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Reviews > Shows

Published: 2013/09/18
by Reanna Feinberg

Jake Shimabukuro, Britt Fest, Jacksonville, OR- 9/14

Photo by Merri Cyr

Jake Shimabukuro is a one-man musical magician showcasing the spectacular in an unlikely medium. A ukelele athlete, he took a wide stance, shifted his knees in Elvis-like fashion, smiled broadly and pulled sounds out of the ukelele that rivaled a rock band. Typically associated with traditional Hawaiian music, the limited 4 strings and 2 octave chord range of Shimabukuro’s ukelele, required creative maneuverability, skill, innovation and practice to produce sounds on par with not only 5 stringed instruments, but drums, bass, bowed and electric instruments as well.

The music inspired laughs, cheers, hoots, gasps of recognition during instrumental versions of popular songs and numerous standing ovations. Alone on stage with this single simple instrument, Shimabukuro spent a good deal of time talking to the audience. He described the origins, inspirations and stories behind his songs—creating what felt like an intimate ukelele 101 workshop. His youthful, charismatic, playful and humble demeanor shone through in stories and music alike.

His ukelele on the other hand, was clearly in the death grips of serious psychological dysfunction. A tumultuous identity crisis, the ukelele (obviously off its meds) openly showcased schizophrenic multiple personalities in each song.

The psychosis began with “Ukelele Five Oh” (a play on a Hawaii Five Oh theme song) where pickin’ banjo fingers ran over the uke percolating the breeze of a car chase, 80’s hairdo, and a mid-air, high-five, still-life, in the music. The uke’s identity crisis as a banjo continued later in the evening as Jake theatrically acted out dueling banjos, challenging… himself… without a banjo. It turned into an Asian instrument with an oriental twang. Pinning down the high note, Jake held it there and strummed over it, starting a musical fire without a match, stick or hay for that matter, using his hands alone. The uke took a turn as a spanish guitar, violin, mandolin, bass and an entire electric rock band.

Shimabukuro employed numerous techniques to create the cacophony of sounds wrung and wrangled out of this tormented, soul-searching bundle of wood and strings: strumming incredibly fast, strumming incredibly fast while simultaneously picking intricate sweet harmonies. He would roll his fingers in circles as if herding sound out of the strings, gathering it from all edges and swirling it into the ether. He played every millimeter of that instrument, right off the end to the tips of the strings, usually reserved for simple anchoring to the solid body form, and then onto the body itself.

He learned to spread his fingers in newly formulated configurations to expand the limited range of the ukelele. In Gentle Mandolin for example (the title a play on words inspired by his hope for his one-year-old son to grow into a fine, gentle man…dolin) he carried the play on words to a play on instrumental sounds by attempting to create the tone of a mandolin on the ukelele by stretching the wing span of his fingers wider. In that way, altering the two octave chord range of the ukelele with the dexterity of his digits alone.

His music drew emotional blood. The soft, intentional, poignant notes of “Blue Roses,” inspired by the hallucinations of a friend’s ill grandmother who would see blue roses on the ceiling, played a death whisper. Softer and softer, it gently spread its notes along the earth with enough space between to drift into quietude. It could have ended there, beautifully, softer and softer until the light faded all the way out. He lifted it back into life with a sweet orchestration out of the natural high range of the ukelele. Expanding the depth of the music beyond what technique and practice alone can do, with his willingness to explore the emotional complexity of sound in the same manner he explored the full range of each string and surface of that tiny instrument.

Fine-tuned musicianship, skill, emotional depth and beauty were also met with drive and power. Dragon, his personal ode to his guitar heroes, rocked an electric ballad using pedals to loop sounds. This took us into one of his favorite rock ballads: Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” playing every instrument and vocal on 4 strings of his Hawaiian schizophrenic. He closed out the set with George Harrison’s, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The song that made him a YouTube sensation and launched his career. A traditional Hawaiian song for the encore, reminded me of this music’s roots and may have helped save the ukelele on its psychiatric bills by bringing it back home.

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