Jake Shimabukuro has single-handedly popularised the ukelele
Ukulele prodigy Jake Shimabukuro is winning new respect for the diminutive instrument, writes Robin Lynam
"A JOKE I TELL AUDIENCES is that one of the great things about being a solo ukulele player is that people all over the world have such low expectations of the music," says Jake Shimabukuro, with characteristic self-deprecation. "I embrace that, but I do enjoy showing people that the ukulele is capable of so much more."
Shimabukuro has certainly succeeded in doing that. In 2006, a video of him sitting in New York's Central Park playing his solo ukulele arrangement of George Harrison's While My Guitar Gently Weeps was posted on YouTube, and went viral. At last count it had racked up close to 12 million hits.
Thanks to that performance - and Shimabukuro's subsequent global fame as a concert performer - expectations of ukulele players certainly aren't low any more. In fact, the instrument is enjoying a global resurgence in popularity.
Walk into any serious guitar shop today and you will find a large selection of ukuleles. The best of them are usually from Hawaii, but some surprisingly good ones are now made in China. Hong Kong has its own dedicated ukulele outlet in Tsim Sha Tsui, ukehk ukehk.com
This phenomenon has a lot to do with Shimabukuro. He has shown that an instrument formerly associated mostly with Hawaiian beaches, English music hall comedians, and Tiny Tim can make music with harp-like delicacy, jazzy chordal sophistication, and flat out rock 'n' roll energy - often all in the same song. He has been called the "Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele" and the comparison is fairly apt.
"I guess in the past the ukulele was always thought of as kind of a laid-back instrument," he says. "You think of somebody strumming a romantic ballad. But when I was a kid playing the ukulele, it was always very energetic. I would try to pretend I was like a rock guitar player."
Shimabukuro, 36, was born in Hawaii, and started to play at four. His first teacher was his mother, and the instrument runs in the family. His younger brother, Bruce, is a music educator who runs a ukulele school in Taiwan.
"She showed me some basic chords and I just loved it. I fell in love with the instrument and the tunes, and it became my passion. That was all I did. I just played the ukulele," he says.
"I started out just playing traditional Hawaiian tunes, and later on I ventured into different styles of music, like rock 'n' roll, pop, classical, jazz, blues, and I just studied that. The ukulele can play a lot of different styles of music," he says.
Hendrix, he says, was one of his inspirations, but he never regarded the ukulele - he never calls it a "uke" - as a step towards learning the guitar. "I didn't have a desire to play any other instrument. It was always just the ukulele," he says.
By the time the Central Park video was shot, Shimabukuro was already an established professional musician and had built a following in Hawaii and Japan.
Then everything went to another level. Overnight he was recognised globally. Concert bookings came in from around the world, as did invitations to work with established stars in several different musical genres.
He has since performed with - among others - Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Yo-Yo Ma, Cyndi Lauper, Ziggy Marley, and Jimmy Buffet and his Coral Reefer Band. Throughout all this, Shimabukuro's prime concern has been to act as an ambassador for his instrument. He insists it is easy to master - "you don't have to be a musician to play the ukulele" - and continues to take the instrument further into uncharted territory.
To do this, he has developed both an advanced virtuosic technique, and formidable skills as an arranger. He has reworked music from Queen's magnum opus Bohemian Rhapsody to classical piano pieces. All music, he believes, is playable on the ukulele.
"The nice thing about it is, I think, almost any chord can be implied. You don't need more than four notes. Even if you are playing more complex harmonies, a lot of times you can find voicings that will almost trick the ear so that you seem to be playing more than four notes," he explains.
Bohemian Rhapsody, he says, is a good example of this approach. "There is so much going on. You have tons of instrumental lines going back and forth, not to mention the stacked vocal harmonies. There is so much complexity in that song, but a lot of that can be expressed with just those four strings.
"Trying to come up with the arrangement was a lot of fun. It's nothing like the original, as it strips the song down to its bare minimum," he says.
" Bohemian Rhapsody and the solo ukulele are like two opposite extremes in music. But a lot of the harmonies can be expressed with four notes, without sacrificing the feeling of the song."
Shimabukuro is not getting these advanced musical results from the kind of instrument George Formby played on Leaning on a Lamp Post, or Tiny Tim on Tiptoe Through the Tulips. Formby played a ukulele-banjo or "banjolele", and Tiny Tim a soprano instrument.
Shimabukuro plays a more versatile tenor ukulele with the regular four strings, but a longer neck and a three octave range. It covers a bit of the register of a regular guitar - one reason, perhaps, why his flamenco-derived percussive strumming sounds so effective on it.
His current album, Grand Ukulele (2012), was produced by Alan Parsons, and recorded live with a rock rhythm section and a 29-piece orchestra. Parsons engineered the last two Beatles albums; George Harrison was an enthusiastic ukulele player, as is Paul McCartney.
Shimabukuro has come a long way from sitting alone with his instrument in Central Park, but still loves playing solo.
"I love playing solo because then everybody can hear everything that the ukulele is doing. I love seeing it grow in popularity and watching people discover how versatile it is," he says.
Jake Shimabukuro, June 30, 8pm, Sha Tin Town Hall Auditorium, HK$280-HK$580, Urbtix. Part of the 2013 Jazz World Live Series. Inquiries: 2523 8292