Jake Shimabukuro takes the ukulele to new heights

slinn@thetribunenews.comOctober 25, 2012 

A lot has happened since the last time Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro swept through San Luis Obispo.

Since that 2007 concert, the Honolulu native has recorded a handful of albums, including “Grand Ukulele,” released earlier this month. He’s met Queen Elizabeth, collaborated with Jimmy Buffett, Bette Midler and Yo Yo Ma, and even appeared in his own documentary, “Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings.”

“It’s been amazing,” said Shimabukuro, whose concert Saturday at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo will benefit the PAC’s youth outreach program and Guitars in the Classroom. “Every year, the opportunities that have been coming (my) way have been incredible.”

Known for his creative arrangements, passionate playing and blazingly fast fingering, Shimabukuro has been hailed as the foremost modern master of the uke. In his quick, capable hands, the four-string, two-octave instrument most closely associated with luaus and hula dancing takes on the qualities of an electric guitar or a bluegrass mandolin — moving from funk to folk to classical in aflash.

Although he’s played other instruments, Shimabukuro insists the ukulele is the only one that commands his heart.

“It was always just the ukulele,” said the performer, who began playing ukulele at age 4. “I never had any desire to play something else.”

“Outside of Hawaii, a lot of people don’t see it as a real serious instrument. They kind of see it as a toy or a stepping stone to the guitar,” Shimabukuro said. “I always felt that the ukulele was such a fun instrument. It brings a lot of joy to people, and I love that about it.”

Shimabukuro, who turns 36 next month, has spent much of his career sharing that love.

After stints with two Hawaiian groups, Pure Heart and Colon, Shimabukuro branched out as a solo artist in 2001, releasing his debut album, “Sunday Morning,” a year later.

Then, in 2006, a YouTube video of Shimabukuro playing George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral — and the offers started rolling in. (The video currently has almost 11 million hits.)

For his follow-up to the 2011 album “Peace Love Ukulele,” Shimabukuro teamed up with Alan Parsons, the legendary British engineer, musician and producer behind The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon.”

“He’s just a wizard in the studio,” said Shimabukuro, who met Parsons via a California concert promoter. “Working with him has just been inspiring… It’s so different than anything I’ve done in the past.”

Released on Oct. 2, “Grand Ukulele” features a mix of original songs and covers, including Sting’s “Fields of Gold” and Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.”

“I always tell people that when you cover the song of another artist, it’s kind of like wearing the jersey of your favorite basketball player,” said Shimabukuro, who’s known for his playful take on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “It’s a symbol of your love and admiration for an incredible human being.”

According to Shimabukuro, one of the most challenging covers on the album was “Over the Rainbow,” famously covered by Hawaiian ukulele legend Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. “When Alan and I first talked about doing ‘Over the Rainbow,’ he said, ‘There are so many people who have covered that song, so we have to go back to the source,’” Shimabukuro recalled. “He actually dug up his old VCR and an old VHS tape and we watched ‘The Wizard of Oz’ together. … It completely changed my approach to (the song).”

Although Shimabukuro will appear solo in San Luis Obispo, “Grand Ukulele” finds him performing with a 29-piece orchestra, a string quartet and a rhythm section, respectively.

“The coolest thing about this record, for me and for Alan, too, is everything was performed live,” he said. “When you’re capturing a live performance … there’s something magical that happens. There’s a connection between musicians.”

“That’s what music’s all about,” he added. “It’s all about connecting with people — whether it’s the audience or musicians you perform with. … That’s when you know you’re really making a difference.”

Fans can take a closer look at the performer and his creative process in the new documentary “Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings,” which premiered in March at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.

Directed by Tadashi Nakamura and co-produced by the Center for Asian American Media, the film follows the fifth-generation Japanese American on the road from Los Angeles to New York to Japan, showcasing the cultural and personal influences that have shaped his music.

“I really believe that what I do with the instrument is just the tip of the iceberg,” Shimabukuro said. “There’s so much to be explored.”

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