Jake Shimabukuro’s instrument is the ukulele, a version of the small lute first introduced to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants in the 19th century, and which has become an iconic instrument of these Pacific islands.
With his ukulele, Shimabukuro explores just about all the musical genres he can get his hands on, from Schubert to Hendrix, flamenco to fado, Chinese folk-music to pop classics. The sound is varied, of course, but it’s infused with the rhythms and harmonies he grew up on in his native Hawaii.
Tigertail Productions is showcasing his unique sound on Saturday when Shimabukuro makes his Miami debut at Miami-Dade County Auditorium.
The 39-year old was already celebrated for his virtuosity, invention and rapid strumming in his native state and Japan when, in 2006, his rendition of the George Harrison’s classic While My Guitar Gently Weeps was posted on YouTube. It became one of the first YouTube viral sensations, and Shimabukuro’s star soared. He became a favorite on late-night and morning television, and a documentary about him was made in 2012. Rolling Stone wrote of the ukulele innovator that “one of the hottest axemen of the past few years doesn’t actually play guitar.” Indeed, even Tigertail’s John Kramel is a bit surprised that instead of the “gifted but relatively unknown artist that we booked, we are presenting a rock star.”
Shimabukuro has been playing the ukulele for as long as he can remember, literally: His mother was his teacher.
“By the time I was 4, my parents had to take the ukulele away so that I would eat,” he says. “I was mesmerized by the sound.”
He still is.
“The ukulele is such a humble instrument. It grew out of the machete that the Portuguese used to cut sugar cane in Hawaii. Four strings were added on, although granted, it has evolved since then. But it is still all about those four strings. It has a small range but so much power. I love its simplicity. The very simplicity enables so much that I fear I may never discover it all,” he says.
These days Shimabukuro concerts may range from predominately rock to downright symphonic. Recently, he played a 30-minute ukulele concerto during the third movement of a contemporary classical work with the Hawaiian National Symphony.
“Why not?” he asks.
Shimabukuro goes on to talk about his interest in interpreting Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring: “I take great joy in making such works more accessible. I think I may be able to introduce audiences in a new way to great works.”
His expanding repertoire continues to be eclectic.
“Recently I’ve been listening closely to composers like Philip Glass and Samuel Barber. Ravi Shankar, too,” he says.
Meshing seemingly disparate sounds and genres intrigues him.
“I find myself more and more interested in unexpected pairings, mixing the familiar with unfamiliar rhythms and harmonies,” he continues. “Why shouldn’t Vivaldi’s Four Seasons be paired with Hendrix’s Purple Haze?’”
Not surprisingly, Shimabukuro has worked on projects with Yo-Yo Ma. He has collaborated with country music man Lyle Lovett, banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, and singers Bette Midler, Cindi Lauper and Ziggy Marley. The list goes on.
Saturday night’s Miami concert is an unexpected pairing as well.
“I’m bringing an electric-bass player with me. There’s wonderful contrast with all the strings. The two instruments don’t get in each other’s way. They complete each other,” the ukulele virtuoso says.
ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit source of South Florida dance and performing arts coverage.
If you go
What: Jake Shimabukuro ukulele performance.
Where:Tigertail presentation at Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 W. Flagler St., Miami.
When: Saturday at 8:30 p.m.
Information: 305-324-4337 or www.tigertail.org.