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Jake Shimabukuro

A Conversation with Jake Shimabukuro

Puremusic: First of all, I'll try not to sound too amazed, even though your playing seems to have a jaw-dropping effect on people.

Jake Shimabukuro: [laughs]

PM: But I've been reading so much and listening to your record so much the last few days, it's like the ukulele is the new soundtrack to my world. It's a very interesting sound bath to have immersed myself in.

JS: Oh, thank you for all that.

PM: Thanks, too, for inspiring me to break my ukulele out of its case. I bought one a long time ago, and I just never got around to it with all the other instruments in the house. But I've been playing it the last few days, and it's really a gas.

JS: Yeah. Oh, that's excellent.

PM: But you really need to listen to somebody great and to watch somebody great and see some of the possibilities. If a kid had an electric guitar and he never really played it much, and then he saw Woodstock and he saw Hendrix and he went, "Oh, I get it!"


PM: It's like that!

JS: Oh, yeah. It's such a fun instrument. And that's the great thing about the ukulele, it doesn't matter what level you're at, it's always fun. It just makes you smile. It just has that effect.

PM: Sure, even if you're just strumming a couple of pretty chords and singing a song, it sounds perfect. Yeah, you don't have to be like killing it, or even trying; strummed or picked, it just sounds gorgeous. And I guess one of the reasons that your playing seems to have that jaw-dropping effect on people is because of the instrument itself, the diminutive nature of the instrument. It doesn't look like something that's going to knock you on your keister until this young cat, Jake Shimabukuro, gets up there and shows you how it can happen.

JS: [laughs]

PM: Now, you're a Hawaiian born, Japanese American musician, is that correct, all those in a row?

JS: Yeah. Hawaiian born, yeah, Japanese American, yes.

PM: That's a mouthful, right? I mean, does the combination of all those things mean a great deal to you?

JS: Yes. And it's actually--being born and raised in Hawaii is just very different because the majority of the population that's in Hawaii are Asians, right? And I think unlike any place else in the United States. With my Japanese heritage, it was great for me to grow up in a place like Hawaii because that's my own culture: even though I'm an American I was raised in the Japanese culture, and observe the practices that we have, especially festivals. Just recently I've been going over to Japan a lot to tour and perform and stuff like that. And it wasn't much of a culture shock for me except to see how many people live there, especially in the centers like Tokyo, that was a bit overwhelming. But as far as just from a cultural standpoint, it felt very familiar to me.

PM: As well traveled a person as I may be, I've not yet had the pleasure of going either to Japan or Hawaii. And yet it seems to me that the natures of those two peoples are quite different. And so first of all, is that true to you? And secondly, do you feel more Japanese by nature or more Hawaiian? I would say probably more Japanese, right? That's your blood, that's more your essence, right?

JS: Well, the thing about Hawaii is that we have our own culture, too. It was a monarchy at one point, and it had its own language, and they even have their own traditional Hawaiian foods, and its own music and all of that. And I grew up with all of that stuff, too, so that feels very comforting to me, and very familiar to me as well. And I guess, I don't know, a large part of me also feels very comfortable with my Japanese side. But then on the other hand the Japanese culture--or I should say that the Asian cultures are very well, I guess, adapted into local Hawaiian culture, or modern local Hawaiian culture. Chinese New Years, and all of that, is a big part of Hawaii now.

PM: Wow.

JS: We celebrate all of these things. So it's really just wonderful to see all of the influences and traditions blending together in local Hawaiian culture.

PM: That's really very interesting, how global an upbringing your life has been. How would you describe the atmosphere of the actual home you grew up in, musically, or otherwise?

JS: Well, we lived in a two-bedroom apartment. My parents loved music, so there would always be music playing in the living room. My mom and dad both collected music and had a pretty large collection of vinyl records. Yeah, definitely there always stuff playing. I remember listening to albums like the Byrds.

PM: Oh, wow.

JS: The Cars. And then things like Air Supply and Olivia Newton John.


JS: So there was a lot of different things. And then of course we had a lot of Hawaiian music going on. My all-time favorite traditional Hawaiian band was called the Sunday Manoa; they were really great. I grew up with their music. I've always loved traditional Hawaiian music.

PM: And it's something that people on the mainland don't really know much about. I think we really missed something beautiful there; Hawaiian music is really a rich treasury.

JS: Yeah, there's just something really magical about that music. Often it's not the most complex music, compared to some other forms of music, like Bach or Bop. But I think the beauty of Hawaiian music really lies in its simplicity and just something about the feel; there's a certain kind of groove in Hawaiian music. I guess it's something similar like jazz, and playing swing or something, or like a blues shuffle. There's a certain kind of a feel or a groove that's hard to mimic or replicate if you don't grow up around it.

PM: Right.

JS: Hawaiian music has that same kind of thing. When you listen to traditional Hawaiian music, whoever is strumming their instrument or playing that rhythm, there's a certain way that they groove that is just strong, and it's really special. You can feel it. It has a lot to do with that whole island, or having the year-round summer, and the gorgeous weather, and all of that.

PM: No doubt. Now, have you, over your lifetime, played various size ukuleles, or do you stick with the concert?

JS: Well, actually now I play a tenor. But yeah, when I was younger, I started out with a standard size, which is the smallest. When I got older, I went to the concert size, and I liked the concert size a lot. And then finally when I was in high school I switched over to the tenor. And there's another size, there's a one larger than the tenor, called the baritone.

PM: That's the one I have.

JS: Oh, really?

PM: Yeah. I interviewed this artist named Amy Correia who used a baritone uke, and I loved the sound of it. And so I found a Harmony from the '60s on eBay, and it was beautiful, and it sounds great.

JS: Oh, perfect. The baritone is the only one of the four that is tuned actually like the four strings on the guitar.

PM: Right. So that was appealing to a guitar player as well.

JS: Yeah, if you're a guitar player, a baritone is a good choice, everything kind of makes sense. You don't have the fifth and the sixth string.

PM: Right. But if you're a fingerstyle guitar player, and the fifth and the sixth string is the whole business of your thumb, then all of a sudden you go, yeah, but what am I doing with my thumb now?


JS: Yeah. But it's a great sound.

PM: But you don't mess with the baritone much yourself, right? It's not for the gig you like to do?

JS: Yeah. I like the traditional tuning with the high first string.

PM: Ah.

JS: And the reason I like that is because of the voicings I can get. You know, because the first string and the fourth string are only a whole step apart, you can play chords and get some really close voicings. To get those voicings on the baritone tuning, you'd have to make really wide stretches.

PM: I see. See, I didn't understand that. I thought that they were just tuned relatively like each other. But they're not.

JS: But when you play the tenor, because of that high string, a lot of clusters are possible like a piano player, where you can play notes right next to each other to produce that tension.

PM: Oh, I'm getting another ukulele. I got to figure out what you're talking about, that sounds great.

JS: And all those big chords, without huge stretches.

PM: Wow. So similarly, do you always use the ukulele you play in standard tuning? You never like go to some alternate tuning or anything like that, right?

JS: Yeah. There was a time maybe about 10 years ago where I was experimenting with alternate tunings, and in fact I have recorded two songs that use an alternate tuning. But the funny thing is after a while I got so lazy about retuning it on stage that I just learned the song in standard tuning.


JS: And playing in standard tuning is better for people who want to learn from what you're doing. And it can be seen as a kind of cheap or easy way to get your instrument to sound different, if you follow.

PM: Right.

JS: So I like the challenge of forcing my hands to make the changes to make the songs different.

PM: Absolutely. I mean, if I play something tricky that I know somebody else doesn't know how to do in first position, their natural inclination will be to say, "Wow, what tuning is that?" I say, "Well, it's standard tuning, dude." They go, "Oh, really? Show me how you're doing that."

JS: "I need to go home and practice it."

[laughter]       continue

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