Compared to the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis, 36-year-old ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro has traveled far and wide from his hometown of Honolulu showcasing his unique ability to play the less than popular instrument. In fact, he considers the ukulele “the underdog of all instruments.”
“It’s such a simple instrument to play,” he explains from New York City via phone. “Sometimes people think you can only play simple music on a ukulele. I like to joke around at my shows and say one of the best things about being a ukulele player is people have such low expectations of the music [laughs]. That’s very true. When you think of the ukulele, you think ‘oh yeah, it’s kind of cute.’ It’s not quite a serious instrument.
“But it’s very likeable,” he continues. “People love the instrument. They want to see it do well. It doesn’t always, but you kind of root for it all the time. That’s what I love about it. It’s everybody’s instrument. You don’t have to be a musician to play the ukulele.”
More or less, Shimabukuro plays the miniature version of a guitar. He does it with such speed and intricacy it’s almost unreal. His mother gave him his first ukulele at age 4 and encouraged him to play. Since then, Shimabukuro has earned praise from notable artists such as Eddie Vedder, Perez Hilton and Dr. Sanjay Gupta, while also earning himself some time to play in front of the Queen of England.
In 2011, the young prodigy released Peace, Love, Ukulele, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard World Charts. He won the 2012 Na Hoku Hanohano Award for Instrumental Album of the year shortly after its release. That album also earned him the Na Hoku Hanohano award for Favorite Entertainer of the Year. As his accolades accumulated and his music was heard by more and more of the public, it eventually caught the attention of Alan Parsons, famed producer of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the Beatles’ Abbey Road.
“I still can’t believe I got to work with him,” he beams. “He’s one of my heroes. Being able to be in the studio with him was such an honor. That was another inspirational experience. Being with him, I learned so much. He’s a wonderful guy and a genius in the studio. I was totally blown away. He came to a couple of my shows and one day we went out to dinner and he just casually mentioned in the middle of our meal that he would love to produce my next record. I nearly fell out of my chair.”
Parsons produced Shimabukuro’s next effort, 2012’s Grand Ukulele. It features a 29-piece orchestra and rhythm section with solo sections from the ukulele. The album was recorded with no over-dubbing so it had to be just right. It didn’t quite make it to No. 1, but got close and made it to No. 2 on the Billboard World Music Chart. Shimabukuro talks about the magic created when so many musicians come together to seize the moment and record, which is evident throughout his catalog. It’s clear he’s not only passionate about the ukulele, but about all music, as well.
“If I had all the time in the world, I would learn every single song I’ve ever heard in my life. I love music,” he says matter-of-factly. “Unfortunately, there is not enough time to learn every song. That’s the downside. There’s so much to learn and not enough time. The more you learn, the more you realize how much more there is to learn. That’s the beauty of it. You have to keep that student of music attitude and be that little grasshopper all the time. You have to keep that desire to learn and the curiosity so you can be inspired to play. Everything inspires me. You can find inspiration under a rock. It’s all around and it’s all the time.”
Jake Shimabukuro, Aug. 11, at Witherspoon Hall, Joslyn Art Museum, 2200 Dodge St., 7 p.m. Tickets are $35. Visit www.joslyn.org for more information.