Interview: Jake Shimabukuro, the maestro

Island Packet — The thing about viral video is that it can make you a star while you’re not even looking.

Jake Shimabukuro, a ukulele whiz kid from Hawaii, was going about his daily business two years ago, when over the course of a week he began getting a unusual number of e-mails from friends and family.

“Like 30 in a week,” he said, “All saying, ‘Hey, did you know about this video clip of you going around on the Internet?’ ”

Generally speaking, this is not something you want to hear. Ever.



But in Shimabukuro’s case, the clip in question was his performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which by then was well on its way to becoming a YouTube sensation that helped secure his position as quite possibly the country’s biggest ukulele virtuoso. “To this day I don’t know how it got on the Internet. But I’m not complaining — it’s been a great way to introduce people to my music, and I’m a big fan now of those sites because they’ve got some amazing musicians on there.”

Shimabukuro says this all with the effortlessly chilled, musical cadence you’d expect from a Hawaiian native, one whose life has been music since the age of 4. Now 30, and thanks to his effortless virtuosity, some luck and a the nation’s lively army of Parrotheads, Shimabukuro has visited almost as many destinations as his video, and will see plenty more on a solo tour that brings him to Jacksonville, Fla., on Wednesday.

The tour is Shimabukuro’s first solo jaunt in a while. He’s spent the past two years visiting various latitudes with Jimmy Buffett, who tapped him to add a little authentic island vibe to his Coral Reefer Band (and open each show with a brilliant uke-based take on “The Star-Spangled Banner”). The two met, rather satisfyingly, at a surf shop.

“I was scheduled to do a radio show in Waikiki, and apparently a few hours before Jimmy was in. So when I walked in, the manager said, ‘Hey, you’re not gonna believe this, but Jimmy Buffett left a note for you,” Shimabukuro said.

The note asked Shimabukuro to not only come to Buffett’s show in Hawaii, but to sit in as well. “Soundcheck was the first time I met him, and he explained what he wanted to do,” Shimabukuro said. “I guess he liked it, because he invited me to tour with him for the next couple of years.” Shimabukuro added that he’ll appear with Buffett on a handful of dates this year as well.

The Buffett connection manifested itself also in Shimabukuro’s latest record, “Gently Weeps” (which includes a studio version of the Beatles cover). It was produced in Nashville by Coral Reefer guitarist/vocalist Mac McAnally, who urged Shimabukuro to strip away his rhythm section and extra instrumentation, and record what is in essence a solo album. “I was like, ‘What do you mean, solo?’ I guess I always feared (recording by myself), but he was really encouraging, and said it would be a good way to introduce the instrument to people and play up its subtleties.”

Recording in this manner also helped Shimabukuro to serve as an ambassador, both for his birthplace — he’s active in Hawaii-based outreach and civics programs — but for the ukulele as an instrument. Shimabukuro said it wasn’t until high school that he started playing around with the instrument’s potential, coming up with his own techniques. “I found I could execute these (rock and jazz) pieces in a way that didn’t sound corny. Sometimes (the uke) will have a certain sound that people will hear and say, like, ‘Oh, that’s cute, playing a rock tune on the ukulele.’ I wanted to go beyond that. If I’m playing a jazz fusion piece or a rock tune, I want it to come across like, “Oh, that’s a really unique arrangement, I’ve never heard that piece played that way before.’ ”

About Jeff Vrabel

My writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post, the official, Indianapolis Monthly, Billboard, Modern Bride and more. View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

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