John Lamb, Published November 05 2013
Uke rock: From Hawaii with love
Shimabukuro was given a ukulele as a 4-year-old and took to the four-string instrument. Eighteen years later he was part of a popular Hawaiian band, Pure Heart and later Colón.
After the latter broke up in 2002, Shimabukuro went solo and developed a following in his ancestral Japan.
Worldwide exposure came four years later when a video of the musician playing The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” became one of the first YouTube sensations. The clip has been viewed nearly 12.4 million times.
Since then Shimabukuro has split time between touring, recording and playing with acts as diverse as Jimmy Buffett, Bette Midler, Cyndi Lauper and Yo-Yo Ma.
Now 37, Shimabukuro called from a tour stop in New Jersey to talk about the uniqueness of the ukulele.
You play an instrument most people don’t know much about. Do you feel like an ambassador for the ukulele?
I’m definitely just a big fan of the ukulele. I just love turning people on to the instrument. I just sincerely love playing it. It doesn’t matter if I’m playing for 1,000 people or in a local coffee shop, which is where I started out.
I love trying to figure out new ways to play the instrument or to get new sounds out of it. As soon as the show is done I’m playing it again backstage. I’m playing it on the bus. It spends more time out of the case than in the case, for sure.
Coffee shops can be really loud and the ukulele doesn’t seem to be a loud instrument. How did you learn to project sound?
I was always so fascinated by rock guitar players because they could crank their instruments. I always thought that would be so cool if I could achieve that kind of volume with the ukulele. I spent a lot of time learning about different ways to amplify the ukulele not just to make it loud but give it a nice tone. I’m still trying to figure out ways to improve on that because I think tone is like the Holy Grail for musicians. You’re always searching and striving to improve.
How do describe your style of playing? Is it traditional?
I grew up listening to tons of music. I started out playing traditional Hawaiian music, but there’s definitely a lot of rock, classical and jazz influences. Even more exotic instruments like the Japanese koto (a 13-stringed instrument). A lot of music from South America. It’s just the way I feel music, not so much the technique, but definitely the feel.
What was it like playing with a full orchestra on your last album, “Grand Ukulele?”
Working with a full orchestra was amazing. What really made it special for me was that everything on this album was played live. That was cool because everything was real. Everything was played together.
You first appeared on people’s radar when you made this nice little video for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” When did you realize that clip blew up online?
It was probably two or three months after that, I started getting calls and e-mails from friends going to school. I couldn’t believe it. But it was really that video that opened all of these doors for me and essentially started a touring career.
Is that a song you feel you need to play every night?
Oh yeah, I play it every night. It’s my favorite song to play, probably because it’s the song that started it all. I’m a huge George Harrison fan and that’s probably my favorite George Harrison song.
I read in an interview where you said, “I truly believe that if everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place.” Is the ukulele the most peaceful instrument?
What I love about the instrument is that you don’t have to be a musician to play it. It’s not intimidating at all. A lot of people feel they have no musical talent so they shy away from instruments like the guitar or piano.
With the ukulele, no one ever says, “The ukulele is too hard.” I think when people experience what it’s like to create music; it just brings so much joy. There’s nothing like making music. It’s so soothing, so relaxing.
I tell people, “Playing the ukulele is like an entire yoga session in one strum.” You just play one chord and you just feel so much better. I want more people to experience that.
If you go
What: Jake Shimabukuro
When: 7 p.m. Sunday, doors open at 6 p.m.
Where: The Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway
Info: Tickets are $49 for the first five rows, $32 for all other reserved seats. Additional fees may apply. (866) 300-8300.
Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533