Jake Shimabukuro brings the ukulele to Modlin

Before 2006, Jake Shimabukuro was unknown. Now, thanks to YouTube he’s a ukulele virtuouso, and he’s coming to Modlin!

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Before 2006, Jake Shimabukuro (shee-muh-BOO-koo-roo) was unknown. Unknown, at least to those outside the closely-knit community of serious ukulele players and only the most avid of world music fans. Shimabukuro changed that by posting a video of himself playing an arrangement of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on the tenor ukulele:

I saw that video when it came out, and I remember being floored by the richness and complexity of the sounds he could get out of the four-stringed instrument. Here Shimabukuro is at his best: playing unaccompanied ukulele versions of popular songs. He also does Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” all with thrilling technique and command of his instrument.

That day in Central Park wasn’t the first time Shimabukuro had done this. He’s been an active musician since the late 1990s and has recorded solo albums since 2003. His famous YouTube video, now with over 11 million views, gained the attention of music fans all over the globe. His albums became more polished and he began bringing in more lauded musicians to help record them. His most recent album Grand Ukulele was engineered by Alan Parsons (The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Alan Parsons Project) and features string arrangements from Kip Winger.1

His interviews point out that the ukulele has a limited range and that it is the underdog of instruments. Even his official bio touts the ukulele as “under-the-radar.” However, given Shimabukuro’s seamless blending of traditional Hawaiian technique with more modern classical guitar it was only a matter of time until he would turn this ‘underdog’ into a serious concert instrument.

The ukulele has been in Hawaii since the late 19th century, when Portuguese cabinet makers first began making tiny guitars called Machetes. These quickly became a part of the social fabric of the islands and are as associated with Hawaiian music as the grass skirt.

In the U.S., the ukulele has experienced two renaissances. Before World War II, composers of popular song were heavily influenced by new recordings of Hawaiian music and the ukulele was hailed as an inexpensive and portable accompaniment instrument. In fact, it is from this style of music that lap-steel guitars came–the same types of guitars that became the first electric instruments. You might say that the ukulele helped conceive Rock n’ Roll. Once the war broke out, the interest in ukuleles diminished in favor of the guitar.

In the mid-1990s ukuleles began popping up again on the mainland. Large instrument manufacturers, with their factories in cheap-labor countries like Korea, China, and Taiwan began churning out inexpensive ukuleles. The ukulele is generally seen as cheaper, smaller, and easier to learn than guitar. These attributes have made it suited to a place in some public school music programs and with younger students as a step-up instrument to guitar. For adults, they seem somewhat limited to performing quirky songs on quirky youtube videos (see: Deschanel, Zooey2).

With the explosion of ukulele into our zeitgeist, it only seems fitting that a virtuoso step up and turn the uke into a legitimate concert instrument. Much like Andres Segovia did with the solo guitar in the 1920s, Shimabukuro is making people take the ukulele seriously. He combines ukulele technique with some classical guitar tricks to create new sounds and textures previously unheard on the instrument. He seems to do this with a whimsy, almost a musical humor, that brings some humility to the often-dry concert hall stage. His concerts feature him performing on solo ukulele and audiences can expect to hear originals as well as covers varying from J.S. Bach to Queen.

Jake Shimabukuro plays the Camp Concert Center at UofR on Monday, November 5th. Tickets start at $32.

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Footnotes

  1. Yes that Kip Winger, from the amazing 80s band Winger 
  2. And Jean-Ralphio! 
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Tommy Beekman

Tommy Beekman teaches music and doesn’t trust horses. He’s been known to pick a song or two.

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