Jake Shimabukuro is still a bit surprised by all the attention his music has been getting. After all, he is just a ukulele player.
“Even in elementary school and all that, in fifth, sixth grade, everyone learns to play ukulele; it’s like the flutophone or something, or the recorder — we all have to learn it in school,” he said of growing up in Hawaii. “I think I just took it a little too far. It just got a little out of control.”
With his lightning-fast technique and arrangements of well-known songs, including his popular version of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Shimabukuro, at 32, has risen to the forefront of modern ukulele players in recent years. He’s worked with artists such as Jimmy Buffett, Ziggy Marley, Bela Fleck and Yo-Yo Ma, and has been featured on “The Late Show with Conan O’Brien” and “The Today Show,” to name a few.
But despite the accolades for his virtuosity on an instrument spanning only two octaves on four strings, he says that he’s still only just tapping into the possibilities of the ukulele.
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Music Haven Concert Series, Central Park, Schenectady
How Much: Free
More Info: 382-5151 ext. 3, 372-5656, www.musichavenstage.org.
“I love music, I love the instrument and I just believe there’s so much more that can be done with it,” he said. “I feel like I’m just scratching the surface of that. I’m really enjoying the whole experience — just being able to travel, meet other people, getting to play with other people, it’s like a long summer music workshop for me, just hanging out and learning all these new things.”
He’ll be bringing his ukulele chops to the Capital Region on Sunday night , performing the first show in the free Music Haven Concert Series in Schenectady’s Central Park. The series, which runs every Sunday night through Aug. 23, features a wide array of music from around the globe, from African (King Sunny Adé and His African Beats, July 12); to jazz (Jazzmobile, Aug. 2); to folk (Red Hen, Aug. 9).
Shimabukuro is touring through July 6, heading to Brazil shortly after his Music Haven performance. But he’ll only be home in Hawaii for a few weeks, heading back out for a long stretch of touring in Europe, Japan and the U.S. beginning in mid-July. It’s a hectic touring schedule he’s only just getting used to, having only been touring, by his count, for the past five or six years.
“Home is still Hawaii — yep, that’s life,” he said. “But I’m only there two months out of the year, so I make the most out of those two months.”
He remains connected to his home, and also his cultural roots in Japan, through his work for various organizations in Hawaii. For the past three years he’s been a spokesman for Hawaii Tourism Japan, and he frequents the island nation on tour. He also spends much of his free time giving demonstrations in Hawaiian schools through a program called Music is Good Medicine.
Music Haven Concert Series schedule
All shows begin at 7 p.m. on Sundays unless otherwise noted, and are free
July 5 — Sandra St. Victor, with Michael Louis Smith Trio
July 12 — King Sunny Adé and His African Beats
July 19 — The Pine Leaf Boys
July 26 — Salsa Celtica
Aug. 2 — Jazzmobile
Aug. 9 — Red Hen
Aug. 16 — The Rymanowski Brothers
Thursday, Aug. 20 — Ruth Pelham and the Music Mobile Kid’s Session
Aug. 23 — Ruth Pelham and the Music Mobile
“I really believe in community service; I think it’s really important to get involved and help out,” Shimabukuro said. “Just to share with [students] my passion for music, through that [I can] get them excited about what their passion is, whether it’s sports or cooking or to be a doctor. I think that now more than ever kids need people to kind of sit with them, take time out of their schedule to share something with them. All the attention they get now is like from everything but people; they spend so much time with TV, computers, cell phones, things like that.”
His connection to music came at an early age. He first picked up the instrument at age 4 after his mom taught him a few chords, and was immediately hooked. After performing around Honolulu and with the groups Pure Heart and Colon, he embarked upon his solo career in 2001, releasing numerous studio albums and most recently, this year’s 20-track live recording “Live.”
His big breakthrough in the mainland U.S. came with a live video of his version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” filmed in New York City’s Central Park. The video has gone “viral” on YouTube, with more than 3 million views.
“I’m a huge George Harrison fan, and Harrison was a big fan of the ukulele — he had a whole collection of ukuleles,” Shimabukuro said. “I really believe he had a little hand in this, his hand is in this whole thing. One of his passions was the ukulele and showing people how great the instrument was, and I kind of feel like he’s kind of helping me with the little music career here.”
His interpretations of everything from jazz to pop to rock include versions of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Chick Corea’s “Spain,” both of which appear on “Live.” Although he plays them effortlessly in concert, it takes quite a long time for him to arrange the songs.
“It’s really tough; I spend a lot of time and put a lot of thought into the arrangements,” he said. “I don’t want to figure out the chords and the melody and just play it — I want to find unique chord voicings to go with the song and incorporate a different technique in each song. I don’t want every arrangement to sound the same, I want each to stand on its own.”
He’s also a composer in his own right, and his own instrumentals showcase his varied musical tastes, from Western influences to ukulele players such as Eddie Kumae, Ohta-San and Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole, known for his version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
“When you’re writing, when you’re just doing an arrangement of your own song. It’s kind of like, you’re free to explore and change things,” he said.
“You could have written it one way, and then you’re working on it more, then you’re like, ‘Ah, I really wish that I threw this in there,’ or something. You can just change it, whereas if you’re covering a tune, especially when you’re doing a Beatles tune, you definitely don’t want to change too much. When I listen to a Beatles song, there’s nothing to change — it’s perfect. The only reason to cover it is just so you can have that joy of playing the song.”