It’s rare for a young musician to earn comparisons to the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis. It’s even harder to find an artist who has entirely redefined an instrument by his early thirties. But Jake Shimabukuro (she-ma-boo-koo-row) has already accomplished these feats, and more, in a little over a decade of playing and recording music…on the ukulele.
Yes, the ukulele. In the hands of Shimabukuro, the traditional Hawaiian instrument of four strings and two octaves is stretched and molded into a complex and bold new musical force. On his most recent album ‘Peace Love Ukulele’ (which debuted at #1 on the Billboard World Album Chart), Jake and his “uke” effortlessly (it seems) mix jazz, rock, classical, traditional Hawaiian music, and folk, creating a sound that’s both technically masterful and emotionally powerful…and utterly unique in the music world. No less than the New York Times recently noted his “buoyant musicianship” and “brisk proficiency,” adding, “the innovation in his style stems from an embrace of restrictions: the ukulele has only four strings and a limited range. He compensates with an adaptable combination of rhythmic strumming, classical-style finger-picking and fretboard tapping.” Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam who recently released his own album of ukulele songs had this to say about Jake: “Jake is taking the instrument to a place that I can’t see anybody else catching up with him.”
For Shimabukuro, his life has always centered on the ukulele. He started playing the instrument at the age of 4, at the urging of his mother (who also played). “Everyone plays in Hawaii,” he says. “But I became obsessed with it.”
Originally raised on traditional Hawaiian music, Shimabukuro soon became entranced by the sounds of top 40 and rock. “I’d turn on the radio and try to play along to pop tunes,” he remembers.
Interestingly enough, his two biggest influences weren’t musicians. Sure, he looked to the likes of Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen for inspiration, but Shimabukuro credits Bruce Lee and Bill Cosby for creating the foundation of his art. “Bruce Lee’s philosophy on martial arts was that it was simply a form of human expression,” he says. “And he didn’t believe in sticking to one ‘style.’ He studied all forms and was open to everything. And Bill Cosby – now here was a performer who just sat in a chair with a microphone, and brought joy to millions with his stories. He connects with an audience like no other.”
Shimabukuro began his music career in earnest performing at local Honolulu venues and coffee shops. “I loved playing in those intimate coffee shops, and was very happy,” he remembers. “But when Sony Music Japan showed interest in signing me, I realized that maybe I had a chance to take it a bit furher.” Although a few well-received album releases helped the musician earn some fame in Hawaii, his career really skyrocketed when a YouTube clip of him performing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in Central Park went viral – over eight-million views and counting.
The clip certainly broadened Shimabukuro’s audience. In the years since that clip aired, Shimabukuro has performed with Bela Fleck and Flecktones, Bette Midler, Yo-Yo Ma, Cyndi Lauper, Ziggy Marley, Levon Helm, Marcus Miller, Stanley Clarke, Les Paul, Dave Koz, Chris Botti, and Jimmy Buffett. He’s played on shows like “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” “The Late Show with Conan O’Brien,” “The Today Show” and “Last Call with Carson Daly,” was a featured artist on NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” and more recently was a featured artist on Rolling Stone Live. He’s landed slots on the Monterrey and Playboy Jazz Festivals, performed at Google and the influential TED conference, and performed in front of the Queen of England in Blackpool (alongside Bette Midler). Shimabukuro also received a cameo in the Adam Sandler movie “Just Go with It,” where he also recorded a few songs for the soundtrack.
As his stature grows in the music world, Shimabukuro continues to impress and stretch boundaries with each new release. While all the tracks on ‘Peace Love Ukulele’ were originally arranged as solo ukulele pieces, he utilizes a full band for majority of the songs, adding some orchestral touches on songs like “Five Dollars Unleaded” and marching drums on “Go for Broke,” a stirring tribute to the Japanese-American soldiers who served in World War II. “So many of those soldiers were from Hawaii,” he says. “I wanted to show my appreciation for what they did – as a Japanese American, I have a better life living in this country because of the sacrifices that they made. ‘Go for broke’ was the motto of the 100th, 442nd, 1399th, and MIS.”
The track “Bring Your Adz,” a ukulele-rock tribute, showcases Shimabukuro’s lightning-fast fingers and dexterity on the ukulele. “143 (Kelly’s Song),” was inspired by the numeric pager code for “I love you.” Shimabukuro also arranges a couple of covers, including Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the only solo ukulele performance on the album.
As his career continues to blossom, Shimabukuro is also busy giving back to the island community, and using the ukulele as a tool to motivate kids to live drug-free. “I often visit schools and perform for the students, encouraging them to make good choices and stay away from drugs,” he says.
Despite the success, Jake remains humble and admittedly “awestruck” by how his love of the ukulele has propelled him to such great heights. For that, he gives full credit to the instrument he’s played with a passion since he was four years old. “If everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place,” says Shimabukuro.