his own album showed a certain savvy. YouTube had, after all, been his springboard to success, and he was not above giving that audience what it wanted. Similarly, when his 2009 album Live appeared, it marked the fourth time that his signature song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” appeared on one of his LPs. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” another track that gained notoriety on YouTube, showed up twice on 2011’s Peace Love Ukulele, helping the album ascend to number one on Billboard's Top World Music Albums chart in both 2011 and 2012.
‘Bam, there it is’
The formula was working, and the initial buzz around Shimabukuro’s viral video transported him from a curiosity to a cultural phenomenon. Among those who fell under his spell was Alan Parsons, the man behind the boards for such epic albums as the Beatles’ Abbey Road and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Parsons was so impressed with Shimabukuro’s skills that he volunteered to produce his next album, 2012’s Grand Ukulele.
“I was in Santa Cruz on business when this friend of mine strongly suggested that I go to see his show,” Parsons recalls. “He said Jake was someone that I just had to see. At first, I was hesitant. After all, who would want to sit through a show featuring someone simply playing ukulele for an hour and a half? [But] I remember he was performing at this little theater and he was so incredibly talented that he blew me away. It had to be seen to be believed.”
“It’s the craziest story,” Shimabukuro says of the encounter. “He came to one of my concerts and I didn’t even know he was there. No one knew. The only way we found out was that a few weeks later, he went on a radio show, and then halfway through his interview, he said, ‘A few weeks ago I saw this ukulele player and he just blew me out of the water.’ So I’m listening to this and I go ‘What!?’ Then he says, ‘His name is Jake Shimabukuro. Have you ever heard of him?’ I couldn’t believe my ears. I was listening to this and freaking out, [wondering,] ‘Is this a joke?’ And then during the interview, he looks up my YouTube video of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and they play it on the air.”
“He has this note-for-note perfection that qualifies him as a true virtuoso. Here’s this one guy on a four-string instrument. You know, the first time you see him – in the first 30 seconds – that this is really someone special.” - Alan Parsons
A couple months later, Shimabukuro and Parsons finally met before a show in California. Shimabukuro recalls: “We grabbed dinner before the show and halfway through dinner he said, ‘If you’re interested, I’d love to produce your next album.’ What do you say after that? I couldn’t stop smiling.”
Parsons quickly found that he and Shimabukuro “spoke the same language.”
“He has this note-for-note perfection that qualifies him as a true virtuoso,” Parsons recalls. "Here’s this one guy on a four-string instrument. You know, the first time you see him – in the first 30 seconds – that this is really someone special.”
When they got together in the studio, Shimabukuro says he was determined to seize the opportunity to learn from Parsons and went in with blank slate. “It was such a great experience. We had a 40-piece orchestra and a full rhythm section with guys like Simon Phillips on drums, Randy Tico on bass, and Kip Winger playing guitar and helping with the arrangements. … It just blew my mind. I got to witness [Alan’s] genius and that’s something I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget that moment when I was just standing there beside him, next to the board, and he was playing with the faders next to the studio monitors, and it was all coming together. And then, bam, there it is. Incredible.”
Returning to his roots
Now, in stark contrast to his work with Parsons, Travels finds Shimabukuro opting for a simpler style, one that does away with many of those studio embellishments and lavish accompaniment. This album puts the spotlight mostly on his ukulele alone. Nonetheless, he takes on traditional island tunes, smooth jazz, Latin stylings, and, in what’s by now his trademark, surprisingly faithful renditions of popular standbys.
He delivers a surprisingly subdued take on the Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There” and a sprightly version of War’s classic “Low Rider.” As always, Shimabukuro proves his penchant for making the ukulele sound like an entire ensemble, even as he plucks out the melodies with minimal flourish and fanfare. The effect can be infatuating, especially on numbers like “Train Ride,” “Ichigo Ichie,” and “Dinner & A Movie,” where his spirited delivery gives way to contemplative respite.
Unlike his earlier albums, which were built on the curiosity factor of well-known standards revamped for ukulele, Travels turns the spotlight to Shimbakuro’s original compositions – mostly mellower fare that stands strongly on its own. It’s an album that would work well on adult contemporary radio, sliding smoothly through various moods.
The album, Shimabukuro explains, “goes back to being just me and my interpretations and really having fun with different genres and styles. It’s more about the instrument itself and going back to my roots. So I’ve been working up the live arrangements and having fun doing so.”
It shows. Travels is a sublime collection that finds Shimabukuro accompanied by a stripped-down ensemble with his ukulele at the center of the mix. “Passport” verges on smooth jazz, while “Kaluika” demonstrates his virtuosity with a combination of subtlety, flourish, and finesse that’s especially impressive in light of his music’s generally unassuming expressionism. Another of the originals, “Everything Is Better with You,” even finds Shimabukuro singing, an avenue he treads only rarely.
The mostly bare-bones approach Shimabukuro takes on the new album has long been a hallmark of his concerts, though he’s recently added a bassist to accompany him on tour. “It’s just ukulele and bass,” he says. “It’s been fun and it’s allowed us to come up with some new arrangements with the chords, the harmonies, and some of the bass lines. It’s become a little more interactive. It’s a lot less pressure for me now because, up until two years ago, I was just playing by myself. Now it’s kind of nice to have someone up there with me. We can really expand on the arrangements. We can have different textures. … Because the ukulele and the bass are so far apart in range, they don’t get in each other’s way. I can stay nice and quiet and subtle and the bass won’t cover up what I’m playing.”
Though the combination of bass and ukulele might be unexpected, Shimabukuro’s collaboration with banjoist Alison Brown seems a natural fit. She recently recruited Shimabukuro for her new album The Song of the Banjo (also out Oct. 9 on Compass Records). That disc finds Brown collaborating with a number of artists, including the Indigo Girls, Keb’ Mo, Colin Hay, and others. She turned to Shimabukuro for a remake of Chuck Mangione’s late-’70s signature song “Feels So Good.”
“I find myself going back to Jake’s records over and over. So when I was making a wish list of people to collaborate with on my new album [The Song of the Banjo], his name was at the top of the list.” - Alison Brown
“I've been thinking it was time for it to be redone,” Brown explains, “so I came up with the idea of doing a banjo/ukelele version. Steve Gadd, who played drums on my record and who has known Mangione since they were kids in Rochester, New York, really influenced the slightly more mellow approach to the tune and contributed some great arrangement ideas.” That, she says, made Shimabukuro a natural fit.
“I find myself going back to Jake’s records over and over,” she adds. “So when I was making a wish list of people to collaborate with on my new album, his name was at the top of the list. … Jake is one of my favorite instrumentalists, hands down, on any instrument. His tone and musicality are very inspiring to me, and I think his choice of cover tunes is always really interesting and beautiful.”
Brown and Alan Parsons aren’t the only luminaries who have expressed their admiration of Shimabukuro’s work. On his last visit to the UK, he was asked to participate in a Royal Command Performance for the Queen of England. “I got to shake her hand and say a few words, and she said, ‘You play so beautifully.’ That was a special moment. I couldn’t stop bowing.” He laughs. “It was amazing, and it was just as amazing to see everyone in the reception line. You had all these major stars. You had Bette Midler. You had Lady Gaga. You had Whoopi Goldberg, Miley Cyrus, Michael Bublé. And then you had me! Everyone was talking – blah, blah, blah, blah, blah – but as soon as the queen entered the room, there was dead silence. All these celebrities were just wondering how to act. I was in awe just seeing them, and then when the queen walks in, it’s like, ‘wow.’ It was just incredible.”
For all his success, Shimabukuro has remained humble and appreciative for the recognition he’s received. “I just can’t believe all that’s happening and I’m just so grateful for it,” he insists. “If it all ended tomorrow, I’d be okay with that because it’s just been such an amazing time and such an amazing experience. But of course, if it did end, I would never stop playing. I’d go back and play coffee shops even if the phone stopped ringing.”
In fact, even more important to him than traveling the world with his music is spreading the word about the simple pleasure of playing a ukulele.
“There’s just something about a ukulele that brings people a lot of joy,” he says. “Not just from playing it, but from the sound as well. … One of the things that I believe in is that playing an instrument has something so therapeutic about it. It stimulates the brain in so many ways. There are so many benefits to that, especially for kids.” To that end, Shimabukuro has become increasingly involved in music education, making it his mission to promote a musical curriculum in public schools.
“When I was in intermediate school and high school, I was always involved in music. There was concert band and music band. There was a Polynesian music class and a music appreciation class. Those were some of the best memories I had in school. It broke my heart when I found out that all my old schools completely wiped out their music program. They didn’t even have a marching band anymore, and even the participation in their concert band had diminished. They have maybe 20 students in their concert band now. When I was in school, we had hundreds of students in the band. It totally breaks my heart, even though I totally understand. There’s no money and you have to cut somewhere. But I really believe it’s important to help these programs and help these schools. I’m not a rich guy, but I want to try to do what I can because it was such a great time in my life, and I’d like to give other people that experience.
“I think ukulele is the perfect tool for people who feel they aren't musical and they don't have any talent,” he adds. “A lot of people are intimidated by the violin or the piano or the guitar. They'll say, 'Oh, I can't do that.' But you give them a ukulele and they say, 'Oh, that looks like fun! I can do that!' They're not intimidated by that at all because they look at it as a toy and not a real instrument. I really embrace that part of the instrument, because I'd love to see more people pick it up.”