Jakes Shimabukuro revolutionizes ukulele, plays Wilkes-Barre’s Kirby Center
With virtuosic playing and musical ambassadorship, Jake Shimabukuro has revolutionized the most traditional and simple of instruments, the ukulele, and brought its sounds to a wider audience than they had ever reached before.
The instrument (pronounced oo-koo-lay-lay) is a small guitar-like member of the lute family, and it originated in Hawaii as an adaptation of the machete, an instrument brought to the islands by Portuguese immigrants in 1879.
Hawaii, then an independent nation, adopted the ukulele as its national instrument after the patronage of musician, composer and monarch King David Kalakaua. The gentle sounding string instrument became a centerpiece of traditional Hawaiian music.
Shimabukuro, who performs at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 18 at the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, takes that tradition and honors it while expanding on it, especially in his most recent release “Nashville Sessions.”
The musician, who works elements of jazz, blues, rock ‘n’ roll and funk into his albums, said he enjoys turning people on to an instrument they knew little about or thought was one dimensional.
“When you see other people that come to a show, because they’re not very familiar with the ukulele, but they’re curious, when you see those people come to the show and see them walk away like, ‘Oh my gosh, I was not expecting that,’ it makes you feel good,” Shimabukuro said.
The 40-year-old, who was first handed a ukulele by his mother, who also played, was inspired by great Hawaiian players like Eddie Kamae and Ohta-San but also picked up style points from guitar players, violinists, piano players, vocalists and accomplished artists of other disciplines.
“I always mention people like Michael Jordan and Bruce Lee,” Shimabukuro said. “Those guys really inspired me. It’s a mental focus they have that pushes them to learn and keep getting better. Every chance I get to work with new musicians, producers, engineers or meet people that have a different background but similar passion, I jump on it. That’s what fuels me. That’s my education.”
Shimabukuro became popular in Hawaii as part of the group Pure Heart, and was signed to Sony Japan’s Epic Records as a solo artist in 2001. He gained traction by bringing a rock sensibility to traditional styles of playing the ‘uke’ and showcasing his blinding dexterity.
He became an internet sensation in 2005 when a video of him covering The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral on YouTube, and he turned heads again in 2010 with a performance of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” at TED2010.
“Nashville Sessions,” Shimabukuro’s first all original album, was recorded in Tennessee’s “Music City” with accomplished session players Nolan Verner (bass) and Evan Hutchings (drums) and features the ukulele in its distorted and overdriven electric glory more than it caters to the instrument’s natural, acoustic sound.
“When we went into the studio, we weren’t expecting to make a record,” he said. “It was just an experimental thing. We were going to just jam for six days and see what would come out of it. We had no idea by the end of the sixth day we’d have 13 tracks.”
Tracks like “Kiluea,” Shimabukuro said came organically from playing in a chosen key, and “6/8” was written in two parts and approached as a jam band.
“A lot of my heroes were guys like (Jimi) Hendrix and Jeff Beck,” Shimabukuro said. “I think this is the first time I’ve been able to explore that side of myself, just push it. I hope people dig it.”
Shimabukuro’s Kirby Center performance puts him in front of a smaller crowd than he’s played for at recent festivals, but he enjoys smaller settings, he said.
“I love intimate venues,” he said. “I started out playing in coffee shops where I didn’t even need an amplifier, because the place was so small. When you find that special venue where everybody feels connected, it’s something to cherish.”
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or Twitter @TLArts
IF YOU GO
Who: Jake Shimabukuro
Where: F.M. Kirby Center, 71 Public Square, Wilkes-Barre
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 18
Additional information: Tickets start at $29.50 and are available at the Kirby Center box office, online at kirbycenter.org and by phone at 570-826-1100.