Jake Shimabukuro takes the ukulele to new pop heights
It was a Boston band, of all things, that changed Jake Shimabukuro’s understanding of what he could do on the ukulele. As a kid growing up in Hawaii, he mostly played traditional music on the instrument, until he heard Extreme’s “More Than Words.”
“Everyone at my high school was trying to learn that song on guitar,” says Shimabukuro. “One day I was listening to the tune with my ukulele, and I figured out how to play it on four strings. I went to school the next day and played it for my friends, and everybody freaked out. ‘Wait. What? You can’t play that on ukulele!’ ”
“It was the first time I realized that you can really take pop tunes and make them work on the instrument. That’s when the light bulb went off in my head,” he adds from his home in Hawaii. “If ‘More Than Words’ can work, what else can I do?”
From there, it was a short leap to “Sunshine of Your Love” and eventually original instrumental songs that Shimabukuro has composed in a decade-long solo career that has made him a major star in the ukulele world. He’s part of Saturday’s lineup for the Summer Arts Weekend in Copley Square.
He comes to town behind “Grand Ukulele,” a new album that’s something of a left turn for him. By happenstance, he was introduced to Alan Parsons, the respected English producer and musician who has worked with the Beatles and Pink Floyd. Parsons came to one of Shimabukuro’s shows and, over dinner, offered to produce Shimabukuro’s next record.
It was a good match. Parsons added elegant textures to Shimabukuro’s sound, which has typically been quite intimate and clean. A 29-piece orchestra fleshed out the arrangements but still kept Shimabukuro’s playing front and center.
Shimabukuro says it was only as an adult that he learned his instrument of choice was perceived differently outside Hawaii.
“When I was a kid, the ukulele was so popular. It was so common that you didn’t even think about it. It was just part of the culture,” Shimabukuro says. “When I started traveling, especially to the mainland, when you mentioned ukulele to people, the first thing that came to mind was Tiny Tim’s version of ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips.’ ”
He’s been an ambassador for the ukulele’s versatility, but he’s also adamant that its charm is inherent. “I love that people aren’t intimidated by the instrument,” he says. “I tell people all the time that you don’t have to be a musician to play the ukulele.”
That inadvertently downplays Shimabukuro’s considerable chops on the instrument, particularly the speed and grace with which he plays. His journey was chronicled in “Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings,” a documentary that recently aired on PBS, tracing his origins in Hawaii as well as the moment when Shimabukuro was discovered globally after a video of him playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was posted on YouTube in 2006.
The video, which has more than 12 million views, has a one-line description that neatly sums up Shimabukuro’s appeal: “This guy is a god on a ukulele.”