Ukelele Wonder Boy: Jake Shimabukuro

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Oftentimes, one stumbles upon great musicianship in a club or even in a Golden Gate Park tunnel. These days, musical “discoveries” come in a slightly different fashion: YouTube.The story of ukulele wonder boy Jake Shimabukuro goes like this: last year a video clip began circulating on the internet of Shimabukuro playing a cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Shimabukuro is shown amidst the beautiful setting of the Strawberry Fields memorial in New York’s Central Park. As a result of this video, which was made in 2003, an influx of e-mails showing support and amazement flowed in from France, England, Germany, Sweden, Australia and Korea.

“Now I’m realizing how powerful the Internet is,” said Shimabukuro, who still seems awed by the experience. “Because of that video, we’ll play in cities that we’ve never performed in, and they’ll sell out — it’ll be all word of mouth, just people showing their support. I’m so grateful for that. For myself, I’m constantly on YouTube trying to stumble across these amazing musicians that don’t have a record out yet. The Internet is now a great way for artists to showcase their talents and expose their music.”

Born and raised in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, Shimabukuro, 30, had already enjoyed pre-Internet fame, having performed at several big-name venues, including the House of Blues (Chicago), Tipitina’s (New Orleans) and B.B. King’s Nightclub (New York). In addition to one of his most memorable performances with Les Paul about three years ago in New York’s Iridium Jazz Club, he has played with Australian guitar wizard Tommy Emmanuel and Japanese jazz great Makoto Ozone. He toured with Bela Fleck & the Flecktones and has shared stages with Diana Krall, Fiona Apple, Bobby McFerrin, Keller Williams and Stephen Bishop – just to name a few. While touring with Jimmy Buffett in 2005 and 2006, Shimabukuro regularly played to crowds of more than 40,000.

Shimabukuro’s music is coated with a flavorful marinade of jazz, blues, classical, bluegrass, folk, flamenco and rock, but he manages to retain a style all his own, performing on his custom-made, four-string tenor Kamaka ukulele with an unimaginable speed that has become a signature element of his playing. However, his newer works have evolved to a more natural and pure acoustic sound, such as on his current solo album Gently Weeps, which won as best instrumental album of the year at the 2007 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards (similar to the Grammy Awards). “Now that I’m older, I think I have a wider grasp on music — the truth of music,” he said about the transition. “The thing I really love is sound — getting a beautiful sound off your instrument and letting your instrument express whatever you want to express.”

Staying busy with two new albums due out September 18, Shimabukuro’s My Life will consist of ukulele-driven cover tunes of songs originally done by the Beatles, Sarah McLaughlin and Cindy Lauper, and will include a rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California.” His second upcoming album is Hula Girl, the soundtrack for an independent Japanese film with a musical score entirely produced by Shimabukuro. Directed by Sang-Il Lee, Hula Girl (2006), is a comedy based on a true story of a dying mining town in Fukushima prefecture in the 1960s. It tells the tale of local women who form a hula troupe to help the Joban Hawaiian Center spa facility (now Spa Resort Hawaiians) in an attempt to revitalize the local economy.

Shimabukuro has no intention of quitting his day job and plans to keep recording, performing, collaborating and staying positive. “The most difficult thing to do is to keep challenging myself. At the same time, that’s what keeps me motivated and inspired. The best thing to do is be honest and make the music that makes you happy, and hopefully, that’ll make people happy.”

Jake Shimabukuro performs at Herbst Theatre on September 7. For more info, visit www.jakeshimabukuro.com.

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