Say 'ukulele,' you've got to say 'Shimabukuro'

Published: Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 8AANDE

In the life of ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro, one YouTube video has made a world of difference.

And it has made a difference to the modern ukulele, too.

That video is Shimabukuro's seemingly offhand but virtuoso performance of his arrangement of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

The video was recorded seven years ago in New York City's Central Park for a local television program. At the time, Shimabukuro saw the video as nothing more than a moment caught on tape, to be broadcast to a small audience, and largely forgotten.

Then YouTube fully came of age.

The video of him was copied and uploaded thousands of times.

"At the time, I didn't even know what YouTube was. My friends told me the video was circulating," said the 35-year-old Shimabukuro, via phone from his home in Hawaii. "Then I went online and there it was. I couldn't believe it."

It took only two months for the video to garner more than a million views; today that video has tallied nearly 11 million of them.

"At the time my name was not even on the video yet," said Shimabukuro. "Instead, the videos had titles like 'Asian ukulele player shreds.' There were, like, 20 different video clips of the same clip circulating."

Soon his name bled into the title, and the video made Shimabukuro a familiar name.

Today, Shimabukuro is a touring artist with several recordings under his belt. On Thursday, he will bring his virtuoso talent to Sacramento City College's recently christened Performing Arts Center.

Some consider his "Gently Weeps" video ground zero in the evolution of the modern ukulele.

"A lot of people say the video was the match that lit the fire," said John Sandoval who runs a Saturday ukulele clinic at Nicholson's Music in Folsom, which now boasts more than 30 participants.

"Up until that point the ukulele was not associated with contemporary music, at least not mainstream music that people are familiar with," Sandoval said.

Since then, artists including Eddie Vedder, Zooey Deschanel and Taylor Swift have also popularized the instrument.

"This is not just a passing fad," Sandoval said.

That fact is reinforced by booming ukulele sales. At Nicholson's, it is not unusual for Sandoval to sell three a day. Internationally, ukulele sales jumped 16 percent last year, according to the National Association of Music Merchants. In a ripple effect, instrument makers and music publishing companies are getting on the bandwagon and increasing the number of products devoted to the ukulele.

"After the video went viral a lot of artists and industry people started contacting me," Shimabukuro said. His sideline turned into a career.

Soon he was touring with Jimmy Buffet – a touring relationship that lasted three years. He also was invited to record with artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Ziggy Marley and Bette Midler.

"When I see people picking up the ukulele and playing it, I get excited – especially when I see people like Eddie Vedder and Paul McCartney taking it up," he said. "It's an exciting time for the instrument, and it is thrilling for me to see that and hear the ukulele everywhere."

Shimabukuro was born in Honolulu and began playing the ukulele at age 4. His mother was his first teacher. The fact that he was strumming three chords on the instrument at an early age is nothing out of the ordinary for a Hawaiian.

"Pretty much all the kids in Hawaii play the ukulele at some point in their life," said Shimabukuro. "The instrument is a big part of our culture. You know how all kids learn to play recorder in elementary school? In Hawaii we learn how to play the ukulele."

During his middle school and high school years Shimabukuro played drums and percussion in marching band, and timpani in concert band.

"A lot of my strumming style comes from the drumming I did in marching band … especially drum line."

At the time he was also performing the ukulele at coffee shops, weddings and birthday parties as part of a band whose repertoire veered toward traditional and contemporary Hawaiian music."It was really a hobby. We were having fun with it," he said.

He also was deeply influenced by martial artist Bruce Lee's approach to his craft."He preached the idea of not just having one style, but having many styles," said Shimabukuro.

"That was my approach to music, the idea of embracing all styles," said Shimabukuro. "For me that was the key to the instrument, because the ukulele is really a simple instrument – with only four strings and two octaves – and a lot of times you really have to think out of the box to do different things with it."

Shimabukuro was also influenced by guitarists Eddie Van Halen, Pat Metheny, and in particular flamenco guitarist Carlos Montoya.

From 1999 to 2004, he was enmeshed in a period when he performed and recorded strictly on the electric ukulele.

"I had a 60-pound pedal board. I had every pedal effect on there: wah-wah, overdrive, everything."

He outgrew that phase in 2005 when he decided to perform solo on the acoustic ukulele. He said the switch allowed his ukulele technique to blossom. It was then Shimabukuro wrote his arrangement of "My Guitar Gently Weeps." The first time he played the arrangement solo was on the YouTube video.

Now that he has a booming career and world status, does Shimabukuro see a through-line for the evolution of the modern ukulele?

"In the future there will be the Pat Methenys or the Yo-Yo Mas of the ukulele. That is what I am excited about," he said. "There are so many young people taking up the ukulele, and they're the ones that are going to take it to the next level."


JAKE SHIMABUKURO

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: Performing Arts Center, Sacramento City College, 3835 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento

Tickets: $35 advance; $40

Information: (877) 435-9849; www.scc.losrios.edu

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Edward Ortiz



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