The ukulele typically calls to mind grass skirts, flowered leis and dark-haired men and women singing peppy Hawaiian songs. Some of that vision lingers in ukulele artist Jake Shimabukuro’s work; the rest, he’s transformed well past tradition and into rarely traveled waters.
Part of his approach comes from his belief that he’s a terrible singer. Most who play the ukulele also sing. To make the songs recognizable without a vocal aspect, Shimabukuro added the melody into the strummed song.
Shimabukuro treads into all genres - classical, jazz, blues, rock and roll, pop, flamenco - and writes some of his own pieces.
This all started when he was 4, when his mother started to teach him.
“It’s a very normal thing for all the kids to play,” he said.
Once his mother showed him some of the basic chords, he couldn’t put the instrument down.
“It’s been my passion ever since,” he said.
From then on he mostly played by ear, taking a few courses in Hawaii. But because of his singing ability - or apparent lack thereof - he had to also learn how to incorporate the vocal line.
“That’s the style I play now,” he said. “Everything I do now is completely instrumental because I wouldn’t dare open my mouth.”
Shimabukuro has stuck with the instrument because he feels the power of the ukulele has yet to be fully unleashed.
“I just felt that there was a lot to be discovered in the instrument,” he said. “It’s a very young instrument. It’s only really been around for a little over a hundred years.”
Shimabukuro said Hawaiian Natives became interested in an instrument the Portugese immigrants brought with them in 1879 - a cavaquinho - and developed a similar instrument of their own.
“I just like to have fun,” Shimabukuro said. “I didn’t think I was going to be a great ukulele player or anything like that.”
What pushed him into the limelight was an interview he participated in for a local Hawaiian television station. The hosts asked him a few questions and then asked him to perform a song. He chose George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
This was about six years ago, when YouTube was fresh out of the digital pipeline.
“It went viral,” Shimabukuro said. “That’s what started all of this for me.”
It got 11 million views.
After it went viral he started getting calls from other artists and bands, and has been able to collaborate with people like Yo-Yo Ma, Bette Midler, Ziggy Marley and many others. Two years ago he was also invited to play for Queen Elizabeth in England.
“I never dreamed that all of these things would be happening,” he said. “It’s been quite the ride.”
Shimabukuro said he has also been surprised and pleased by the spread of the instrument’s popularity outside of Hawaii. Pearl Jam front-man Eddie Vedder released a ukulele album in 2011, country-pop singer Taylor Swift incorporates the instrument in her music, Train’s 2009 hit “Hey Soul Sister” included the ukulele, and Paul McCartney – inspired by fellow Beatle and devoted uke fan Harrison – sometimes plays one. During the Christmas season Apple featured a commercial of a little girl singing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” while strumming a ukulele.
“It just really blows me away,” Shimabukuro said. “...I just want the ukulele to become a mainstream instrument like the guitar or the piano or the saxophone. For me in the future, I hope there are people who pick up the instrument and excel in a specific genre. So in the future we have the Yo-Yo Ma of the ukulele or the Miles Davis of the ukulele or the BB King of the ukulele. That’s what I’m hoping for. I don’t think we’re far from that. I’ve been seeing a lot of artists picking up the ukulele and doing amazing things with it. I think there’s a great future for the instrument.”
Shimabukuro will be bringing his brand of ukulele music to Juneau on Feb. 11. He plays at 7:30 p.m. at Juneau-Douglas High School, as hosted by Juneau Jazz & Classics.
Shimabukuro will be playing a mix of songs, including many from his new album, “Grand Ukulele.”
He’s particularly excited about his new album because it was produced by Alan Parsons, one of his great heroes.
He’ll be playing in Anchorage the night before at 7:30 p.m. at the Atwood Concert Hall - Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.