Uke kidding me?
October 15, 2013
The saxophone, Jake Shimabukuro points out, has some severe limitations.
"It only plays one note at a time. You can never express a full chord," he said. "You wouldn't be able to accompany a singer with a saxophone like a rhythm section can."
Still, it's likely that Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Branford Marsalis haven't had to spend much time addressing the limitations of the sax. But when asked about the constraints of the instrument he plays, Shimabukuro seems to have given much consideration to the topic. Something about the ukulele prompts the subject of obstacles and limitations in a way that the saxophone — and piano, mandolin, drums, oboe, etc. — does not.
"Oh yeah, there are tons of limitations," Shimabukuro, an easygoing 36-year-old, said from his home in Honolulu. "But one of the things that encouraged me was seeing that all instruments have limitations. I saw the limitations of the saxophone and went, 'OK, that's cool — ukulele isn't as limiting as I thought it was. And then you have to learn to work around them. You try to creatively figure out how to get around those limitations, those obstacles. That's what makes it fun."
Much of the rest of the world began seeing how the bounds of the ukulele could be expanded in 2006, when Shimabukuro posted a video titled "Ukulele Weeps" on YouTube. The video, of Shimabukuro playing an unaccompanied, instrumental version of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" in the Strawberry Fields section of New York's Central Park, is a display of most everything that can be done on the four strings of the small-bodied ukulele. Shimabukuro's take begins with melody and harmony, elegant chord voicings and creative playing with Harrison's tune. Gradually the tempo picks up, with Shimabukuro focusing on strummed chords. He then moves into shredder mode, showing the speed and dexterity of a guitarist like Steve Vai before gracefully moving into a gentle coda. The video ends with Shimabukuro giving a humble nod. "Ukulele Weeps" has been viewed more than 12 million times.
What impresses Shimabukuro is that apparently a lot of those viewers were people within the music industry.
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"So many music producers and musicians and people in music saw it, so immediately I got opportunities to open for other bands, record with other artists," said Shimabukuro, who has recorded with Yo-Yo Ma, Bela Fleck and Ziggy Marley and toured with Jimmy Buffett. "I was very fortunate — people liked having me open for them because it was so simple. No band, no gear, just my ukulele and one microphone. I was a cheap opening act."
On his current tour, Shimabukuro is the headlining act, playing mostly in theaters from Salt Lake City to the Jersey shore to Washington, D.C. Though he sometimes is accompanied by a rhythm section, and on rare occasion teams with an orchestra, this tour has him in solo mode. The tour stops at Belly Up on Saturday, when Shimabukuro makes his Aspen debut.
In Honolulu, where Shimabukuro grew up, there is nothing unusual about gravitating toward the ukulele; it's about as natural as a Seattle youngster in the late '80s wanting to get an electric guitar — they're everywhere.
"It was invented here. Everyone plays it," Shimabukuro said.
His mother was a singer who accompanied herself on ukulele. In fourth and fifth grades, Shimabukuro played the instrument in school along with the rest of his classmates.
"It's part of the curriculum. We had jam sessions," he said.
He took it seriously, playing ukulele in the school's concert and marching bands.
"It was my first and only instrument. I just never stopped strumming it, never gravitated to another instrument. I think I was too lazy to approach any other instrument. And I wanted to keep growing with the ukulele."
Shimabukuro studied music at a community college in Honolulu and then for a semester at the University of Hawaii. Among his inspirations were Eddie Kamae, of the Sons of Hawaii, and jazz player Lyle Ritz, who took the ukulele outside its usual bounds, and he also took notice of artists such as Eddie Vedder, Train, Taylor Swift and George Harrison, who incorporated ukulele into their music.
About a decade ago, Shimabukuro began traveling, especially to Japan, where there is a deep fascination for Hawaiian culture — music, hula dancing, ukulele. Only when he began playing outside Hawaii did he see that the ukulele was not universally held in the highest regard.
"It was interesting for me to discover how people saw the ukulele," Shimabukuro said. "Not till I traveled did I realize people are only aware of it through people like Tiny Tim — 'Tiptoe Through the Tulips' — and Elvis Presley, who played ukulele in his movies. In Hawaii, a lot of very respected traditional artists played it, even if they only strummed a few chords."
To hear Shimabukuro tell it, he has bought into the low expectations that might come with playing a high-pitched, four-string instrument most closely associated with the novelty song "Tiptoe Through the Tulips."
"One of the things I love about ukulele is you don't have to take it too seriously," he said. "It's not like the piano or violin where you have to practice it four to five hours a day, although I would play it seven hours a day — it was like going to the park and playing basketball. My parents had to take it away from me."
Shimabukuro still embodies the playful side of the ukulele. His latest album ends with a brief take on the "Family Guy" theme song. But he also sends signals that he wants to elevate the serious side of the instrument: The "Family Guy" piece isn't listed on the album; it's a hidden track. The album is titled "Grand Ukulele" and features a black-and-white photo of Shimabukuro looking coolly serious against a backdrop of a rocky Hawaiian landscape.
Mostly, Shimabukuro has shown his intentions for the ukulele through his music. He has released more than a dozen albums, first as a member of the trio Pure Heart and then under his own name. The range of his accomplishments is wide: tracks that fit into the contemporary string music made by virtuosos like Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer; covers of songs by the Beatles, Leonard Cohen and Cyndi Lauper; and moments that veer toward rock 'n' roll, pop or classical.
"I usually just tell people, 'If you can hum the melody, you can find those notes on ukulele,'" he said. "As far as arranging or capturing a spirit, that's not so easy on ukulele."
Shimabukuro probably stretched the arranging potential to its maximum with a version of Queen's grand suite "Bohemian Rhapsody," which appears on his 2001 album "Peace, Love, Ukulele." (The album features two versions — a live one and a studio recording.)
"That was challenging, to capture all that on four strings," he said. "It's just accepting that I can't duplicate what's on their recording, but I can creatively pick and choose the parts I feel are important in the tune.
"It's only four strings. I have to choose my notes wisely. Sometimes I wish I had a fifth string or a sixth or seventh. But there's a nice outcome, a simplified, bare-bones interpretation of a beautiful piece of music. That's the bottom line — if you can make something sound good and complete on ukulele, that's a pretty good song."
"Grand Ukulele," released a year ago and which reached No. 2 on Billboard's world music charts, represents another step forward. The album pairs Shimabukuro and his ukulele with Alan Parsons, best known as a producer of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" and several late-era Beatles albums, projects marked by their dense sonic experimentations.
"I thought we'd go record all the ukulele stuff and then do a lot of overdubs, add all those things," Shimabukuro said. "And he did the opposite — he told me he wanted to do everything live. His work with the Beatles, 'Dark Side of the Moon' — the studio, that's his thing."
Parsons took the concept to the extreme, even having Shimabukuro record live with an orchestra.
"It was refreshing to record live with an orchestra. That's how Frank Sinatra used to do it, sing live with an orchestra. But now that is rare."
"Grand Ukulele," whose tracks range from Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" to "Over the Rainbow" to the chugging, original "More Ukulele," also features drummer Simon Phillips, who has toured with The Who, and bassist Randy Tico. For Shimabukuro, just being in the presence of such players was a rare opportunity.
"That was the whole thing for me. Having an album was the icing on the cake," he said. "These musicians were the best of the best, and I wanted to see if I could run with these guys. I just told myself, 'Go into this project. Be a sponge. Learn as much as I can. Be open.' I knew Alan Parsons would throw all kinds of things at me, so I went with the attitude of taking it all in."
In a way, Shimabukuro knew he couldn't fail. After all, it's only a ukulele he's playing.
"One of the best things about playing ukulele is everyone has such low expectations," he said.
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