Shimabukuro readies for Japan tour
BY JOHN BERGER / firstname.lastname@example.org
It has been a busy and memorable year for Jake Shimabukuro. He performed with the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra in June, played a sold-out show at the Waikiki Aquarium in August and celebrated the release of a new album, “Travels,” on Friday.
He and his wife, Dr. Kelly Shimabukuro, also welcomed the birth of their second child, Cole, in May.
Along with those career and personal milestones, he’s been doing a lot of touring. We caught up with Shimabukuro recently as he was about to leave for two weeks of shows in Japan.
HONOLULU STAR-ADVERTISER: At one point early in your solo career, you were experimenting with electronic “rock guitar” effects and speed-strumming. Several years later I heard you talk with an audience at the Hawai‘i Convention Center about the importance of allowing each note to breathe. Where does your work on “Travels” fit in between those extremes?
JAKE SHIMABUKURO: With this album there’s a really good balance of a lot of things. I think that experimenting is part of growing up and maturing and having different life experiences. I think in the past I’ve always been more of an extremist where it was all or nothing. I think now with this album there’s a lot of middle ground where I’ve not been afraid to dive into the gray areas and not be such an extremist.
In the past I’ve always used just my one tenor Kamaka ukulele, but on this album I use a baritone ukulele and another vintage tenor Kamaka ukulele, so I’ve been more open to using the various sizes. I’m also more open to using the electronics again, where I bring back the effects, I bring back the distortion and things like that for different colors.
SA: On “Travels” you’re playing Hawaiian standards and doing Top 40 remakes as well as original ukulele instrumentals. There’s also a song on the album that you wrote that has lyrics that you recorded with the Side Order Band on vocals. Is there a theme here? What is “Travels” all about?
JS: What this album for me is all about is paying tribute to all of my heroes — Eddie Kamae, Gabby Pahinui, Ohta-san, Peter Moon, Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole, Moe Keale, Troy Fernandez, Kelly Boy De Lima, Gordon Mark and Byron Yasui, Lyle Ritz — all these amazing players that have inspired me. It’s about going back to that and trying to express the range of the instrument and expressing just a little bit of what I learned from all these legendary ukulele players that came before me.
SA: When you were at the Waikiki Aquarium in August, you mentioned that becoming a father changed your life. Can you give me some examples?
JS: My life is so different now compared to what it was six, seven years ago. The whole process of finding your soul mate, getting married, having your first child — having our first baby, that was the biggest change ever in my life. It was so amazing. How you view the world and your perspective on everything completely changes. And then when we had our second one, it just completely changed the dynamics of my life and everything.
All of those experiences add tremendously to your art and your music because music is all about expressing who you are. The range of emotions that I can play with now, that I feel when I perform, are so much greater. There’s so much more depth and more to express. I feel the music completely differently now — even songs that I used to play. I don’t understand it completely yet, but it’s a joy.
SA: You are famous for your willingness to accommodate your fans. I’ve seen you sign autographs and pose with fans for photos for an hour or more — until everyone who has come along has had time with you — even though it wasn’t a planned meet-and-greet session. Where does that work ethic come from?
JS: Twenty-five years ago I used to go and watch Kapena perform all the time, and I’ll never forget the time when I went up and I got Kelly Boy’s autograph. When he found out I played ukulele, he handed me his six-string ukulele and he said, “Go jam ’em, go play ’em.” I was too nervous to play it, but just holding his ukulele, and the experience of him putting his hand on my shoulder — just the encouragement he gave me — I’ll never forget how it made me feel and how it inspired me.
And then there was the time my brother and I were sitting in the Molokai Airport trying to play “Kawika” the way Troy Fernandez played it with the Ka‘au Crater Boys, and Troy Fernandez happened to be flying home, too. He heard us and came over, and he was so nice and encouraging. I wanted him to sign my uke case, but the pen wasn’t working so he used the tip of the pen and he basically engraved his autograph into my ukulele case. It took him about 15 minutes, and I thought that was the coolest thing — he took the time to sit with me and talk and do that.
SA: Looking forward, is there something you’d like to do that you haven’t done yet?
JS: I would love to record Byron Yasui’s Concerto No. 1 for Ukulele and Orchestra. We recorded the live performance when we premiered it back in June, but I would love to get into the recording studio with the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra and actually do a high-quality recording of it. I’m so honored that I got to experience it and be a part of it, and Dr. Yasui’s piece is just a tremendous, tremendous piece of work. It was the greatest performance of my life, so I hope we can record it.