By Wayne Harada
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.”
ISLAND SOUNDS -- CD Review:
“Peace Love Ukulele” (Hitchhike Records)
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.