Jake Shimabukuro redefines the ukulele
Jake Shimabukuro, who plays Ravinia Sunday night, brings a whole new sound and image to the ukulele. | Photo by Merri Cyr
With chamber orchestra
A Far Cry
Ravinia Festival, 200 Ravinia Park Road, Highland Park
7 p.m. July 1
(847) 266-5100, www.ravinia.org
Updated: June 26, 2012 8:18PM
Jake Shimabukuro will be whaling on his ukulele at Ravinia Festival this Sunday, July 1.
That’s right. Whaling.
Toss out the window that image of Tiny Tim strumming the little, guitar-like instrument and singing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in 1968.
Instead, think Eddie Van Halen doing the splits mid-air while playing “Eruption.”
Shimabukuro, 35, who was
raised in Hawaii, has been playing the ukulele since he was a child. But, he’s taken the 4-string, 2-octave instrument to a level beyond
the traditional. His star has been rising since a video of him playing George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on the ukulele was posted on YouTube in 2006. It’s garnered more than 10 million hits since then.
He has a way of playing the usually plinky instrument so that it doesn’t always sound like a ukulele — aggression on chords and speed and finesse on single notes.
Say it right
“The ukulele is very popular in Hawaii, it was basically invented here,” Shimabukuro said, pronouncing the name of the instrument “ook-ah-la-lay,” not the mainland way of “yu-ka-lay-lee.”
“My mom played a little bit and she taught me when I was very young, and then I just played a lot of traditional Hawaiian music as a kid. Later on, I just fell in love with the sound of the instrument and discovered you can play different styles of music on the ukulele. And that’s when I was completely hooked. I mean, I never wanted to play any other instrument.”
Even when he heard guitarist Eddie Van Halen, the shredding riff master of hard rock band Van Halen who made many a teenage boy want to take up the electric guitar. Instead, Shimabukuro just wanted to play the ukulele like Eddie Van Halen plays guitar.
But Shimabukuro was inspired by other artists from other musical genres, too, and applied what he heard to the ukulele.
That famous riff on “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream was the first one he learned on the ukulele.
“I can listen to rock tunes or classical tunes or blues or metal, and play something similar to what I’m hearing on records,” he said. “I was watching rock concerts and I just loved the energy these musicians put into their concerts. You watch a Van Halen concert, you see these guys running all over stage and just having a great time. I remember thinking to myself, ‘That’s what a ukulele concert should be like.’ ”
Shimabukuro will play mostly original compositions from his catalogue of 10 albums as well as some covers, including Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the Ravinia show. Another album, titled “More Ukulele,” is expected to be released in early October.
Shimabukuro knows the ukulele has the reputation of being a joke, especially since it’s so often associated with Tiny Tim, who was a bit of an oddball. He calls the instrument “the underdog” when it’s played during epic songs, such as “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
But, his intention isn’t to make the ukulele cool. However, he does want people to start looking differently at the instrument, which ranges in size from 21 to 30 inches long.
“Of course you can do ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ like Tiny Tim did it or traditional Hawaiian music. But there’s this other side of it as well where you can have a lot of fun with it. If you like blues, there’s a place for that with the ukulele. There’s a place for ukulele in jazz, in rock, in classical, in any style of music. You just have to use your imagination and just keep an open mind.”
A modest guy, Shimabukuro points to Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder’s 2011 album, “Ukulele Songs,” as giving the popularity of the instrument a shot in the arm.
“One of the things I’m grateful for is Eddie Vedder because when Eddie Vedder starts playing the ukulele and he’s singing, he makes the ukulele cool,” Shimabukuro said. “It’s an exciting time for the instrument.”
With artists like Shimabukuro pushing the ukulele to another level, the biggest misconception about the instrument is now something else.
“The pronunciation of the word,” Shimabukuro laughed.