February 8, 2011
Jake Shimabukuro, the Japanese-America-Hawaiian master of the ukulele, took the stage at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA. He was alone. There was a microphone on stage and he had a ukulele, the only one that he would play all night, in his hand. He was wearing a fedora and a very non-Hawaiian shirt. He greeted his audience with an â€œAlohaâ€ and immediately thanked everyone for coming out. He told us that he had been playing the Birchmere since the beginning of his touring career but that this was the first time that he had sold it out. He was clearly excited. The crowd was equally so.
He opened with a song off of his new album Peace, Love, Ukulele. The song, â€œ143,â€ came with an explanation in tow. Shimabukuro explained that growing up, in the days before cell phones, he and all of his friends had pagers. When they wanted to send an â€œI love youâ€ message, they would page someone, and after putting in their phone number, they would add the numbers 143. While it might seem corny in the days of Twitter, smart phones and text messages, Jake let us hear his soundtrack to those three simple numbers and it was beautiful. He alternated between strumming with his thumb and finger picking on a classically-inspired chorus. For anyone in the room who was not overtly familiar with his music, he let them know early that this would not be an evening wasted. While some might scoff at a solo-touring ukulele player, Jake Shimabukuro quickly let all in attendance know that while he might Â play a quirky instrument, genuine musicianship and composition has been anything but lost, and is in fact intensified by the use of the seemingly simple instrument.
He played several more, including â€œBlue Roses Fallingâ€ and â€œTrapped,â€ a song that he wrote after being enchanted by an Egyptian 9/8 rhythm taught to him by none other than Jimmy Buffet. Moving on, he then told a story about how his fatherâ€™s truck was always on empty; the gas station was always their first stop. His dad would roll down the window and tell the attendant, â€œ$5 unleaded.â€ That of course was at a time when $5 would fill oneâ€™s gas tank. He named the song after his dadâ€™s line. It is a song in three parts. The first part, Jake told us, was about the feeling one has when his tank is full. He drives around and feels good. The second part is about the tank becoming empty and the gas light turning on. Finally, the third part is about finding a station and refilling the car. His mastery shone brightly as one could almost hear the engine roaring behind the striking melodies and complicated rhythm structures., leaving no doubt to a soul in the room as to when the gas warning light had come on, signifying the race against time.
In comparison to a guitar, with six strings and four or five octaves, the ukulele is a four stringed instrument with two octaves, yet Jake manages to manufacture a bold and copious sound from the petite instrument. Oftentimes, it sounds as though two musicians are playing simultaneously due to the incorporation of bass lines and absorbing chords laid over melodies that can be sensitive or full out rock-and-roll.
Throughout the night, he introduced several songs that he said he had written with other instruments in mind. Chris Thile, the mandolin player of Nickel Creek, once said that he does not try and learn other mandolin playerâ€™s solos on his instrument. Rather he takes the time to notate a solo from a fiddle or banjo player. In other words, by doing the impossible, he takes his instrument to the next level. Jake clearly is of the same mindset.
This approach was most glaring in the tunes â€œPianoforte,â€ â€œLetâ€™s Dance,â€ and perhaps most interestingly in â€œSakura, Sakuraâ€ wherein his ukulele was transformed into a piano, a conjured up flamenco guitar, and a koto respectively. A koto is a thirteen-stringed instrument of Japanese origin that is close to six feet in length. It sits on the floor and as accorded its massive size, it has colossal range. And yet here was Jake, himself not as tall as a koto, making his tiny instrument with only four strings do all of the work of its distant stringed-instrument cousin.
Although the set primarily consisted of original songs, Jake also played some covers. He played a Leonard Cohen (as opposed to a cover-of-a-Leonard-Cohen) version of â€œHallelujahâ€ and Beatleâ€™s classic Â â€œWhile My Guitar Gently Weeps,â€ the one â€œthat started it all,â€ he informed (referring to the YouTube video that went viral). Â He closed out his set with a big one. He said that for years, interviewers have asked him if any style of music could be played on the ukulele and he had always said of course. He said that they had then always countered with â€œBohemian Rhapsody?â€ Though he admits that even he doubted whether or not it could be done, after many years, he finally decided to attempt tackling the mega-song with heavy multi-instrumentation feat and once and for all prove that it could be done on his trusty four-string. In short, his arrangement displayed at The Birchmere left no doubt that it could not only be done, but that it could be done with precision. The ukulele, in the prodigious hands of a master such as Jake Shimabukuro, can do anything that a guitar, a piano, or even a koto, can do.
After the traditional Hawaiian song, â€œCrazy G,â€ was played as an encore, Shimabukuro closed the show traditionally as well -just as he had opened it- with â€œAloha.â€ With that, the night was capped.