Music

Jake Shimabukuro to Wage Peace on Boise

Ukulele Wunderkind on the Ego-less Instrument

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Charlie Daniels' Johnny faced the devil with his fiddle. Tenacious D did it with guitars. Vince Vaughn substituted a round of Guitar Hero to battle his rival in Couples Retreat.

But were Jake Shimabukuro, who will play at the Egyptian Theatre Sunday, Oct. 21, faced with a musical showdown, his weapon of choice would be a hatchet, not an axe, and the goal would be reconciliation, not victory.

But he also admits his views on the ukulele might be a little starry eyed.

"Maybe there is something over the top about it being an instrument of peace," Shimabukuro said. "But it makes people smile. It makes them want to play music."

He even calls the ukulele "the friendliest instrument."

But perhaps the greatest testament to the uke's temperament is not what Shimabukuro says, but how he speaks about it. Though widely credited by critics with reinventing the instrument before he was 30, Shimabukuro speaks clearly and slowly, with humility and reverence for his station.

"I didn't realize how popular ukulele was over there," he said of Russia.

"I was really nervous," he said of meeting the Queen of England.

"He has been like a big brother to me," he said of Jimmy Buffet.

Through that filter, it is easy to understand how Shimabukuro would see the ukulele as an oracle of goodness.

"I convinced myself long ago that if everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place," he said in his Peace, Love, Ukulele speech at TEDx in Honolulu.

When pressed on why he thinks the ukulele has that effect, he said it's because people don't take the ukulele seriously, something that keeps egos at bay.

"People don't see it as a serious instrument," he said. "So most people don't have egos about it."

He also calls playing the uke a rare hobby that people will come to later in life without being intimidated. Even Shimabukuro's grandmother recently started playing.

"I have heard countless stories from people saying that they hadn't ever played an instrument, hadn't ever thought of playing an instrument, but saw my song on YouTube and were inspired to pick [a ukulele] up," said Shimabukuro. "Most of the time, people would be intimidated by an instrument, especially older people that feel you have to start when you are really young. But people don't feel that way about ukulele."

And though people might not feel intimidated by the instrument, they ought to be in awe of Shimabukuro's performances; he may be the closest thing to a prodigy the instrument has ever seen. While the ukulele is typically used for strumming simple chords, Shimabukuro has incorporated complex rhythms and percussive elements, with fingering as nimble as world-class classical guitarists. And this is no small feat on the small frets.

Asked what he thought the instrument couldn't do, he thought for a while before conceding the layered sound of Wagner might be a stretch.

"I am not saying you couldn't do a simplified piece," he said. "But to capture the essence of that would be quite extraordinary."

Those technical abilities, applied to crossover tunes and paired with new media, has helped Shimabukuro lead a wave of ukulele resurgence. Though he began playing the instrument at age 4, it was YouTube that put him in the spotlight, first through performing songs thought impossible on the uke--like "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Bohemian Rhapsody"--and later through a series of TED Talks. Those videos have been viewed tens of millions of times, netted Shimabukuro recording deals and kept him busy touring the world roughly eight months out of the year.

His new album, Grand Ukulele, was produced by Alan Parsons and is the latest step in that trajectory. For a musician who was playing exclusively on YouTube only a few years ago, this is a huge deal.

"I could never have dreamed of even meeting someone like Alan Parsons, let alone having him produce my record," he said. "He is so musical that the things he brought to the table were further out than I could have imagined."

Parsons--whose pedigree includes recording Abbey Road and Let it Be by the Beatles, and Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, in addition to his own band, The Alan Parsons Project--is certainly no slouch on the "far out." But those who might imagine Grand Ukulele as a collection of uke-centric prog rock space jams in the style of the Alan Parsons Project couldn't be further off.

Grand Ukulele moves back and forth between percussive instrumental tracks similar to what you might hear Rodrigo y Gabriela play while on vacation in Hawaii, to lush orchestral tracks as soothing as a tropical sunset. There are traditional Hawaiian songs and pop reboots, most notably the omnipresent "Rolling in the Deep," by Adele.

One of the things that Shimabukuro likes most about Grand Ukulele is that all of it, even the orchestration by Kip Winger, was recorded live in one room with no overdubs, practically heresy in modern recording. But for Shimabukuro, it isn't archaic so much as classic.

"When Frank Sinatra sang, he did it live in the studio with an orchestra," he said. "There's these magical things that come from everyone playing off of each other instead of over one another."

There will be no orchestra for Shimabukuro's gig at the Egyptian. He tours solo. But for an artist who has built his career on turning limitations into strengths, that's the only way.

And if, after the show, you feel mysteriously inspired to buy a uke of your own, know thatShimabukuro would second the motion.

"It is an entire yoga session in one strum," he said.