By Laurence Vittes
As with most top-tier ukulele players Jake Shimabukuro is a very busy guy. From now through February 2020 he’ll be playing concerts with his trio in more than 30 cities, featuring both original tracks and takes on classic rock favorites. The dates he’s got lined up will take him from Las Vegas (an upscale bowling alley), San Francisco, Bend, Salem, Bellingham, Fresno, Santa Cruz and Honolulu, to Hiroshima, Yokohama, Osaka, Fukushima, Durham, and even Princeton. Ever since his YouTube performance of the George Harrison song While My Guitar Gently Weeps went viral in 2004, he’s had a full schedule.
Shimabukuro will be playing Harris Center in Folsom, Californiayep that Johnny Cash Folsonand home to cigar box ukulele maker Les Tussing. Further south, he’ll make his debut at the prestigious Broad Stage in Santa Monica, which extolls Downbeat‘s description of Shimabukuro’s “catchy ditties, New Age-flavored dreamscapes, delicate lines akin to classical guitar, and crunching electric work. The setlist includes the 42-year-old virtuoso’s solo uke arrangements of Queens “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Schuberts Ave Maria, and Leonard Cohens “Hallelujah.”
I caught up with Jake in Annapolis, Maryland, where he and his trio (Dave Preston on guitar and Nolan Verner on bass) were going to play the Rams Head Tavern.
What do you like about the touring life?
Every chance you get to play, it’s exciting. And when you travel you get to do cool fun stufflike heading over to Paul Reed Smith Guitars when I’m in Annapolis.
Do you have one core program you work off of?
We try to change up a few things here and there. There’s a lot of improvisation that goes on, and we always leave room for experimentationand extended solos. It’s important to keep things fresh for us, toowhen we feel brave and courageous we go for different new things.
Who are you touring with?
It’s a trio format, the bassist’s out of Nashville, the guitarist’s out of Denver, we play off each of each otherinspire each other to do new things. It’s like a friendly game of half-court basketballevery once in a while you get a really good shot. Onstage you’re playing, interacting with people, being open, not having an ego, just intending that everyone has a good time.
Your tour takes you to a wide range of places.
It’s true, they’re are all different, but in the way they love the uke they’re also very close to each other. I feel fortunate to play in these places and I have memories of the ones I’ve visited before.
There’s something about the sound that triggers something positive in people. A sound of joy.
Let’s dig into some of those memories. Folsom?
I remember Folsom because there’s a really cool coffee shop next to the venue, and because of the Valley Ukulele Society. They came to the show and waited around afterward, and had me sign their ukuleles. Everyone was really nice.
Las Vegas is fun even in Henderson, but especially when I play in the downtown area because there’s a large Hawaiian community in Las Vegas and they always come. And since they know I’m on the road for an extended time they bring comfort food like spam musubi or a plate lunch. Las Vegas also has a lot of restaurants and cafes that cater to that culture. When I tell my friends and family they all try to fly up; some of the flights from Hawaii are less than $300. When I play Brooklyn Bowl at the end of the month [Sept. 30], my mom and my aunt are coming from Honolulu.
I really remember Osaka because I started there in 2000 when I signed my first major record deal, a seven-album deal with Sony. It was prior to my YouTube video going viral and opened up tours not just in Japan but in North America, Australia, and Europe
Osaka is a funky city, not as conservative as other places around Japan. Fashion is a big thing, you see brighter colors, the culture is a lot more artsy, people are more expressive, louder, and they laugh morethey call it the Osaka way. A lot of famous comedians come from Osakait’s kind of the opposite of Tokyo.
What is it about the ukulele that’s making it so popular?
It’s very compact and affordable, and it’s very easy to start playing right away. It’s one of the only string instruments on which you can play full chords with just one finger. You can learn a song in five minutes. And being able to play so quickly inspires people to keep playing and learning it.
How wide is its popularity?
It’s becoming very popular as entertainment everywhere, and also for educational purposes. In North America, Australia and Europe it’s becoming the new recorder. There’s something about the sound that triggers something positive in people. A sound of joy. Nothing heavy, nothing too serious. When you see a kid or a senior citizen strumming away you have to smile.
What are your ukulele audiences like?
One of the nice things about being a ukulele player is that audiences have low expectations. And demographically It’s a great mix. I always hear from venues that three generations come together for our concerts, all for their own reasons. The kids because they play, their parents because they’re closer to my age and musical tastes, and the grandparents because they remember Elvis playing his uke, or Tiny Tim, or coming to Hawaii on vacation and hearing Don Ho singing Tiny Bubbles.