In 2006, a YouTube upload of Jake Shimabukuro playing a ukulele rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” became one of the early viral videos.
After that, the Hawaiian-born Japanese American became an ambassador, of sorts, for the ukulele, and his career has taken him to some incredible heights, including performances with Jimmy Buffett, Jack Johnson, Bette Midler, Ziggy Marley, Bela Fleck and many others.
He’ll be performing at the McCallum Theatre on Tuesday, Nov. 27.
Shimabukuro said during a recent phone interview that ukulele renditions of rock songs never feel strange to him, even when he ventures into works such as New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” and Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9.”
“I’m a big fan of so many different bands and different music, so when I have the opportunity to cover one of their songs, it’s like the equivalent of wearing your favorite athlete’s jersey,” Shimabukuro said. “I just love that music can make such an impact on someone’s life.”
After growing up in Hawaii, Shimabukuro said he feels a connection to traditional ukulele music.
“When I first started, that was all that I really played. To this day, I still do the traditional music, because that’s a big part of my culture and a big part of the instrument,” he said. “In all of my concerts, I make sure that I have at least one or two traditional songs in the show so I can really bring it back to the roots of the instrument.”
When I brought up his cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Shimabukuro gave a nod to the late Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole as having performed one of the best covers of that song.
“I really think that version is very special—the re-harmonization of the song and the stripping down of the elements of the Judy Garland version from the Wizard of Oz that we’re all familiar with,” he said about Kamakawiwo’ole’s version. “I think what he did with the song is absolutely brilliant. He re-harmonized the tune in a simplistic way that I never thought I would ever hear in that song. His choice of how he phrases and arranged the melody—he does alter it, but not too much where it feels like a different song—is stunning and one of the most moving arrangements of that song that I’m aware of.”
Ukulele is being played more and more in contemporary pop/rock music—and Shimabukuro loves it.
“For me, I think in the last 15 to 20 years, there have been so many wonderful artists that are very respected and have picked up the instrument. I feel like I’m in good company,” he said. “Eddie Vedder did a ukulele record. The lead singer of Pearl Jam doing a ukulele album—that blew my mind! Paul McCartney started playing it during live shows as a tribute to George Harrison. Bands like Train in their song ‘Hey, Soul Sister,’ that whole track’s driving force is the ukulele. … Seeing these iconic musicians and artists picking up the ukulele—it’s cool, and it becomes something that becomes acceptable.
“I’m stoked, man. A lot of it started with George Harrison, who was a big ambassador for the instrument, because he lived in Hawaii, and he fell in love with the instrument and started using it in his recordings and his concerts. He was known for always bringing ukuleles with him to get-togethers.”
Even as Shimabukuro’s popularity has grown, he said he still loves Hawaii and can’t imagine living anywhere else.
“When I was younger, I thought it would be cool in New York City, Japan, or even in Los Angeles or Nashville where you have so much access to music and the arts. The older I got, I realized that in Hawaii, I was so fortunate to be born and raised here,” he said. “Especially as an Asian American living in the United States, I think Hawaii is the only place where you can grow up and be part of the majority as an Asian American. Anywhere else, I would have had a different experience as an Asian American. We have such an amazing culture and rich heritage. There’s so much history here in the islands. The music was very influential. The culture and the lifestyle really shaped who I am and how I approach music and the arts.
“As far as moving now, it’d be hard, because I’m married, and I have two kids. I really want my kids to have a similar experience growing up, taking them to the beach, and taking them fishing.”
For his show at the McCallum, Shimabukuro is going to strip things down a bit.
“The last couple of years, I’ve been touring with a band. For this tour, it’s going to be a trio,” he said. “I have a bass player from Nashville named Nolan Verner, and I have a guitar player named Dave Preston who is a great guitarist. It’ll just be the three of us—electric guitar, electric bass and electric ukulele.”
Jake Shimbukuro will perform at 8 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 27, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $28 to $78. For tickets or more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.