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[whitespace] Jake Shimabukuro Less Than Jake: 'Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro shreds the nylon.

Photograph courtesy of Sounds of Hawai'i

'Ukulele of the Gods

Jake Shimabukuro could be the first 'ukulele player to stage dive

By Todd Inoue

FORGET WHAT you know about 'ukulele players. Twenty-five-year-old Honolulu resident Jake Shimabukuro is a 'ukulele virtuoso--the Angus Young or Jimi Hendrix of the tiny four-stringed instrument. Onstage, he can't stand still; he runs all over the place, leaping off monitors and commanding amazing sounds with his nimble fingers.

On the phone from Honolulu, Shimabukuro is talking about one of his influences, Eddie Van Halen. I jokingly ask if he's ever replicated Van Halen's signature guitar solo, "Eruption," on the uke. Shimabukuro puts down the phone, picks up his instrument and--I can't believe my ears--faithfully rips the song's complex ending. He rapidly taps on the fret board, making the notes rise into the stratosphere. It's a move that would make a roomful of Guitar Center geeks moan in collective envy.

"Listening to Eddie Van Halen, the thing that I always admired was his innovation--and [the] ideas that he brought to the guitar," he says. "The things that he created back then were like, 'What's he doing? How is he getting those sounds out of his guitar?'"

The same can be said for Shimabukuro, who has become the point man for a new breed of 'ukulele player--one who blends the sweetness of traditional Hawaiian music with the bombast and showmanship of arena rock.

"Growing up, I never listened to Hawaiian music, and I rarely listened to 'ukulele music," Shimabukuro admits. "I listened to Ohta San [Herb Ohta] and Peter Moon, but I was always intrigued by rock guitarists like Eddie Van Halen, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix and Yngwie Malmsteen--guys like that. I admired the energy they had onstage. They were crazy wild men."

Shimabukuro grew up on the island of O'ahu. His mother was his first teacher, introducing him to the island's 'ukulele legends, as well as to jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. He studied piano, read classical music and played in jazz and improv bands in high school. He joined a contemporary Hawaiian band called Pure Heart, which won four Hoku awards (the Hawaiian Grammy).

Later, Jake joined with percussionist Lopaka Colón and others to form the short-lived group Colón. Since Colón's split-up in 2001, Jake has been busy working on his first solo CD, due out in November, and traveling around the island and to Japan to lead 'ukulele seminars.

The 'ukulele was introduced to Hawai'i by Portuguese paniolos, or cowboys, in 1879. The instrument has survived fads and Tiny Tim to become a lasting piece of Hawaiian culture. It was only with the rise of legends like Roy Smeck and Eddie Kamae that the 'ukulele player could be associated with any shred of virtuosity. Shimabukuro is a direct descendent of the uke's innovators. He sees through the instruments limitations by experimenting.

"'Ukulele players have to innovate even more, because they're limited to four nylon strings," Shimabukuro says. "I have to think extremely rhythmically, because it's a very percussive instrument. It's a real challenge to try to make those four strings sound as full as I possibly can. You don't have a lot of sustain on those strings. You hit [a string], and it rings for three seconds, if you're lucky. It's really tough."

Jake appears in Sounds of Hawai'i, the first mainland shed tour dedicated to Hawaiian music and culture. The show features performers Na Leo, Kalapana and Sean Na'auao, local hula halaus and cooking demos with Sam Choy--and is hosted by KPIX's Malou Nubla.

Jake will be performing his solo set. If you bring a camera, use fast film. "I love running around from one end to another," he warns. "I love jumping off the stage. I love jumping onto things. When I'm out there, it's like an extreme sport."

Jake Shimabukuro appears at the Sounds of Hawai'i show on Saturday (June 29) at the Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mtn. View. Doors open at 5:30pm. Tickets are $22.50-$50. (Ticketmaster, 408.998.TIXS)

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From the June 27-July 3, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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