Jake Shimabukuro is perched on the verge of stardom. He still does the little clubs, but he can also fill arenas, pulling in thousands of raptured admirers. And he’s a darling of the critics, who have compared him to such guitar greats as Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen.
Not bad, considering Shimabukuro plays the ukulele.
“I’ve always thought the ukulele was an untapped source of musical potential,” the 27-year-old from Honolulu said in an interview recently after wrapping up his third Japan tour. “I want to expose more and more people to the ukulele in this new fashion, changing people’s perspective of the instrument. Or just opening up their minds to the new possibilities of it.”
Though his repertoire includes a healthy dose of Hawaiian folk songs and light beach music, he also does classical, rock and blues. He performs solo for the more serious, classical pieces. In a group, he plugs in his ukulele and goes nuts, playing it with his teeth a la Hendrix or using a pedal board to create electric-guitarlike effects.
Such virtuosity is quite a feat, since the ukulele has only four strings and a frustratingly narrow range.
“Definitely, the ukulele is limited in a lot of ways. That’s what makes it difficult and challenging,” he said. “With a guitar, or any other string instrument, you have so much more range. Basically, you’re working with only two octaves, which makes it very challenging when you’re attacking classical pieces.”
Shimabukuro’s own exposure to the ukulele — which made its way to the island state about a century ago from Portugal — is very Hawaiian.
His mother got him playing it — or playing with it — when he was 4. After a few years, he was strumming for his immediate family, then for larger family gatherings, then weddings, then for whoever happened to be at Honolulu’s now defunct Java Java Cafe.
“It was a coffee shop about five minutes from my house,” he said. “So I could walk there.”
Three years ago, however, he decided to take his career up a notch. By 2002, he had become the first Hawaiian — and only ukulele player — to sign with Epic Records.
Shimabukuro, a fourth-generation Japanese-American, has since built a solid following in Japan, which has long had a love affair with virtually all things Hawaiian. Last year, he performed at the Fuji Rock concert, one of the biggest summer music extravaganzas in Japan, and did a joint performance with the popular band Tube that drew a crowd of 35,000.
“It was just a sea of people,” he said. “Amazing.”
Breaking the stereotypes
His most recent Japanese tour took him through nine cities this summer, mostly for shows in small to medium-sized venues. As usual, the critics were left gushing.
“He has fingers faster than the best rock guitarists,” the Yomiuri newspaper said in a glowing review. “If he plays country, his ukulele transforms into a banjo.”
Still, Shimabukuro has had a hard time hitting the big time. His biggest audience outside of Hawaii or Japan to date was about 10,000 at a festival in Colorado.
“I don’t want to say people are closed-minded, because that’s not quite it,” he said. “They have an image about the ukulele, an idea about it, and it’s hard to convince them to come to the shows. But once they do, and they see it, they appreciate it. To me, that’s an indication we are moving in the right direction.”
Shimabukuro isn’t bent on jettisoning the ukulele’s playful connotations.
“A lot of people think of the ukulele as a toy,” he said. “I certainly do. When I’m on stage, I want people to see that it’s fun to play. I’m having a ball, I hope they will too.”
To win over more hearts and minds, Shimabukuro will be touring the States over the next several months, playing at venues ranging from the Bumbershoot arts festival in Seattle to the Knitting Factory in Hollywood. His newest CD, “Walking Down Rainhill,” also was released in the United States on Tuesday.
But he says he isn’t in any particular hurry to become a household name.
“Doing music is like anything else, it takes time,” he said. “What I like isn’t being there, it’s trying to get there.”