Jake Shimabukuro Brings Ukulele to Ann Arbor

As Jake Shimabukuro begins touring to promote his new album, “Grateful,” he’s generally playing theaters and performing arts centers, often in cities where he previously played clubs. The touring reflects the increase in Shimabukuro’s visibility and popularity over the past four years.

Shimabukuro is performing “Holidays in Hawai’i” at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor on Dec. 8 at 7:30 p.m.

“I’m so grateful, it’s been such a blessing,” Shimabukuro said. “I love the theaters, man. It’s so much fun. I love the theater vibe. The acoustics are so amazing and you just feel so connected with the audience. I’m so appreciative of the support and all of that.”

Born in Honolulu, the 46-year-old Shimabukuro had been a star in his home state and Japan for more than a decade, when a 2006 video of his version of George Harrison’s Beatles tune “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” garnered widespread notice online, launching him on the path to becoming the world’s most famous ukulele player.

But his journey with the four-stringed instrument began decades before anyone heard him play.

“I first picked it up when I was 4 because my mom played,” Shimabukuro said. “She taught me a few chords and I just loved it. But I was always so shy, I would never play in front of people. When I got older, I took lessons. I always loved playing, but I would only play for my mom and dad. I never dreamed of being on stage, I never even wanted to.

“But it was my passion. I would try to get home from school as soon as I could so I could practice. Back then, I never thought of it as practice. I just wanted to play. That was like my equivalent to video games or whatever. I just wanted to play the ukulele.”

In high school, Shimabukuro met some other ukulele players and began to play with them. But he resisted those who urged him to play at school assemblies and talent shows.

“I was like, ‘No, no, no.’ But somehow, eventually, they talked me into it,’ he said. “Then I started doing some of those things. And I just really enjoyed performing in front of people, which was a big surprise to my family and even myself, because I was always very shy.”

Talked into making a record by his high school music teacher, Shimabukuro heard himself on the radio shortly after graduating high school and became the ukulele player in Pure Heart, a trio that, with its 1999 debut album, won four Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, the Hawaiian equivalent of a Grammy.

When the band broke up in 2002, Shimabukuro went solo, signing a deal with Sony Japan. Then, just before “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which got more than 15 million views, he moved into the U.S. market, opening for Jimmy Buffett and seeing his albums climb to the top of the Billboard World Music charts.

Those albums contain a mix of Shimabukuro original compositions, cover songs and collaborations with the likes of Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes, Dolly Parton and, on the just released “Grateful,” many of Hawaii’s top musicians.

His new album, “Grateful,” marks a coming home. The two-disc set finds Shimabukuro collaborating with a who’s who of Hawaiian musical royalty, as he continues to push the boundaries of what the ukulele can bring to music.

On his current tour, he said, he can’t include the collaborations. But it will include some new songs, which makes him a little nervous, along with his attention-grabbing covers.

“Maybe 40 percent, if not percent, of the show is original songs, but I like to mix in the covers because, for me, when I’m listening to new artists, it’s always so exciting when I hear something that I’ve already heard before and I can hear their interpretation of it,” Shimabukuro said. “It makes it a lot easier to connect with the audience, so I love throwing those in.”

Those covers are selected because they’re personal to Shimabukuro, who grew up listening to his mother’s collection of records from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s before discovering songs on his own, often while working at a record store.

“Whenever I do a song like ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ or if I get to do something like (Queen’s) ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or (Leonard Cohen’s) ‘Hallelujah,’ to me it’s the equivalent of a sports fan wearing their favorite player’s jersey. I remember growing up, you know, you would wear your No. 23 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan jersey, or my son loves Steph Curry’s and wears his jersey.

“As a musician when you cover another song of another artist, it’s like putting on your George Harrison jersey or your Queen jersey or your Leonard Cohen jersey. You’re kind of celebrating your appreciation and admiration for these amazing artists that inspired you and influenced you.”

So how do you turn an iconic song from a rock band into something that can be played on the ukulele?

“It’s hard to explain,” Shimabukuro said. “I cover, of course, the melody because I do an instrumental version of it. Take ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ I kind of worked out a fingerstyle way of playing it. So you’re covering chord movements, and there’s a lot of counterpoint in that piece, too. I try to cover as much as I can with the counterpoint melodies while keeping … Freddie Mercury’s voice, his melody lines. You’ll just have to come to the show to get it.”

Shimabukuro brushes off the notion that he’s been one of the main inspirations of the ukulele boom that has seen thousands, from little kids to their grandparents, pick up the instrument, especially during the pandemic.

But his fans prove otherwise, bringing their own ukes to every show.

“Whenever we play in a new venue, the people there will be saying, ‘There’s so many people that brought their instruments to the show tonight. Are they going to play along or something?'” Shimabukuro said.

“No, they don’t play along or come up (on stage). They’ll bring them to the signing booth after and I’ll sign them. They’ll say, ‘We’ve never seen that before.’ It’s just kind of a fun, fundamental thing that happens at the shows. I love that.”

Hill Auditorium. 825 N University Ave, Ann Arbor. Ticket prices vary.

L. Kent Wolgamott
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