Everyone loves Jake Shimabukuro. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I wouldn’t have known it sitting in Bing Concert Hall, listening to the crowd’s seemingly uncontainable cheers and applause for the ukulele virtuoso.
But a hush fell the minute Shimabukuro hit the first chord. Here on his Uke Nation tour, Honolulu-based Shimabukuro played a mix of his original compositions and cover arrangements. His latest album, “Grand Ukulele” was released in 2012, six years after the YouTube video of his cover “As My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral, one of the first on the then-new website. Since, he has become an international sensation, playing for audiences all over the world (including the Queen of England).
His show here at Stanford sold out almost instantly. Audience members – from older women to college boys – were dancing in their seats to his upbeat songs like his “Bohemian Rhapsody” cover. Technicians put on a light show like it was a rock concert. Shimabukuro is clearly a talented musician, but what makes him so exceptional, so celebrated by audiences of all ages and backgrounds? Why all the love?
First, when Jake takes the stage with his uke, it is magical. His lively songs are infectious, his mellow ones, such as “Blue Roses”, tender. His sound is complex, his fingers flying over the fret board and between the strings, even using a loop station during several of his songs to overlay tracks for a richer composition. During this show, he also collaborated with bassist Richard Glass, who, endearingly, wore a Stanford t-shirt for the performance. When I asked an elderly couple what they thought of the show, the man invited me to imagine the awesomeness that he had just seen “pouring out of a human brain”. He was impressed that Shimabukuro had played non-stop for an hour and a half. “I had come prepared for a coffee break!” the man joked.
Shimabukuro has been heralded as a “hero” by Rolling Stone for bringing the previously under the radar instrument into the national spotlight and pushing the boundaries of how ukulele music is understood. The uke, which traditionally takes a supportive, background role in Hawaiian music, has a small range and sound. But in Shimabukuro’s hands, it becomes a powerhouse, crossing the boundaries of musical genres and rocking a concert hall with its energy. In “Gentlemandolin”, a song written for Shimabukuro’s son, he captured the languid sound of a mandolin by stretching his reach beyond the normal chord placement. Or, in one of his songs with the looper, he embodied the sound of a 70’s guitar solo, played over two tracks – one of a lingering ukulele chord that sounded surprisingly like a violin and another of a traditionally strummed ukulele. He also introduced the audience to several varieties of ukuleles throughout the show, including an electric uke, a baritone, and an acoustic one made from the scrap wood from Bing’s construction.
The magic extends beyond the music and to his performance presence. As I took my seat, I immediately noticed that Bing’s beautiful unstained-wood stage was completely covered in mats. Whatever the purpose, it seemed necessary because when Jake plays, he dances. I have no idea how he’s able to play moving so much, but the audience soaked up his energy. And he smiles as he plays. It’s so genuine that a man in front of me actually raised his hand and waved when Shimabukuro looked at our section.
Which brings us to the second reason that people are screaming at Jake like he’s the fifth Beatle. He’s so nice. His famously relaxed and humble attitude seems more than simply a by-product of his Hawaiian upbringing, and more the infectiously joyous personality of someone truly excited to bring the music he loves to others. He gets excited. He tells stories. During the Q&A session, he explained that Eddie Kamae, a uke player from the fifties who was part of the Sons of Hawaii, is his biggest influence as “the first ukulele virtuoso” to make it a lead instrument. “I do what I do today because of him,” Jake said. He explained the origins of the ukulele, made by Hawaiian locals inspired by the Portuguese guitar-like instruments, and how he gets his ukuleles from the Kamaka family, the first manufacturers of the instrument. We learned that he did gymnastics as a kid. A trip to Japan for a gymnastics showcase started his love of the country, in which he has toured extensively. He played his song “Sakura Sakura” which is inspired by the sounds of Japanese music.
Third, there seems to be something magical not only about Jake but about the ukulele itself. During the Q&A, he explained that he loves how unintimidating the instrument is because it encourages people to pick it up and try. You just need two or three chords, he told the audience earnestly. People think it’s a toy, he continued, they’ll come up to me after a show and just take my ukulele out of my hand. You’d never do that with a violin!
Later, during the show, he joked, “I love performing internationally, because “people have such low expectations [of a ukulele]!” Whether due to Jake’s wide-eyed enthusiasm or tiny toy-like instrument, I took him seriously – anyone could and should learn the ukulele – the way I would not had a great piano master said the same thing (yeah, right, buddy, you think anyone can just pick up the piano because you’re a musical genius). My eighty-two year old grandma just started taking lessons, so why couldn’t I? Of course, we would be picking out “Mary Had a Little Lamb” while Jake is creating an entire rock band with the same instrument. But the simplistic beauty of the uke’s sound makes such basic musical aspirations seem valid in a way that it would not with any other instrument. I could imagine sitting down with my friends to mess around and play some simple songs, but it’s hard to imagine that picking out “Chopsticks” on the piano would have the same effect. Part of Jake’s talent, of course, is making the sparse sound incredibly powerful.
Shimabukuro is the director of Music Is Good Medicine, a non-profit that brings programs and performances to schools, senior homes, and hospitals. He is a known proponent of the importance of music, arts education, and specifically the ukulele as an incredibly peaceful instrument. After watching his show, I’m convinced. His prior album, released in 2011, is aptly named “Peace Love Ukulele”.
The media is buzzing with stories about the Ukulele Renaissance, and about the young Shimabukuro at its heart. This is one popular trend you want to follow. If you missed Jake Shimabukuro, check him out and buy his album. His music is full of energy and beauty, but perhaps why we most love Jake is that his music is also incredibly brave. It takes risks, musically and technically, and succeeds. The littleness of the uke contributes to this image of audacity in a musical sea of far bigger fish, like full-sized guitars and grand pianos. And who doesn’t like an underdog?
photo credit: Acoustic Magazine