Jake Shimabukuro grew up in Hawaii. He was just 4 when his mom showed him how to play a C chord on the ukulele. After he spent the next few hours strumming a C, she showed him how to add the D7 and G7 chords to play what's known as a Hawaiian turnaround. Like many budding musicians, he was thrilled to play "near, near, near, near, near" over and over again. For days. That was 31 years ago.
Today he rocks an eclectic base of fans and professional musicians. He has played beside Yo-Yo Ma, Ziggy Marley, Bette Midler and more. He performed on "Prairie Home Companion" and played for Queen Elizabeth. CNN spotlighted him on "The Next List." Guitar Player called him the "Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele." Rolling Stone hailed him as the "best ukulele hero." The Washington Post said he has "raised the bar for the ukulele." Singer-songwriter-guitarist Eddie Vedder said, "Jake is taking the instrument to a place that I can't see anybody else catching up with him."
What will you say about him?
Jake Shimabukuro (she-ma-boo-koo-row) will perform solo at Carnegie Library Music Hall of Homestead in Munhall tonight. Pittsburgh is part of a 30-plus-date U.S. tour to celebrate the release of his new album, "Grand Ukulele." It was released in early October and went straight to No. 1 on the iTunes World Music Chart. It is the followup to 2011's "Peace Love Ukulele," which topped Billboard's World Albums chart.
How do the albums differ? "Peace Love Ukulele" is mostly a product of just one instrument with a bit of backup. Sputnik Music called it a comprehensive look at the best ukulele album one could create.
But that was before "Grand Ukulele," a collaboration with legendary producer/engineer Alan Parsons, best known for the Beatles' "Abbey Road' and Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon."
"Parsons attended a couple of my shows," says Mr. Shimabukuro during a recent phone interview. "After one of the shows, he contacted me and said, 'I'd like to produce an album with you.' I couldn't believe it! He's a genius, and he has such vision.
"I brought him my songs, he listened, and we worked together. He helped me to expand my sound, made it sound so full. And he brought in a 29-piece orchestra with a big-name rhythm section. It was thrilling to play beside some of my favorite performers."
There are a number of playing styles on the album: surf rock, mandolin, rockabilly, even a take on a music box. One of the highlights is "Island Fever Blues," an original tune. "We were beginning to record the album, but I was still writing tunes," Mr. Shimabukuro says. "During a break in the recording session, I happened to be at Parsons' home. I wrote 'Island Fever Blues' in his living room."
The schools in Hawaii teach ukulele starting around the fourth grade. "The ukulele is part of our culture, and most people play every day. I played traditional Hawaiian music until I was about 12 or 13 when I started experimenting with rock and other styles," he says. He tried playing guitar for a few months in college, but it didn't last. "Too hard to carry, too many strings."
Even though he was already a professional musician, a serendipitous fluke really jump-started his international career seven years ago. "I happened to be in New York doing a show sponsored by the Hawaiian community. After the performance, I was invited to do an interview on a show called 'Ukulele Disco' where I performed George Harrison's 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps.' Then I went about my life as usual. Shortly after that, some pals on the mainland called me at home to say somebody sent them a video of me. It was playing on YouTube, which was in its startup days back then. To this day, I have no idea who posted the video, but I'm forever grateful. I'm living a dream come true."
Once the video want viral, Jake's life was never the same. "I started getting calls from musicians, to play with them, to go on tour," he says.
Even though he's a world-class performer, he finds time to give back to his community. "Hawaii is a small, close community," he says. "When I'm home, a teacher friend might call and ask me to come talk to the kids about living a healthy productive life and about making music a part of it. I'm starting to do more outreach on the mainland, too."
He plays a four-string Kamaka tenor ukulele; yes, he will start posting instructional videos as soon as he can find time; and no, playing ukulele is not a fad. He says the four-stringed, two octave, sweet-sounding instrument is here to stay.
"My advice to anyone picking up a ukulele," (he always says "ukulele," never-ever "uke") "for the first time is just to have fun with it. No one wants to practice on songs they don't like, so play songs you like. Start with one finger, one chord; add another finger or two, and make lots of chords, make music. It's instant gratification, and a ukulele makes people smile.
"If everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place."
For more information on Jake Shimabukuro: jakeshimabukuro.com/shows.