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Dragon Attack: Jake Shimabukuro named his new album after the martial arts legend.

Rising Force

Jake Shimabukuro proves that ukulele players can rock, too

By Todd Inoue

ON THE PHONE from Hawaii, ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro is raving about Swedish guitar legend Yngwie Malmsteen, one of his influences. In particular, he's describing a live video he saw of Malmsteen's "Far Beyond the Sun." "He's running back and forth, doing these sweeping minor runs," Shimabukuro says. "He's sprinting across the stage, ripping that thing. He played it faster than the recording; I couldn't believe it."

Onstage, Jake performs similar antics—running across the stage, jumping off monitors, using delays, sweeping runs, pedal effects, playing to the crowd—except his weapon of choice is the ukulele, the sedate cousin of the more feral guitar.

Jake should look ridiculous, but he doesn't. Like Malmsteen, Shimabukuro is widely recognized by Hawaiian music fans as the uke master. He builds on the foundation laid by Hawaiian legends and adds flamenco, bluegrass, jazz, funk, Celtic and Swedish metal touches. His albums Sunday Morning, Crosscurrent and Walking Down Rainhill showcase Shimabukuro's blindingly proficient, pick-free technique. He can rock a party and compose a beautiful ukulele silhouette. The 28-year-old Oahu resident could be called the DJ Q-Bert or Louis Armstrong of the ukulele.

Last summer, he spent two weeks as the opening act for Bela Fleck, an experience he credits for boosting his confidence and education. Among the lessons, Shimabukuro realized that he was covering up his playing with effects. On the Bela Fleck tour, his ukulele had only one line shooting from the body of the instrument straight into the house system. No artificial ingredients allowed.

"That really forced me to think about what I'm playing and have the confidence knowing I can create a sound with just what I'm playing vs. relying on delay and chorus and wah-pedals," he says. "I learned so much in that two-week tour. I learned 100 times more than I ever have."

He puts these lessons into motion on his just-completed album, Dragon, due in August. Shimabukuro served as executive producer—a first for him. In the past, each track was laid down separately, and Jake would come in and flare over it. On Dragon, Jake, jazz drummer Noel Okimoto and bassist Dean Taba are playing in real time, relying on nodded cues and improvisation. "We somewhat arranged the songs but left them open," Shimabukuro explains. "That element made it a lot more fun. We can play off each other. There was that element of surprise."

The title has significance for Jake. He was born in the year of the dragon and lists Bruce Lee as a huge influence in his music. "I would always try to 'be like water,' to be relaxed and use the least amount of energy," he continues, referring to Bruce's famed philosophy on being. "Even with my strumming, I'd break down which muscles I use so I can minimize the movements."

This growth will be displayed at the Stanford Lively Arts performance with slack key guitarist Steve Sano. More ballads, he says, including a cover of "Ava Maria." It's a big change from 2002, when Jake began a Shoreline Amphitheater show by strumming a mind-erasing ukulele version of "Also Sprach Zarathrusta."

That's not to say there won't be moments of craziness. He's still a metalhead at heart. Recently, Jake attended the annual NAMM show, where major gear companies display their wares. He met some of his heroes including, whoa, Yngwie Malmsteen. They took pictures. "He loves Hawaii; he loves the music and the beaches," Jake says. "He told me he's looking into buying a house. I said, 'You should come!'"

The Swede didn't know who Jake was, which was cool. Because should Yngwie move to Jake's home turf, the sandy beaches of Oahu, he will.

Stanford Lively Arts presents Jake Shimabukuro and Steve Sano on April 9 at Dinkelspiel Auditorium. Tickets are still available for the 3:30pm show (the 8pm show is sold-out). For information, visit livelyarts.stanford.edu or call 650.725.ARTS.

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From the April 6-12, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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