Star-Bulletin Features

Jake Shimabukuro has accomplished much in the last five years and continues to explore the possibilities of his instrument, with rock god panache.

From an upcoming ukulele
symposium to a solo CD project,
Jake Shimabukuro's career is on a

High  strum

By John Berger

Life has been fast and mostly sweet for ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro since his 21st birthday five years ago. Within a year his group, Pure Heart, had recorded and released its debut album. A year or so later, the trio -- Shimabukuro, Lopaka Colón and Jon Yamasato -- became four-time Na Hoku Hanohano Award winners.

When Yamasato decided to return to school, Shimabukuro and Colón regrouped as Colón with new band mates Guy Cruz (guitar/vocals) and Andrew McLellan (bass), and a new sound. The group's debut album, "The Groove Machine," was a finalist in several categories at the 2001 Hoku Awards and took top honors as "Favorite Entertainer(s) of the Year," voted by the public.

Along the way, Shimabukuro also opened an ukulele academy in Hawaii Kai, which has since closed, and recorded a solo instrumental single as a requiem for the Ehime Maru that gave him a shot of publicity in Japan.

Now he's conducting an ukulele symposium at Kaimuki High School. A day of workshops for children 6-12 and adults will culminate in a concert in which he'll perform with students from each group.

Jake Shimabukuro shows his excitement as he raises one of the four Hoku Awards he and his bandmates won in 1999.

"Music is not just learning it and keeping it to yourself, but sharing it. Those experiences go hand in hand," he said.

"We're going to have it all professionally videotaped so that the students will have something. Even for me, sometimes I look back at my old videotapes and think, 'Oh, my gosh!' but it feels good, and then see how much you've progressed. This is something I'm going to do annually so hopefully the ones that come every year will see themselves every year growing and progressing."

Shimabukuro sees conducting an annual symposium as a way to share and teach without the time constraints involved in teaching full time. He says the academy sounded like a good idea but proved more time-intensive than he'd expected. He hired competent instructors but discovered that many students were canceling their appointments if they knew he'd be out of town.

Shimabukuro has no regrets.

"I learned a lot from that experience. It was something I always wanted to do, but I think my passion for performing overrides that," he said. "My passion lies more in performing. I know I'll eventually go back into teaching, but I think that the more experiences I have, the more I'll be able to offer when I do go back.

"A symposium is not a weekly commitment or a daily commitment, but it still gives me a chance to share what I know and to reach out to people who want to play the ukulele."

SHIMABUKURO IS ALSO coming into his own as a stand-alone solo player and recording artist. Colón has disbanded -- temporarily, at least.

"We knew that it wasn't going to be forever," Shimabukuro said. "The way we approached Colón was that each one of us as individuals were kind of like solo artists. Andrew was still playing with other bands when he was with Colón. Lopaka is so great he can play with anybody, and Guy Cruz started as a solo artist -- he alone, with his guitar-playing and his voice and his song-writing, is incredible, too. When we were together, people would ask me about the group, and I'd tell them that we were four solo artists performing at the same time on the same stage."

Cruz is working on the next chapter of his career; McLellan is touring. Colón may follow in his father Augie Colón's footsteps and become the exotic jazz percussionist of his generation, go to Puerto Rico to explore his musical heritage, or do both.

Shimabukuro is working on an album of ukulele instrumentals that he expects to have out before Thanksgiving. He's found it a challenging project.

"I don't sing, and it's rare to have just solo ukulele out there in a large concert venue. I've had to work out a set of arrangements and tunes that the ukulele could carry itself -- covering the melody, the harmony and the chords, and the rhythmic aspects, with one instrument.

"I'm a lot more critical because it's myself now, and it's difficult because I have to rely on my own ears. It's scary because it's only my name on this album, and if it flops I think I'll be so devastated. But even if it does flop, I'm not going to give up. This is something that I want to keep doing until I'm satisfied."

Shimabukuro may have a guest or two on some tracks. He'll do some of the guitar tracks himself.

"One of the things that I think is going to be different about this album is that everything is going to be focused on the ukulele. When you're part of a group, you want to make sure that no one instrument stands out and that everything is balanced between the players. In this situation I have to think differently because I need the focus to be on me and the ukulele.

"I want to present the instrument in a way that it hasn't been presented before. I don't want the album to just be a representation of me, but a representation of the instrument."

It was Shimabukuro who gave Pure Heart most of its visual representation and impact as a stage act. He'd dance around the stage as the mood and the music inspired him while Yamasato stood and sang and the handsome Colón radiated post-modern cool on percussion and jungle noises. Shimabukuro was the primary showman in Colón (the group) as well, and continues to explore the possibilities of playing the ukulele with the panache of a rock guitar god.

HAWAII HAS already seen and heard him play the instrument through an assortment of rock-style electronic effects, and he's always open to new technologies and fresh ideas. He's experimented with a solid-body electric ukulele but prefers the sound of a traditional hollow-body instrument.

"It's really interesting, but I'm trying to be very cautious when I do the electric stuff because I want people to still know when they're listening to it that it's not a guitar. I'm trying to create techniques, especially using the high G-string voicing, because that's the uniqueness about the instrument you don't have with guitar. Otherwise, any other electric guitarist can do the same thing."

Shimabukuro experimented with steel strings, but he says the results thus far sound "too much like electric guitar."

"If someone can mimic exactly what you're doing on your instrument with another instrument, I think it's very dangerous, and I think it's something to stay away from."

He's also been working on ways to reduce or utilize the "noise" that comes out playing an electrified hollow-body ukulele.

Shimabukuro's brand of choice is Kamaka. He got his first Kamaka, "a small standard," when he was 4, and moved on to Kamaka Concert, tried a Kamaka 6-string and then settled on a 4-string tenor.

"It was clean, versatile and the ukulele in its most basic form. That's what I like about it.

"I've tried all kinds of different things, and I guess I just want to show people that the sky's the limit. If you can think it, just do it. My own thing is always to be innovative. Innovation is forward movement -- that's how we progress."

He advises the next generation of ukulele players to develop their own style and sound.

"I had all my ukulele heroes when I was growing up, and then I realized there's already an Ohta-san, there's already an Eddie Kamae, a Troy Fernandez, a Kelly Boy DeLima, and that's when I knew that I had to take a step back and not try to sound like these other people but just totally do my own thing. That's when I started experimenting (and) trying to find my own voice.

"I'm still searching, and I think that's something that's going to be ongoing because every day is a new challenge. The great thing about music is that you can never learn everything. The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don't know."

Ukulele Symposium

Where: Kaimuki High School Auditorium
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Cost: $8 includes pupu-style buffet reception
Call: 478-0080

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