Hawaii’s Stringed Prophet, Jake Shimabukuro, Brings Peace Love Ukulele To San Diego’s Anthology
(originally published in San Diego Troubadour)
To repent is to change. At least that’s the universally accepted definition. To change one’s mind, in today’s culture is no easy task. But, if we were to look on the world of Americana/roots music in biblical terms, Jake Shimabukuro may be today’s Old Testament prophet not crying in the wilderness, but from the Hawaiian Islands, saying “Repent!” It’s hard to doubt that most mainlanders, earth bound souls who rarely feel the quiet inspiration of a Pacific wind, can only picture Arthur Godfrey with the mere mention of the word ukulele. Then, perhaps for other mainlanders only slightly hipper envision folk music’s favorite son, Arlo Guthrie and his interpretation of the classic song, “Ukulele Lady.” Then, for the comedy driven music fan there’s Laurel and Hardy smiling away while they strum “Honolulu “ on their matching ukuleles for their vengeful wives in the classic comedy, Sons of the Desert. Point being, mainlanders of all generations and persuasions just haven’t taken the instrument very seriously over the last one hundred years. But, then, few have heard Jake Shimabukuro, who has transformed the ukulele to call up associations more Hendrix with than with Arthur Godfrey. At times he even reaches the improvisational heights of Miles Davis. Don’t laugh; listen. With the release of his latest CD, Peace Love Ukulele, Jake has assembled a collection of songs that demonstrates not only his versatility on the instrument but gives the mainland and mainstream music listening public the chance to discover the timeless appeal of the instrument and this distinctly Hawaiian spin on popular music through the clear-eyes, ears and especially fingers of this 33-year-old artist. Making a near tsunami like sensation right now on YouTube with six-million views strong with near perfect renditions of rock classics like, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” filmed in 2009 at San Diego’s own Anthology, where he will be performing on March 23rd. His recent tour now finds Jake traveling along the Pacific rim with a coastal tour hitting San Diego, L.A. and San Francisco.
Born in 1976 in Honolulu, a fifth generation Japanese-American, Jake’s mother gave him his first ukulele at four years of age. His interest developed fast and he stayed with both the fun and the discipline of the instrument developing his talent along the way. In the 90’s he joined the trio, Pure Heart, working with percussionist Lopaka Colon and guitarist Jon Yamasato. Their debut album won four Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, which is the Hawaiian counterpart to the Grammy Awards, including Island Contemporary Album of the Year, Most Promising Artists and Album of the Year. This is quite an accomplishment for a group of artists barely out of their teens. Following the release of another successful album, Pure Heart 2, which earned two more Hoku Awards, Jake joined forces with Lopaka Colon to form the group Colon, named in honor of Lopka’s famous percussionist father, Augie Colon. After winning yet another Hoku Award for Entertainers of the Year in 2001, Jake began a solo career which has since been going non-stop.
While Jake began playing solo in local Honolulu venues and coffee houses and also with independent solo releases, when Sony Music Japan came calling, he was ready. “I loved just playing those little places, and I was happy with it at the time,” he recalls. “But when Sony Music Japan showed interest in signing me, I think it made me take my music seriously as a career.” And that he did. His talent and skill became internationally known thanks to the producers of a local New York City TV show called, “Ukulele Disco,” when he was invited him to play his interpretation of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” in Central Park. With the help of over six-million views on YouTube, Jake became internationally famous. According to Jake, “It was supposed to air once, but it somehow ended up on YouTube – which had just started out at the time – and suddenly people started asking about the Asian guy who plays the ukulele.”
What those who tuned in on YouTube found was that this little instrument from Hawaii called a ukulele had been vastly underrated. Like other master instrumentalists have shown on their instruments throughout music history, Jake demonstrated the ukulele to have a life of its own within the structure of the song which could be expanded and changed without sacrificing the integrity and inspiration of the song itself. In fact, Jake’s sometimes gentle, sometimes, dynamic and always inspired playing showed was that skill could be brought in to the tune that would add dimension and call attention to the song rather than detract with musical stunts and tricks. This is a fine line and Jake has walked it well and seemingly effortlessly.
Although, in the history of the ukulele, which was brought to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants during the 18th century, it was given the name ‘jumping flea’ because of the way the fingers move so swiftly over the fret board, Jake’s ukulele sounds more like silk lightening. It’s both soothing and stimulating a concoction of fire and lace. Add to this his choice of material and he is able to reach out across pop music history and interpret Harrison, Cohen or even classic rock bands like Queen with ease, originality and inspiration. With the use of only two octaves, Jake’s talent and imagination can work to compliment and reignite the original intent of the songs which have become standard in the catalog of American popular music at the same level that jazz fusion artists like Pat Meheny can do in jazz.
Also noteworthy is Jake’s ability to walk the line between tradition and progress; convention and avante garde. While he learned his instrument by mastering the most traditional of Hawaiian music, as he approached his teens, Jake began showing an interest in the entire spectrum of contemporary music. This led him to radio classics, smooth jazz and classical music. “I first picked up the ukulele at the age of four. My mom played and taught me my first few chords. I started out strumming mainly traditional Hawaiian music as a child. But later, enjoyed the challenge of trying to play other styles of music on the four-string, two octave instrument – like rock, jazz and classical.”
Since 2001 Jakes circle of fame and influence has been felt not throughout the world of popular music thanks to performances with Jimmy Buffett, Bela Fleck, Yo-Yo Ma, Cyndi Lauper and Ziggy Marley. He’s appeared on “The Late Show with Conan O’Brien, “The Today Show,” and on important radio shows including NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and “World Café.” He’s also appeared at Monterey and Playboy Jazz Festivals. In 2009 he played with fellow Hawaiian Bette Midler at the Royal Variety Show where they performed the Beatles, “In My Life.” And most recently Jake can be seen performing in the new Adam Sandler film, Just Go with It.
With the 2011 release of his newest album, Peace Love Ukulele, Jake has complied an album he says he hopes will bring ‘joy and happiness to listeners near and far.’ In a recent interview he said, “I hope the emotions expressed in the music will connect people and make them realize that we all feel the same things – we just express them differently. I believe music is the greatest gift – and the ukulele is the friendliest way to present that gift to the world.” Even his favorite songs on the album display both his heart and the diversity of his taste including the more rock based “143,” inspired by the pager code which means ‘I love you,’ “Go For Broke,” a touching melody dedicated to the Japanese-Americans who served in World War II and the classic Queen song, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Another highlight is his beautifully warm version of Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluiah,” which becomes as lyrical, due to Jake’s artistic expertise, even without the words of the Canadian bard.
Recently, I heard someone observe the difference between an ‘idol’ and an ‘icon, which applies to Jake Shimabukuro. An idol, it was observed, takes the energy from the audience and keeps it for themselves, for ego gratification, while an icon takes the same energy, changes it and gives it back to the audience. Jake has been doing this since he first picked up the little instrument we often mistake for something trivial. On his recent release and really throughout his career, Jake has been taking the energy around him and returning it to us through music, transforming our assumptions about the music we’ve heard all of our lives and turning it into something immortal, to be shared for generations to come.
And so, Jake, as a musical prophet, directs us through his music, to touch, taste, smell and feel the melodies he experiences in the music drawn from his native island, not really a voice in the wilderness, but a breeze of island pleasure. And no one could possibly put it better than Jake himself already when he says, “With my new CD, Peace Love Ukulele, I hope to inspire more people to take an interest in the young instrument. I believe the ukulele is the instrument of peace. If everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place.”
After experiencing young Jake Shimabukuro’s ingenuity and his inspiring music I can easily say to this musical prophet and his ukulele ‘I repent!’