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Ukulele virtuoso brings big sound to Bremerton
On his ukulele, a high-voiced instrument with only two octaves and four strings, Jake Shimabukuro makes an impossibly big sound. With hands moving quick and light, like the flitting about of embers, he plays the unexpected.
“It’s amazing what a little instrument can do,” said Shimabukuro, over the phone from Oahu, where he is recording his next album. “People have such low expectations of the instrument and the music that’s going to come out.”
But Shimabukuro is steadily changing that, playing on stages all over the world and putting out albums that defy the common notion. His YouTube clips garner millions of hits, and his skill has earned him a spot on the stage next to some of the music industry’s most renowned.
Shimabukuro will bring his ukulele to Bremerton’s Admiral Theatre this Saturday, March 13.
No need for a guitar
Shimabukuro grew up in Kaimuki, a Honolulu neighborhood near Waikiki beach. His mother introduced him to the ukulele when he was 4 years old.
Just out of high school, a 17-year-old Shimabukuro played a wedding reception at which “no one was listening,” he recalled. On his bus ride home, he opened a thank-you card from the woman who hired him to find a $100 bill. It was the first time he was paid to play.
“It just blew my mind,” he said. “I thought there must be some mistake.”
By his mid-20s, Shimabukuro was signed by Sony Music Japan International as the record label’s first ukulele player. Now 33, Shimabukuro is a semi-regular member of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefers. He has performed before the Queen of England alongside Bette Midler in a Blackpool fundraising concert, and is making his way into composing for film.
Shimabukuro bends his ear toward the likes of Fleck, Morisette and DiFranco. The Beatles are his favorite influence, heard often among his covers. He features collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma and Cyndi Lauper on an album dedicated to their songs, and his rendition of George Harrison’s “While my guitar gently weeps” — a song he listened to repeatedly as a child — has been viewed nearly 5 million times on YouTube.
“For me, it was always the ukulele,” Shimabukuro said, recalling his first encounters with the instrument. “It didn’t matter what level of player you were. It didn’t even have to be in tune. You could just strum the strings and it makes you smile.
“I’ve never had the desire to play anything else.”
It’s an instrument that incites joy and triggers childlike wonder, something he equates to a Christmas morning elation. In nearly three decades of playing, he’s only owned five ukuleles, as he tends to get attached to each, learning their “sweet spots” and nuances.
“A lot of times I get the feeling the instrument is learning me, too,” he said. “You develop this chemistry and this energy, the instrument knows what you want from it.”
In the studio
On the upper level of an Oahu studio, Shimabukuro and a few of his colleagues are recording his first studio album in three years. On the lower level of that studio, Kanye West is recording his new album.
Shimabukuro, working with known ukulele recording engineer Milan Vertosa, has been in the studio since January, recording 14 original songs from the early afternoon hours into the earliest hours of the morning.
“I want to really show people the different sides of the ukulele,” he said. The project weaves its way through the genres, offering Shimabukuro’s take on bluesy rock, ballads, progressive, jazz and classical.
They’re also working on two covers, one of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and another of “Hallelujiah.”
“When you do your own songs, it’s like telling someone a story you experienced,” Shimabukuro said. “When you cover someone else’s song, it’s like a story you heard from someone else. Telling a great story feels good either way.”
Covering songs is more a celebration of the work — especially those of his favored Beatles — than it is a reworking.
“You’re never going to improve a Beatles song,” he said. “A Beatles song doesn’t need to be redone or reinterpreted. They’re perfect the way they stand.”
Shimabukuro says he is on a different musical vibration each day, in constant change in much the same way album recordings never do. In that way, live and recorded music provide him different opportunities: He recently recorded a song with half a dozen ukulele harmonies laid atop one another, something he couldn’t perform alone onstage. But playing live invites spontaneity and generates a connection with the audience. Even when he plays solo, he hears a full band backing him in his mind.
“I’m playing as if all those things are in place,” he said. “And maybe the audience senses that.”
More on Jake Shimabukuro
Jake Shimabukuro guessed he’d have become an elementary school teacher if his ukulele career never panned out. Now, he spreads a positive message through Music is Good Medicine, through which he’s visited more than 80 schools. Learn more about the program, and Shimabukuro, at www.JakeShimabukuro.com. See Jake Shimabukuro at the Admiral Theatre at 8 p.m. March 13. Dinner is at 6:30 p.m. For tickets and information, visit www.AdmiralTheatre.org.