Jake Shimabukuro, ukulele virtuoso, comes to the House of Blues Friday, to show us what those elements can do.
“Music for me is all about bringing joy to people,” says Jake Shimabukuro, about coming to New Orleans this week. Shimabukuro, a virtuoso ukulele musician and composer, has been here before. He played the first Jazz Fest after Hurricane Katrina, and experienced first hand how “it re-affirmed the power of music, and how much we all need it in the healing process, to inspire and encourage us to step back up.” Shimabukuro has spent most of his life fostering a profound relationship with his ukelele and let it guide him to where it's most needed.
Born and raised in Hawaii, he received his first ukulele from his mother when he was only four years old. After spending the late '90s playing with the acclaimed band Pure Heart, Shimabukuro signed a solo record deal in 2002, and has since toured and recorded extensively, most notably with Jimmy Buffett and Alan Parsons. He plays the House of Blues Saturday.
It's hard to describe how much can happen on the tiny, unassuming instrument, until you watch him play. In 2006, a video clip of Shimabukuro playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in Central Park went viral, largely because it seems so unlikely. His fingers move so quickly, it almost looks like some kind of magic trick. He plays with his whole body, and layers rhythm and melody so seamlessly it calls to mind the sonic viscosity of a classical harp. His music has been described as a montage of jazz, flamenco, blues, funk, and rock. How is all of this possible on four strings, in two octaves?
“There's something about it that makes people happy, makes people smile,” he says, when asked about the ukulele. “That's what drew me to the instrument quite early, and I love going to new places and playing for new people, and trying to share some positive energy with them through music. I really feel that the ukulele is very healing, that it brings a special kind of light to people. For me, it's an honor to be able to contribute something.”
Shimabukuro has found many platforms from which to share this light, traveling to Japan for tsunami benefit events, and starting charitable foundations, the second of which (Four Strings Foundation) provides funding for youth music education programs. “It's about inspiring young people through music, and encouraging them to find out what they're passionate about. Talking with kids, and sharing with them about how to make good choices in life," he says. "And about how not to be afraid to pour their whole hearts into what they do."
His most recent album, last year's Grand Ukulele, was produced by (and at the request of) Alan Parsons, and features much of his own arranging, as well as a 32 piece live-recorded orchestra. “He [Parsons] knew I wouldn't be touring with a full orchestra, so he wanted me to arrange each song as though I would be performing it as a solo piece, so each song could stand on its own. Then he arranged the other instruments around that. It was really quite a process, but the songs are still very strong when I'm performing them alone.”
Shimabukuro brings these songs to the House of Blues this week, a venue he's very excited to play at. “It's such an honor for me to be on that stage and play there, as so many of my heroes and the people who have inspired me have played there," he says. "To be there is really something special.”
My Spilt Milk is giving away a pair of tickets to see Shimabukuro. Register here to win. The contest closes Friday at noon.