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World Music Features

Jake Shimabukuro

By Jeff Tamarkin
Published October 16, 2005

Jake Shimabukuro views the ukulele as an “untapped source of music with unlimited potential,” and he’s continued to experiment with its sonic reach. He's been compared to everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Eddie Van Halen.

At first, watching his fingers fly over the frets, you might think you’ve been tricked. The sound you are hearing should not be coming from the instrument in the musician’s hands. This instrument, you tell yourself, is a toy, a joke, something used by old-time comedians to punctuate their little ditties or by guys decked in leis and loud Hawaiian shirts, plucking along while they chant in some unfathomable Pacific dialect.

            But no, it’s not sleight of hand at work here: Jake Shimabukuro really is tearing it up on a ukulele. In fact, for some time now he’s been redefining the possibilities of the little, four-stringed, two octave instrument. We’re talkin’ serious ukulele here: Shimabukuro’s chops have been compared to everyone from Hendrix to Van Halen, but you could just as easily drop him into a steaming jazz combo, a gritty blues band or a symphony orchestra. With his axe amplified and backed by a four-piece band, Shimabukuro, on his Play Ukulele Loud DVD, brings to mind string wizards in the class of jazz greats Pat Metheny, George Benson and John Scofield. Solo acoustic he’s no less captivating and animated—especially when he decides to play fast.

            Although he’s covered music by Paganini, Bacharach-David, Sting, Chick Corea and George Harrison on his CDs, it’s Shimabukuro’s original compositions that demonstrate the range of his ideas and abilities most impressively. Gliding easily from smooth jazz to Latin rhythms to rock and funk, his performances never leave the listener feeling cold, as virtuosity sometimes does.

A fourth-generation Japanese-American, Shimabukuro was born and raised in Hawaii, generally considered the home of the uke (via Portugal in the late 19th century). Now in his late twenties, he first became infatuated with the instrument when he was four years old. Growing more proficient through the years, he began to view the ukulele as an “untapped source of music with unlimited potential,” and he’s continued to experiment with its sonic reach, using effects generally reserved for electric instruments and techniques you can be sure no ukulele traditionalist ever considered.

The all-instrumental Dragon (Hitchhike Records) is his fourth album and he’s astounded audiences in both small clubs and large-scale festivals. He’s already collected a slew of plaudits, including Entertainer of the Year in the 2003Hawaii Music Awards. Without a doubt, Jake Shimabukuro will continue to travel where no uke has gone before.