Reporter Luke Parker interviewed world-renowned ukulele musician and Jake Shimabukuro ahead of his Sunday, Nov. 21, performance at the Rams Head On Stage venue in Annapolis. A “jolly ambassador of aloha,” Shimabukuro will debut his holiday show, “Christmas in Hawaii.” His latest album, the collaborative compilation “Jake and Friends,” was released Nov. 12.

Parker: I‘m a firm believer in character and personality. The way I see it, all things, all elements have a unique charm. How would you describe the character of the ukulele?

Shimabukuro: I think the one thing that I love about the ukulele is that it’s a very humble instrument. It’s not flashy. It’s very simple. What you see is what you get. You’ve got four strings and two octaves to work with, and I just feel like because the instrument is from Hawaii, it kind of delivers that vibe and that spirit of “aloha,” that positive energy. That’s what I feel whenever I pick it up or every time I hear it, I feel like I’m back home and sitting at the beach. That’s what I love: I love the whole culture and all the elements that come with the instrument.

Parker: You’re often credited as having expanded the capabilities of the ukulele, bringing in genres and styles otherwise thought impossible or inapplicable to it. But through all this change and innovation, would you say that you’ve seen the character of the instrument change?

Shimabukuro: Not for me, personally. And I think a lot of it is because I still live in Hawaii and whenever I come back home, you know, I still get to play the traditional music. I’m always reminded of the importance of being rooted, keeping one foot in tradition and honoring all the great ukulele players who have played the instrument before, and people who have inspired me; people like Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, who did “Over The Rainbow,” or Eddie Kamae or Peter Moon. These were the ukulele players from Hawaii that inspired me to play.

I think even with the innovation or trying to push the boundaries of the instrument, I feel like it’s so great to have that balance. I’m so grateful that I can kind of have the best of both worlds. Even though I do a lot of non-traditional music, my first love is always the traditional and, I guess, the natural sound of the instrument.

I kind of like going back and forth. I think it also makes it more accessible, because there are people out there who may resonate more with the non-traditional sounds of the instrument, which is great, and [there are others] who’re used to hearing it more in the traditional sense.

Parker: What is it like for you when you hear these non-traditional uses of the ukulele? It’s sort of taken on a completely different cultural purpose beyond its traditional use in Hawaii.

Shimabukuro: I think it’s really great because there was a period where there was a lot of experimentation being done with the ukulele, just doing different things with it. And I think it was so cool when that version of “Over The Rainbow” came out, when that version brought it back to just the strumming ukulele and someone singing over it. That was the sound that I grew up hearing, so it was so cool to hear that and hear it in movies, and national commercials. It became, you know, probably the most famous ukulele song in the modern day.

I think it was so cool to have that recording because it just brought everybody back to the roots of the instrument. Even though it wasn’t a traditional Hawaiian song, it was still played in that very traditional way, and I think it captured all the essence, all the elements, and like you said, character of the music that I grew up listening to.

Parker: Speaking of genres, on top of your own work, you’ve done a lot of covers – and now, covers with some of the artists themselves. But we’ll talk about that later. How do you decide which songs to cover? Is there a criteria, or do you think the sky’s the limit?

Shimabukuro: Well, first of all, I love covering songs that I grew up listening to or songs that I personally love. There can be a lot of different layers [to songs], so harmonically, it can be very complicated. What I usually like to do is find a single line melody from the beginning of the song to the end of the song, and if I can find that single line melody, whether its “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” if I can find the melody, then I can start incorporating the other three strings to kind of serve as the supportive layers or counter melodies. That’s kind of how I like to approach covers.

The reason I love doing covers is because I don’t have a lot of confidence in my own writing and composition. So even though I do like to compose, I’d much rather cover a song that I know is already good. [laughs] It’s less pressure. If you cover a Beatles song, as long as you play the melody, you can’t go wrong. The audience is going to love it because a well-written song just plays itself.

I like those because I feel like the listener just immediately connects with what you’re playing. They have a reference for that song, and they may already love that song. When you hear a song that you love, it’s like hearing your favorite story or watching your favorite movie over and over. I think that’s such a great way to connect with people.

Parker: You sound very humble. I hope you believe that you add something to the experience and you’re not just riding the wave of a cover.

Shimabukuro: So I do like to take the song and I like to do something a little bit different to it, but if the song has three different parts — like a verse, chorus, and a bridge — I always like to make sure I play one of the verses as close to the original as possible and then the first chorus. Then, when it repeats, I like to change it up a little bit. It might be a rhythmic change. It might be an embellishment of the melody, or maybe a reharmonization. Or it could just kind of go somewhere completely different. But it’s always to build a feeling.

I always like to make sure that I run through each section as close to the original as I can on the ukulele. I think a lot of the time, if it’s not a ukulele song, just playing it on the ukulele gives it a cool spin.

Parker: Has the experience of working with musical icons — all of them seemingly eager to work with you — taught you anything about where you are in your career? Have there been any moments of reflection?

Shimabukuro: For me, I’m just a fan of the ukulele. And what was cool for me was to be able to hear the ukulele present with all of these artists that I love. For example, I would’ve never imagined Warren Haynes with a ukulele or Sonny Landreth with a ukulele. I would never in my wildest dreams think of Jon Anderson’s voice singing to a ukulele. So as a fan of an instrument, this was a dream project for me. It allowed the ukulele to speak in these iconic artists who represent their respective styles. For me, that was just so cool.

Believe me, it was so scary. Sitting down and playing with Warren Haynes, or sitting down next to Sonny Landreth, Billy Strings, Willie Nelson — I mean, Bette Midler! It was crazy! But it was really an honor.

I love how the album turned out, because it was so organic. It’s a very honest record. I think with the exception of two tracks, everything else was recorded live in the studio. All the recordings on that record are all full takes. Some of them are the first take, like the Billy Strings one. Sometimes, it’s that first attempt. There’s a certain energy. There’s a sense of discovery. And there’s no pressure because you think you’re just recording, so I think you end up doing things and going for things that you wouldn’t necessarily try if you knew the red light was on.

I think it’s rare, you know, to be able to capture those moments.


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