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While his uke gently weeps

Jake Shimabukuro takes the ukulele seriously. Ever heard George Harrison like this?

February 01, 2007|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

PICTURE Bruce Lee with a ukulele -- yes, a ukulele. What probably comes to mind is a pile of splinters.

Jake Shimabukuro imagined the late martial-arts star with a ukulele, and the vision he got was of sparks. Musical sparks.

These are the sparks witnessed by anyone who's seen Shimabukuro opening for Jimmy Buffett or banjo wizard Bela Fleck, appearing on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" or in the video of his Wrigley Field performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" that's made its way around the Internet. It's both a revolution and revelation for an instrument with only four strings covering barely two octaves and a pop culture reputation that rarely goes beyond hulas, Rudy Vallee and Tiny Tim. But in the gifted hands of the Honolulu native, the ukulele has moved into rock, jazz, classical and folk styles with rich musicality and dazzling technique.

And it's Lee whom he cites as a key motivator in his mission.

"Bruce Lee was a huge influence," Shimabukuro says, speaking from his Honolulu home. "I'm not a martial artist, but I loved his philosophy and approach. I read a lot of books on what he did and would apply a lot of his philosophy to the way I approach the ukulele. He started out very traditional and then broke away and created his own thing. That's what I wanted to do -- play a traditional instrument but at the same time try to express myself and bring myself into the instrument."

In fact, Lee is just one of the unlikely figures Shimabukuro, 30, says inspired him to develop his startling skills. Among the others: comedian Bill Cosby, football Hall of Famer Joe Montana and golf great Tiger Woods.

"It was just anybody who took an art form to the next level," he says.

Well, he does have some musical icons on his list too, including Fleck, late acoustic guitarist Michael Hedges and, of course, electric guitar revolutionaries Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen. But he believes he has an advantage over all of them.

"When people see me walking out on stage with a ukulele, they don't have very high expectations, which is great," he says, though noting a debt to veteran Eddie Kamae for expanding the ukulele repertoire into Spanish classical and other forms as far back as the 1950s.

"I can do whatever, and even if I don't play a great show, they say, 'Oh, that's nice,' " he says. "With another instrument, a classical pianist, say, it's like, 'OK, let's see what this guy can do.' With a ukulele it's, 'Oh, it's such a cute instrument,' and they reflect back on the time when they spent their honeymoon in Hawaii sipping mai tais. There's no attitude, and no one's trying to judge me or anything. That's the beauty."

He may want to enjoy that while he can. Thanks to Buffett and others who have helped bring him to larger audiences, the surprise factor could diminish and expectations could rise. He only has himself to blame, though. His new album, "Gently Weeps," is a showcase that leaves no doubt about his remarkable skills and the surprising capabilities of the instrument.

Unlike his previous four albums, which had him largely with a band, this is a solo effort, with arrangements of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (the late Beatle was a uke fanatic), "Ave Maria" and a Japanese folk song joining a collection of original pieces that seem impossible to have been performed on this tiny instrument -- with no overdubs or studio trickery. At times it sounds as if he's playing a harp, other times a classical guitar or a Japanese shamisen as he explores a rich sense of tone and harmony.

For one recent show, though, Shimabukuro was not able to relax at all. Before the second night of two November dates he did with the Honolulu Symphony, he had a surprise backstage visitor.

"And it was Olivia Harrison!" he says.

The widow of George Harrison had, in fact, been a part-time resident of Hawaii with her husband for many years.

"I was totally freaked out," he recalls. "She was so nice, so encouraging. We planned to do a couple of Beatles songs, 'Here, There and Everywhere' and 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps,' and she said she was really looking forward to that.

"The concert went really well. We acknowledged her from the stage. Then after the concert she came backstage and shared with me how much she enjoyed it and how much she wished her husband could have seen it. Just gave me chicken skin -- goose bumps.

"That was definitely one of the most memorable moments of my life."


Jake Shimabukuro

Where: Temple Bar, 1026 Wilshire Blvd.,

Santa Monica

When: 8:30 tonight

Price: $7

Info: (310) 393-6611;


Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano

When: 6 p.m. Friday

Price: $10

Info: (949) 496-8930;

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