The ukulele: it is the one instrument that embodies the spirit of Hawaii, the tropical island lifestyle, the shimmering seas and emerald hills of that far off Pacific paradise.
Before Monday night, I’d never thought of it as a particularly versatile instrument. It produces a beautiful sound for sure – like pins dropping in heavenly melodies. These days it seems the ukulele has been reserved for laid back strumming and new generation hipsters who find its lack of mainstream prevalence appealing.
But, one instrumental musician stands to change that perception. With a ukulele in his hands, Jake Shimabukuro transforms from a slender, unassuming young man into a bonafide axe wielder of guitar god proportions.
Shimabukuro grew up in Hawaii, has played ukulele since he was four years old, and credits his mastery of the instrument to a lifelong obsession with it and the native music of his homeland. But over the years, he’s also been influenced by a variety of other genres, and uses a range of different ukes, including an electric acoustic setup that enables him to let loose lighting fast solos that other witnesses have compared to Jimi Hendrix. I had to see it to believe it.
The night started off simple enough, as Shimabukuro played a few pretty songs, including one called “Gentlemandolin” – a song he wrote for his 19-month old son in hopes that one day his son will grow up to be a “gentleman” (dolin). Get it?
Even the simple, pretty songs were very intricate; almost like condensed symphonies played with one instrument. But boy did he ramp it up as the night went on…
With friend Rich Glass supporting on bass guitar, Shimabukuro swiftly shifted from sweet and gentle songs no louder than a lullaby, to full speed ahead, mind blowing, mouth agape, holy-crap-this-defies-all-logic riffage in a matter of moments. I imagined that I and the entire audience were on a journey, floating down from the trickling volcanic streams of the Hawaiian highlands, before suddenly careening over the edge of a crashing waterfall, rolling down, down into roaring waves and black sand beaches. I had goosebumps, adrenaline rushes, and a genuine, unadulterated respect for every song that he furiously plucked from that tiny instrument.
And yet, it was not Shimabukuro’s speed and accurate note playing that impressed me most. His penchant for evoking intense emotion from the simplest, purest, and most well-known songs had me glued to my seat with eyes fixed forward unable to glance away. He picked up his 40-year old baritone ukulele for a few cover songs, playing “In My Life” by the Beatles, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, much to the delight of the audience.
The emotion and soul he conveys through his music is undeniable. You can see the strain, the pain, the joy, and intensity in his face and body language when he strikes a power stance in the midst of a rocking solo, or stands simply, contemplatively, with eyes shut, under the glimmering glow of blue and turquoise stage lights, as if he was in a secluded seaside cove, playing for no one at all but the sea and stars.
The entire show carried that weight of intimacy and energy, but it also felt so casual and comfortable. Again and again, I was surprised by his virtuosity and song selection. But what struck me the most was his modesty and appreciation for everyone who had come to see him. “Thank you Rams Head,” he said as the audience rose for a standing ovation at the end of the set. “You’ve always been so supportive of me, and tonight we have a sold out show!”
He wrapped up with a rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” before sticking around for one heartrending encore selection – “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. Never have I heard the Rams Head On Stage audience so quiet, so at peace.
“Thank you again!” Shimabukuro shouted after the finale, over the cheering crowd. “If I don’t see you next time in Annapolis, maybe Hawaii? Aloha!”
– Matt Ellis