Hawaii's Shimabukuro plucks unique success from the ukulele 

Four Strings, Endless Opportunities

For any serious musician, performing solo can either be a challenge — after all, you receive no musical or spiritual support from a backing band — or it can allow you to play easy and free, without distractions from a band.

"For me, it's definitely a little bit of both," says ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro. City Paper caught up with Shimabukuro during his current road trip across the U.S. from California to the Carolinas.

"It can be a little scary all by yourself on stage," he says. "It's a challenge in that you have to create everything. You have to make sure you have enough energy to put out and to reach your audience. It's tough to keep a groove going with some of the tunes while keeping it melodically interesting. But I love the challenge of trying to carry a show all by myself."

At 32, Shimabukuro is a relatively young up-and-comer, but his talent and spirit are extraordinary. A Hawaii native, he's unlike any string musician currently on the world stage. Armed merely with a traditional, four-string ukulele (he correctly pronounces it "oo-koo-LAY-lay"), Shimabukuro offers a surprisingly complex sound. His set at the Cistern may be one of the most memorable highlights of the entire Spoleto season.

Shimabukuro played with bands in Hawaii and California up until recently. Only a few years ago did he venture out as a solo performer.

"I always had a rhythm section up there with me, or at least a couple of guitar players strumming some chords," he says. "This completely solo ukulele concept is something that's still very new to me. I'm still trying to figure out ways I can express myself through the instrument, make the show more interesting, and connect with people. There are so many variables, but the one thing I do know is that as long as I'm having a blast on stage, usually most people watching will have a good time as well."

On his latest album, a compilation of concert tracks simply titled Live, he touches on everything from Bach (in D-minor, of course), to a jumpy cover of Michael Jackson's "Thriller," to a beautiful rearrangement of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Although it's compiled from several different shows, the album features an impressive continuity and fluidity — as if recorded all at once during one big concert.

"I didn't really think about trying to make it sound like one big concert," Shimabukuro says. "It was more like I wanted to take songs from shows where I had a really good response from the audience. The audience is what really makes the show, you know?"

While deeply respectful and knowledgeable of the traditional Hawaiian instrument, he plays it with an innovative, non-traditional style — almost like a classical guitarist or violinist, crossed with an electric guitar hero. For Shimabukuro, innovation on such a small instrument came gradually.

"It wasn't a conscious thing — I just love different kinds of music, and the only instrument I had was a ukulele, so I had no choice but to learn the songs on it," he says. "I still can't sing to this day, so I was forced to do it all on my instrument.

"The ukulele came over from Portugal, and it made its way to the island, and that's where it started. With any instrument, you have to respect the roots and where it came from. Luckily for me, growing up in Hawaii, I played all of the traditional Hawaiian tunes. That's my foundation."

Musicians sometimes find inspiration in unlikely places. A vocalist may be inspired by horn players. A pianist may be inspired by a vocalist. For the open-minded Shimabukuro, he finds inspiration in the work of two performers totally outside of the music world.

"For me, some of my greatest inspirations are non-musicians. Bruce Lee was a huge inspiration for me. His philosophy and how he approached his martial arts, you know? I would take it and try to apply it to music. He took all these different styles of martial arts and made it into Jeet Kune Do, which was his style. It was everything and nothing at the same time, which was cool, and it's the same with music, too. It's all about self-expression, never mind about all of the styles.

"Bill Cosby was inspiring, too," he adds. "Watching him perform when he would do his stand-up ... Basically, he just sits in a chair with a microphone, tells these stories, and keeps millions of people on the edge of their seats, listening to every word. I just thought, 'Wow, someone can do that just by sitting in a chair and talking.' Three hours could go by and feel like three minutes. I figured I should be able to keep people somewhat entertained if I had a musical instrument in my hand. He was one of the people who actually inspired me to become a solo performer."


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