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Jake Shimabukuro interview

Fire and Finesse:
The Jake Shimabukuro Interview

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                                      Photo courtesy of Jayson Tanega

   It was only a month or so before this interview that I received an email with a video clip that showed an anonymous young Asian ukulele player doing a rendition of The Beatles' “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” I almost questioned the validity of the clip after I watched it, thinking that it had to have been doctored in some way. What I saw was not humanly possible, was it? The ukulele is a four-stringed, two octave instrument - what I had heard seemed like a whole lot more than that. Here was a guy that was playing the rhythm and the lead parts of the song simultaneously on a four-stringed instrument, and it had soul - real deep, emotional soul. (Click here to see the clip: // I decided that I HAD to know who this was, so I headed to the one source on the net that has never let me down - Google. I plugged in something like “ukulele player Beatles” and found hundreds of thousands of entries that reflected my same thoughts of astonishment about the clip. I came upon one entry that gave me the name of Jake Shimabukuro, and as Google then guided me to Shimabukuro’s personal website, I found that he was touring with Mr. Sun & Fun himself, Jimmy Buffett. I also found that he was doing a performance and autograph session at a Borders Books in my area, and I decided to see this amazing player for myself.

   I didn’t know what to expect as I headed to my old North Side of Chicago neighborhood Borders Books store to see Jake Shimabukuro’s appearance. I thought I would be one of the only people in the store with a previous knowledge of who he was, with the exception of perhaps some Jimmy Buffett concertgoers from the night before. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. When I got to the store 40 minutes early for a 3:00 start, I grabbed one of the last seats available. Apparently, I am a latecomer to the fascinating “Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele.” As Shimabukuro weaved his way through the circle of seats that was comfortably crammed into the Early Childhood Books section of the store, he had an electric smile covering half of his face. You would’ve sworn that the overhead lights had gotten brighter. After saying “Hello” to the gathered crowd and setting up his instrument, he started to welcome questions from the crowd. As I sat and listened to this 29-year old man talk to his fans, I immediately began to relax in my chair. Before he played a note, Shimabukuro had this audience captivated by his boyish charm. Telling stories of being nervous in front of 30,000 Buffett fans, and sharing his excitement of touring and talking to legendary musicians like Bill Payne made everyone feel like they could relate somehow. This young man is living a fantasy and he’s terribly excited about it; and because of his modesty and innocence, everyone that comes in close proximity to his spirit feels excited for him as well.

   Shimabukuro, who makes his home in the paradisial state of Hawaii, has two bands that he performs with - a three piece and a five piece. The trio is made up of Shimabukuro’s “heroes growing up” - highly regarded studio and freelance bassist Dean Taba, who has worked with David Benoit, Andy Summers, and Dave Koz to name a few; and drummer Noel Okimoto, who has a resume that includes work with Stan Getz, Wynton Marsalis, Natalie Cole, Henry Mancini and many more. The five piece band is more of a rock vibe, with Shimabukuro taking more of a leader role, as the trio keeps to more of a Jazz mood.

   As we sat down, and I stumbled over the pronunciation of ukulele (oo-koo-LAY-lay), he admitted that he will sometimes mispronounce ukulele as “yoo-kuh-lay-lee” just so people will know what he‘s talking about. I asked him if the ukulele was native to Hawaii and if its origins were rooted on the islands. He explained, “It came from an instrument known as the ‘braginho,’ which was a traditional Portugese instrument, but it evolved into the instrument we know today, which really started in Hawaii. I look at it as a traditional Hawaiian instrument.” I explained that many of us here in the continental U.S. think of the instrument as a toy - something like a kazoo. But, watching Shimabukuro shred on his axe is something that is not child’s play. Seeing him play, I felt like I had just seen Hendrix at Monterey. It was revolutionary - something that has not previously been seen. I had to get deeper inside this genius, and it took some careful prying to do so.

Dr. Music: You mentioned that the title cut from your CD “Dragon” was influenced by two people, one of them being martial arts expert Bruce Lee, and the other being Eddie Van Halen. Have you ever felt that you could expand your horizons by putting down the ukulele and playing the six-string guitar?

Jake Shimabukuro: “I guess in the past, people who start on ukulele eventually graduate to the guitar because they feel they’ve learned all they could on the ukulele so now they want to go to the guitar where they can get more range, and more sustain, and play beefier chords and things like that. But, I don’t know, for me, until this day, I’m always constantly finding new things about the instrument. And I’m constantly learning new things that I can apply to the ukulele. So, I guess that I’ve never felt that I’ve ever graduated from the instrument yet. I still feel like there is so much to learn and so much to discover with the ukulele. I believe, sometimes when you have less to work with, you end up really pouring more into the little tools that you have. Sometimes if you have a lot to work with, you don’t use everything to its fullest potential. That’s kinda how I look at it. The ukulele is such an unassuming instrument, and when you play it you know exactly what’s going on all the time, because it’s not a complex instrument. So it’s a big challenge to make it more than what meets the eye.”

DM: Do you ever see yourself reaching the ukulele’s full potential? Do you think you’ll ever “graduate” from the instrument?

JS: “I don’t think so, and the reason is because even a player like Miles Davis was trying to discover more and find new things about music until the day he died. When I look at playing the ukulele, I don’t really look at it as just the ukulele, it’s more about expression. So, to me now, it goes beyond the instrument. I think hard about what moves me about the people I’ve admired over the years, and it’s not so much the things that they play, or the things that they do. Look at Miles Davis, he wasn’t the fastest, or he didn’t have the best chops or whatever, but when he played one note it was like ‘Holy crap!’ You forgot that it was the trumpet, it was just Miles Davis.”

DM: Did you ever imagine that you were going to get out of Hawaii and tour the world with the ukulele?

JS: “No. Never. (Laughs) You know, honestly, the thing that really brings me a lot of joy and fulfillment is just progressing in music. Learning to channel different kinds of energy, and being able to express different emotions through my instrument. And it doesn’t matter if I’m playing a little coffee shop, or in my room practicing, or playing with Jimmy Buffett in front of 30,000 people. The reason I love touring and traveling though, is because I get to learn all these things from these great musicians. I would never get those opportunities or experiences if I were just sitting at home. For me, those are the things I value. When I get to play with guys like Billy Payne, or Sonny Landreth, or Mac McAnally, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Mike Marshall and Darol Anger. I got to sit in with Blues Traveler, I got to play with Bobby McFerrin, you know, all these guys! It’s one thing to listen to them on a CD, but to actually sit and play with them is like….’Wow! Holy smokes, man!’”

DM: You are obviously star struck by these master musicians. Do you ever see yourself in that elite group?

JS: “I don’t think I’ll ever see myself in that group.(Laughs) I have so much respect for those guys. You know, touring with Bela, and watching him practice all the time when we were touring is like, just inspirational. This guy is just so great, but yet he busts his butt just trying to learn new things constantly. He has accomplished what no one has accomplished on the banjo before, but still he has that same desire and dedication to push as hard today as he did ten years ago, or twenty years ago. What a role model. What an inspiration. For me, it’s not how far I get musically, or who I get to play with, or doing television appearances, or selling a lot of albums - my goal is to have that same passion and desire and hunger to learn; as much as I have that today, I want to have that 20 years from now….30 years from now….until the day I die.”

DM: What music do you find yourself driven by? What do you listen to?

JS: “Before, it was guys like Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai. When I was younger that was my gauge on how great someone was - how fast can they play?” (Laughs)

DM: Did you ever have a desire to pick up the guitar at that point?

JS: “No, I didn’t, not even back then.”

DM: Have you ever even played a guitar at all?

JS: “Yes, I can strum chords, but I never really got into playing. When I do play guitar, it’s usually nylon strings, because that feels the most familiar to me. The ukulele has nylon strings. But I’m not really a guitar player; it’s totally a different concept for me.”

     As we approached the technical aspects of the guitar versus the ukulele, I got a first hand look into the genius mind of this young man. He talked about “always being conscious of where the bass note is coming from” while playing the guitar, and “being anchored” by it. Then he countered that by telling me about how that bass note is not a worry when playing the ukulele, and you are “free to just always move.” He spoke about the simplicity of having four strings as opposed to six, and proceeded to explain a recent concept he’s had of playing his uke like a string quartet. “The first string and the fourth string are a whole step apart - those are your two high strings. Your lowest string is your third string. So I treat my two outside strings like they’re my first and second violin. And then, the second string, which is a little lower, I treat it like my viola. And then the third string is like my cello.” He went on to explain how he can “add more color” to a chord progression by being able to have each string playing it’s own part. As I bent over to scrape the remains of my jaw off the Borders rug, it became very difficult to stay focused on the fact that Shimabukuro is one of us. This guy is from another realm where only the elite minds reside. To hear him talk about progressing from a C7 chord to an F using the string quartet concept was one of the most amazing things I’d ever heard.

                                                   Photo courtesy of Noboyuki Ito

DM: Where did you first learn to play the ukulele?

JS: “My mom played. I started playing when I was about 4, and it was all traditional Hawaiian. That’s another unique thing. Now that I’m playing all of these different kinds of music, my background really comes from traditional Hawaiian music, which is odd. Normally, people who are rooted in traditional Hawaiian music, pretty much stay playing traditional Hawaiian music their entire life. But I’m so glad that those are my roots because the things that I play kind of come from a different place from most people who play Jazz or Blues or Rock or whatever. My playing comes from a very simple place. It really does. My approach to music has always been very simple, and I think that it helps because I don’t get too caught up in trying to make things sound complicated just to make it sound like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is cool.’ I think I‘ve always had a pretty good balance to know when something just sounds, like …‘unnecessary.’” Because it’s about the melody - it’s always about the melody. Sometimes keeping things simpler is more effective, than making things as harmonically complex as possible.”

DM: Your spirit and demeanor is very pleasant, and people seem to be naturally drawn to you not only as a performer but as a person. Do you ever see your positive spirit being broken by the pitfalls of the music business?

JS: “You know, that’s one of the things that I make a point to stay away from. I’ve heard a lot of horror stories, and I know there are a lot of people out there that could really have a negative effect on you, but there‘s always going to be people like that in any kind of business. One of the great things in what I do is I get to choose the people that I want around me. I can make sure that I work with people that I know I trust that have good positive energy, and I can trust them to do their job because I’m not a business person, man. (Laughs) I’m terrible with money, I don’t know anything about business. That way, I can just focus on what I do best., or what I enjoy doing, which is music.”

“I’d probably be homeless if it wasn’t for the people that I work with. I can trust them to do their job and give me the freedom and the time to focus on my craft. Even though I‘m in the limelight a lot, all these things that happen, it‘s really because of all their hard work. A lot of times people tell me, ’Oh man, you work so hard, you’re always touring,’ as hard as I work my manager and everybody else works like ten times as hard.” (Laughs)

DM: Tell me what comes to mind when I say “Jimmy Buffett.”

JS: “Wow ….a lot of things! (Laughs) I love playing with Jimmy because his music feels like it’s right up my alley. Also, I believe we have music to heal, and to make people feel good. And when I see those 30,000 people in the audience just having a great time, that is moving.”

DM: I don’t think there’s a crowd that has a better time than the Jimmy Buffett crowd!(Laughs)

JS: “No, seriously, that’s what music’s about. It’s about bringing peace and harmony to the world, and that’s what he does. The thing about Jimmy, he has this amazing ability to communicate with people. When he’s up there on stage singing and speaking, he makes every single person in that audience, from the front row all the way back to the back of the lawn, feel like he’s singing only to them; and that is unbelievable to do that. He’s just got this charisma, this energy, this thing about him; you can’t learn that. So for me to be up there, I’m just having a ball of a time, I’m just loving it.”

DM: Where do you see yourself in five years?

JS: “I don’t know. Like I said before, I just want to keep discovering new things, I want to keep challenging myself, and hopefully in five years I’ll feel like I’m in the same place I am today. The thing is, you never feel like you’re getting better. It’s like seeing your son versus your friend’s son who you only see every couple of months, then you see the growth. When you see someone every day you don’t actually see the growth because it’s too gradual. So, I know that I’m growing, but at the same time I don’t see it. So, when you say five years, I hope I still feel the same way, meaning that I still need to get better and discover stuff.”

DM: What about fame and stardom? Playing in front of 30,000 people as the headliner - how does that strike you?

JS: “I mean, honestly, I love it. I love being able to share this music with people. But, really, I’m just as happy playing in front of that many people as I am playing here at Borders, or a coffee shop, or just playing in front of a couple people. For me it’s all about the connection.”

     For the Jake Shimabukuro listener, it is all about “the connection” also. Having connected with this great musical mind during this interview was an amazing experience. I have a nine year old son who is starting to discover the legendary bands of the past: The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, etc. This is a 29-year old musician that just discovered The Beatles “Abbey Road” a year ago; Miles Davis’ “Kind Of Blue,” two years ago. So, in a strange way it was like sitting with a young boy that was terribly excited to be hearing these records for the first time. On the other hand, it was also like sitting with one of the old masters; those that are so in touch with their music and its direction that its just bone chilling.

     If this is the first time you have heard the name Jake Shimabukuro, don’t be surprised if it soon becomes a household word. On September 19th (2006) Jake Shimabukuro released his most recent disc entitled, “Gently Weeps,” which features his startling cover of The Beatles classic. This may be the disc that puts him in front of 30,000 as the headliner. And I do believe, in the very near future, whenever we speak of the ukulele, the name Jake Shimabukuro will be sure to follow.

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