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Speaking With — Jake Shimabukuro 06.29.12

Jake Shimabukuro

Jake Shimabukuro

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♦ 7 p.m. July 1

♦ Ravinia, Lake-Cook and Green Bay roads, Highland Park

♦ Tickets, $21-$45

♦ (847) 266-5100;

Updated: July 30, 2012 6:07AM

Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert once tweeted: “Resolve to learn the ukulele in 2011.”

He wasn’t talking about ukulele phenom Jake Shimabukuro, but he sure was on to something about this unique musical instrument.

Give a listen to Shimabukuro’s work, and suddenly the ukulele is transformed; no longer a joke or a toy, the ukulele is capable of great emotion. Listen even closer to this young Hawaiian’s arrangements, and you’ll hear Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” or Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” as you never could have imagined possible.

Born and raised and living in Hawaii, Shimabukuro knows a thing or two about ukulele. For starters, it’s pronounced ooh-kuh-leh-leh, he confirms with a slight chuckle. And his way of making beautiful music (jazz, rock, classical, traditional Hawaiian music) on this often misunderstood and overlooked four-stringed instrument is anything but a tip-toe through the tulips.

In 2006, Shimabukuro became an Internet superstar thanks to his YouTube video of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” More than seven million views later, the 34-year-old finds himself touring the world with A-list bands, appearing on late-night talk shows and performing for Queen Elizabeth II.

In October, Shimabukuro will release a new CD, “More Ukulele,” which boasts Alan Parsons (“Abbey Road,” “Dark Side of the Moon”) at the helm.

Shimabukuro talked to the Sun-Times about the instrument he has reinvented.

Question:When did you know the ukulele was the instrument for you?

Jake Shimabukuro: When I was about four years old. I always loved hearing it played and everyone in Hawaii plays it. [Laughs] Kids learn to play it in elementary school. My mom taught me some basic chords and I was hooked.

Q.You have a very unique strumming/picking technique, that calls to mind some pretty heady electric guitar playing.

JS:[Laughs] Thank you! The strumming technique I use was inspired by Bruce Lee actually. He developed this [martial arts move] called the one-inch punch, where his fist would be one inch away from his target, and he could get enough power in that one inch to send a 300-pound person flying backwards. I realized there’s a lot of power in that snap of the wrist, because when you’re punching like he did you don’t need to use your whole arm. When you play guitar and strum you’re using biceps and triceps to move up and down. I realized you could just turn your wrist, your forearm, using smaller muscles in your arm that are much more efficient and much quicker.

Q.Did you find the ukulele legacy of Don Ho or Tiny Tim something to embrace or avoid?

JS: I absolutely embrace those guys. I love what they did for the instrument. A lot of people ask me why I don’t get offended when someone says the ukulele is not a real instrument. I just always say I wish every instrument were like the ukulele, an instrument that anyone can pick up and play because it’s not intimidating at all. Those guys showed how much fun the ukulele is to play. And that’s what I want to do, too. Everyone should play the ukulele because they can.

Q.Some pretty big names in the music world seem to have taken notice of ukulele music.

JS: I’m just so excited that Train came out with “Hey, Soul Sister,” and it was the first time that a ukulele song went to No. 1. Eddie Vedder came out with his ukulele record and that really helped me out. When the lead singer of Pearl Jam plays the ukulele the instrument suddenly becomes very cool. Taylor Swift has been using one in concert for a while. I toured with Cyndi Lauper, Ziggy Marley, Bella Fleck and the Flecktones.

Q.You also toured with Jimmy Buffett. What was that like?

JS: He’s the same person off-stage as you see onstage, all full of energy. He just loves life. It was the first time I played in front of so many people. That was just crazy. And he had me open every show with the National Anthem.

Q.Is it daunting to play that song solo in front of 50,000 people?

JS: I thought my knees would buckle. There is so much pressure to play or sing that song. Everyone knows it [laughs] and you’re not gonna embellish the melody. The hardest part was making it sound reverent on the ukulele.

Q.How did you decide to cover “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the ukulele?

JS: People would always dare me in interviews to arrange more and more difficult songs for the ukulele. And so one time someone suggested the song and I just went back and started working on it. The song is so huge. So I had to strip it down to its bare minimum. That’s how I approached it and people seem to love it.

Q.What does the word “ukulele” mean?

JS: It comes from two words: “uku” which means flea, and “lele” which means jumping. So it means jumping flea. Maybe because your fingers look like jumping fleas on the strings when you play it.

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