Bruce Shimabukuro, brother of Jake, is an ukulele aficionado in his own right. He recently gave lessons at Kapiolani Medical Center.

The other brother

Bruce Shimabukuro also
makes ukulele strings zing

Competition? Sibling rivalry? That's not how it is with Jake and Bruce Shimabukuro. Five years apart in age -- Jake's 26, Bruce 21 -- they share an intense love for the ukulele and consider themselves "best friends" as well as brothers.

Sure, there are people who ask Bruce if he's Jake's brother, but so what?

"It was something I could always laugh about," Bruce told me when the three of us met for coffee recently in Kaimuki.

"People that didn't know me at all would ask me to play something, but I guess I never got frustrated about it because I do play. If I didn't play the ukulele, I guess it could get frustrating, but my whole life, too, revolves around the ukulele in a different way (and) because of Jake I do have a lot of opportunities."

The opportunities Bruce enjoys mostly involve teaching. He got his first experience as a teacher several years ago when Jake was encouraged to open a ukulele academy in Hawaii Kai; Bruce had his own classroom there and conducted classes as a school-within-a-school.

As time passed, Jake discovered that it wasn't possible to maintain the academy without giving up everything else he enjoyed, so he closed the academy to concentrate on performing and recording. By that time Bruce had found his calling.

Bruce resumed teaching, at first in his garage, but when enrollment reached 60 last summer, he opened Ukulele Essence Inc., at 1109 12th Ave., suite 203. A year later he has "almost 120" and feels that he might be able to handle about 30 more. And no, he doesn't still teach the introductory-level stuff; four other instructors do that, while he works with students who have reached the intermediate level.

"We haven't done any advertising at all. Everything's been just word of mouth, but it's been moving along pretty good," he said.

Jake is delighted with his brother's success.

"People ask us what it's like (to have a brother who also plays professionally), but with our relationship the music doesn't matter. He's my best friend, and although we hardly go to each other's gigs, we go when we can and we try to support each other," Jake said.

Bruce agrees.

"I guess people think we're competing against each other -- a rivalry thing -- but for me, when I play music, it's a job, and when you're out there you try to make it as fun as possible for yourself and the audience. Everybody wants to make work fun," Bruce said, adding that he doesn't move around the stage the way Jake does.

"I can't sing to save my life, (but) my brother has a good voice," Jake countered.

"My brother's kinda cool because everything he does, he excels at, whereas for me, even in music I didn't necessary excel, but I loved it and that's why I kept doing it." Jake Shimabukuro (left) talking about Bruce (right).

BOTH BROTHERS got an early start on the instrument. Jake was 4. Bruce says he was "around 6." Their mother, Carol, was their first ukulele teacher. Jake says that their father, Derrick, and an aunt also had musical talent.

"I guess growing up with music and being part of a family that loves music so much, it's just imbedded," Jake says.

"Bruce was more into sports and athletics, and the only thing I did was play ukulele. Our parents always sent us to different activities, but I'm not an athlete at all. My brother's kinda cool because everything he does, he excels at, whereas for me, even in music I didn't necessary excel, but I loved it and that's why I kept doing it," Jake said, not sounding at all jealous or resentful.

But as the younger brother, Bruce felt he was often following Jake's lead in trying new activities.

"It was like when I was 6 years old, Jake's doing all this stuff and I'd tell my mom I wanted to do it, too, so that's how it would start. Like with gymnastics or the ukulele, as soon as Jake stopped or changed instructors I'd stop, but the ukulele was the one thing that Jake never really stopped. I would stop and do other things, but Jake would always make me strum something so he could practice."

Bruce says he got serious about the ukulele about the time he reached intermediate school -- in part because people remembered Jake and assumed that "Jake's brother" could play ukulele, too.

"We went to the same intermediate (school) and high school, and a lot of the teachers and people knew he could play ukulele, so they'd all ask me to play, so I'd ask Jake to teach me something I could play for them so maybe they'd grade me a little better."

Christopher Cavlay concentrates during a ukulele lesson from Bruce Shimabukuro at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children.

JAKE'S RISE TO international fame as been well documented since he first surfaced as part of the dynamic trio Pure Heart in 1999, then formed Colón with Lopaka Colón after Pure Heart split in 2000, and finally introduced himself as a solo recording artist with his Hoku Award-winning solo album, "Sunday Morning," in 2002.

Bruce has gone pretty much unnoticed by the general public until recently -- although Jake notes that his brother also contributed to the Pure Heart albums; his name is there in the liner notes -- but that's changing. Bruce accompanied Jake on several trips to Japan, and now goes there solo to conduct his own ukulele workshops; he also offers one-day classes for Japanese visitors in Waikiki during which he teaches them "the easiest way possible" to play a song.

Jake's second solo album, "Crosscurrent," is scheduled for release later this month. He says that it is "more rock-oriented" than his "Sunday Morning," and also very different from "a traditional ukulele album."

As for Bruce, he doesn't plan to record a full-length solo album until "maybe three years (from now) at the earliest."

"It takes a lot of time to record and then a bunch of work to promote it. The school is keeping me busy right now, and I really enjoy teaching. I wouldn't mind coming out with a CD, but I'm thinking maybe three years at the earliest. (Until then) I'd like to just record one or two songs on Jake's CDs."

Jake believes Bruce is ready.

"I was his age was when I released my first album with Pure Heart -- which he played on -- and I see where he's at, at the age of 21, and I'm just kind of blown away. He does things that I couldn't do when I was his age, and so I really admire him and I really look forward to what's he going to do."

In the meantime, Jake says, he's his brother's biggest fan.

"When I go to his performances and watch him play, I can't help but feel so proud. I love watching him play. Not just the performance, but seeing him up there doing something that I love and he loves. I'm glad that we can share that."

Jake adds that although Bruce is concentrating on teaching rather than performing, he's been developing his own style onstage as well.

"He's developing so fast as a performer that it's scary -- I tell myself I'd better keep practicing or he's going to surpass me!"

And that's not bad at all for a guy who some people may still think of as "Jake's brother."

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