Show and Tell Hawai'i

It’s ‘Time’ to applaud uke virtuoso Shimabukuro

January 23rd, 2011

Jake Shimabukuro continues to evolve as the Hawaii music magnet of the moment.
He’s getting the kind of national buzz worthy of a mainstream wonder. Shimabukuro is pictured and hailed in the current Time magazine (Jan. 31) and credited, along with the late Israel “Bruddah Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole, as a champion for the growing appeal and lingering adoration of the ukulele.
Further, ex-Islander Nate Chinen (son of onetime performing duo Teddy and Nanci Tanaka), is a music critic with The New York Times, and said in a review of Shimabukuro performing at Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg last week:“Mr. Shimabukuro, who hails from Hawaii — where his chosen instrument is neither a conversation piece nor a punch line — comes by his fame with buoyant musicianship and brisk proficiency. The innovation in his style stems from an embrace of restrictions: the ukulele has only four strings and a limited range. He compensates with an adaptable combination of rhythmic strumming, classical-style finger-picking and fretboard tapping.”
Mighty praise indeed. Shimabukuro in both Time and The Times. The publicity means more ammo for the ukulele’s popularity.
And folks are not just buying his new “Peace Love Ukulele” CD, which is No. 1 on the Billboard World Music Chart (see review, below).
Increasingly, you see and hear the uke in unexpected places.
Consider: James Franco strummed the uke to woo Julia Roberts in last year’s “Eat Pray Love.” In the new Oscar-buzz film “Blue Valentine,” Ryan Gosling also strums to attract Michelle Williams.
Train’s “Hey Soul Sister” — one of last year’s hits, and background staple for TV Samsung’s commercial — has that happy, sunny disposition because of ukulele accompaniment.
You’ve seen and heard it in a number of TV shows the past few years, from “Glee” to “American Idol,” from “House” to “Modern Family,” from “ER” to “Hawaii Five-0.” (A thought: shouldn’t Kono be a sometimes strummer — something that would complement her surfing passion — while not in pursuit of no-gooders?)
Years ago, local uke wizard Herb Ohta, aka Ohta-san, scored a national hit — elevating the modest four-string instrument into a solo entity — with his “Song for Anna.”
A generation later, this Ohta signature might have been an early inspiration for Shimabukuro to focus on the simple charm and voice of the instrument first introduced in the Islands by Portuguese immigrants in the 19th century.
It was Shimabukuro’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” going viral on YouTube, and seen and heard by more than seven million, that provided the fuel and shaped the fame for the 34-year-old Shimabukuro. No wonder Farmers insurance tapped him to be the face, the sound and the voice of their current TV campaign.
Of course, the Bruddah Iz “Over the Rainbow,” with the ooo-ooos and uke-playing, has been a steady source for more than a decade to put Hawaii and the ukulele in the spotlight, in films, on the charts, and in commercials.
Certainly, the ukulele’s not new. Depending on your age, your first contact locally might have been Roy Sakuma, who has studios that have taught legions of strummers young and old alike.
Or maybe it was Tiny Tim, tip-toeing to the charts, with his kitschy “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips.”
Or Arthur Godfrey, who strummed it on TV. Or Poncie Ponce, who played uke on the old “Hawaiian Eye.”
Eddie Kamae has cradled an ukulele for decades; Peter Moon played a mean uke when he wasn’t guitar-strumming. Ditto, the late Moe Keale.
Its size and portability make the uke a natural companion for those with musical inclinations.
George Harrison, the late Beatles member, played it and was a fan of the instrument; he even sneak-peeked at young uke players at one of Sakuma’s annual Ukulele Festivals at Kapiolani Park Bandstand.
Elvis Presley played the uke in films. Eddie Vedder and Peter Townshend have featured the uke in concerts.
Even non-musicians like actor Adam Sandler are uke fans. And, according to Time, film critic Roger Ebert said in a tweet that his revolution was to “learn to play the ukulele.”
Shimabukuro now has been the face and sound of this movement. And he’s liberally quoted, and has a decal sticker that sums up his mission: “If everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place.”

“Peace Love Ukulele” (Hitchhike Records)
Jake Shimabukuro
Rating: 4 stars

Jake Shimabukuro’s chart-topper is a very personal, state-of-his-art sampler, reflecting who he is and where he is in life. Nine of the 12 songs are his originals.
The opening track, “143 (Kelly’s Song),” typifies his status: The title refers to his pager code number for his fiancée, who is a Queen’s Medical Center OBGYN (Dr. Kelly Yamamoto) — a sweet love song with both Asian and pop riffs, as his fingers (and heart) do the talking. Nice pulse here, with both intimacy and invention in technique and temperament.

“Boy Meets Girl” also sounds autobiographical, with endearing gentleness; music to cuddle by.
Then there’s “Ukulele Bros,” a composition by his real-life uke-brother Bruce, which is an expressive anthem for playful filial harmony.
For contrast, “Pianoforte” adopts a classical posture with subtle strumming that might take you back to Bach, one of the original longhairs.
I love the implications of “Five Dollars Unleaded,” which has a drip-dripping element and pop template, of pumping gasoline with pricey payouts. There’s a segment of the tune where you can imagine the numbers dancing wildly, higher and higher, to the $5 level — which someday might be a reality for all.
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” appearing twice here (as an acoustic studio piece, as well as a live-in-concert version), respects and redirects the Freddie Mercury creation from a classics-rock powerhouse by Queen to a melodic recreation demonstrating Shimabukuro is king of his domain of ukemanship.
“Go for Broke,” with a military cadence, is his touching tribute to the celebrated and much decorated World War II 100 Battalion 442nd Infantry Regimental combat team; it’s a flashback to his past, when, as a kid, he frequented the veterans’ group meeting hall near his elementary school.
Peace. Love. Ukulele. You’ll find lots of each here.

One Response to “It’s ‘Time’ to applaud uke virtuoso Shimabukuro”

  1. Moke Young:

    Aloha & Mahalo's for another great article.

    Many of my friends & acquaintances surely enjoy the picking speed, clarity & song selections written by great artists & that is what hit's home for many outside Hawai'i whom I've spoken to regarding Jake including Jimmy Buffett yet when the big man's (IZ) voice is in unicen with the happy sound of a well played Ukulele, now the magic begins because that voice is enchanting & playing in certain keys like "A," the sound is enhanced & the listening experience can become magical. It has tones that a guitar can't match & six or eight strings make it brighter.

    I wished that Jake & others could try singing too taking their game to the highest level! His website, "Music is Good Medicine" is what excites me! There's nothing like it & a way for youngsters to ultimately connect to the spiritual world through music & a way to maintain balance & center the body's energy centers.

    When Ledward Kaapana jumps on a Ukulele watch out!

    Speed & precision performing tunes with many chord changes are great yet the sounds of the Ukulele with a deep voice will slither elusively into ones heart & soul allowing their spirits to soar! Fugetaboutit! That is the hook that allows so many to connect with the music of IZ instantaneously that helps to induce a loving feeling of Aloha!

    The world needs Aloha in the worse way!

    Personally, I'd like to see more Ukulele performers play & sing Hawaiian songs too for the sake of preservation as the Ukulele always accompanied Hula dancers of the past.

    I like how King Kalakaua popularized the Ukulele & how it became our national instrument that is extremely portable compared to the field.

    Working in the surfing industry, we've sold a boat loads of disfunctional Ukulele's last year to parents for young kids whom just are amazed sometimes with the cute & portable nature of a well decorated toy and even when I tell them it won't stay tuned or the fact that you can find a functional Ukulele for a competitive price today. We had Blue & Red Hibiscus patterened ones & others with a happy faces along with peace & shaka signs that are popular & inexpensive. Those sales definitely help promote the Ukulele.

    Tiny Tim's playing was sort of pro & con; thanking IZ for breaking out & into the worldy scene. My hat's off to George Harrison & this awesome Ukulele player & singer:

    Many oldtimers whom visited Hawai'i in the past surely connect with the Ukulele too.

    There are very few Ukulele instructors abroad in my area & it may be something the many Hula Halau's abroad could offer if they don't already.

    Someday when I have time & resources, I am hoping to use the Ukulele for music therapy helping special needs kids but for now I feel that the greatest venue for playing the Ukulele & singing is a the waters edge down at the beach with an awesome camp fire on a clear & moonlit summer evening with the sound of small surf crashing on the shore kinda like playing the song Kainoa.

    God bless the music of Israel Kamakawiwoole. I play it a lot & most folks settle in quickly & have a change in emotions from OK to spectacular.

    My deepest condolences to the Ohana of Uncle Boogie Kalama, an awesome musician & artist who was a man of the land & sea. He too was an awesome example playing the Ukulele, Singing & producing compositions. He spent quality time too with Buffy St. Marie & I can only imagine the music that came from those two back in the day.

    Tribute to Braddah Boogie by waterman Peter Pope Kahapea:

    Star of Gladness written by George "Boogie" Kalama:

    All of the true Hawaiian watermen could play the Ukulele, Sing & engage in cheerful fellowship knowing that Hawai'i is the worlds center for fellowship & the Ukulele right in the middle as it should; like a voyaging canoe the Ukulele is symbolic of love & our Hawaiian culture.

    The late Uncle Moe Keale was one of my favorite Ukulele player & singer along with my Uncle Ellis Kanekoa & Auntie Helen Kanekoa whom played & sung with lot's of Aloha making so many feel good.

    Mahalo's for a great subject & article.

    Keep up the awesome works.

    Malama Kou Kino,

    Moke Young

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