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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, November 12, 2004

'Ukulele master plucks out a Mainland following in '04

By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Jake Shimabukuro

At Music Meets Aloha, a fund-raiser for the MAVIN Foundation

5 p.m. Thursday

Waikiki Shell

$35 advance, $38 at the door for reserved seats; $20 advance, $23 at the door for lawn area; discounts for students, seniors, military

(877) 750-4400 for tickets; 591-2211 for information

Also available: $100 VIP seating, which includes dinner, a basket that includes an autographed poster and other goodies and up-front seating. E-mail.

Jake's take on ...

Japanese food in Nashville: "I ordered this house teriyaki steak ... and the meat was like char siu. Really dry, tough char siu. It was almost like beef jerky."

Hawaiian food on the Mainland: "If you see anything on a menu that says Hawaiian chicken or Hawaiian pizza, you know there's gonna be pineapples on it."

His new CD "Walking Down Rainhill": "I really felt that I wasn't as rushed and could put a little more time and effort into it. I also felt like I had more direction. The other two albums ('Crosscurrent' and 'Sunday Morning') were all over the place. My brain was, like, 'Let's do this! Let's do that!' But with ('Rainhill') I felt I had more of a concept and more of an idea of what I was trying to do."

Influential musicians: "(Honolulu-based drummer) Noel Okimoto has really been a huge influence, mentor and inspiration in my music and career. He's always been like a big brother to me. He's world class, and the greatest guy, too."

What's on his iPod: "Steps Ahead's 'Smokin' In The Pit.' I've been running that thing sour. It's a jazz fusion album with Steve Gadd, Eddie Gomez and Michael Brecker. Just an incredible album! ... I also love female singers like Ani DiFranco, Sarah McLachlan, Alanis Morissette and Lisa Loeb."

Practicing: "Oh, every day! For at least an hour in the day, and at least another hour before I go to bed. And I'm usually picking it up during the day when I'm working on stuff."

The longest he's gone without playing: "Five consecutive days. After my first CD 'Sunday Morning,' my producer wanted to take me to Las Vegas because I hadn't been there since turning 21. The condition was, I couldn't bring my 'ukulele. ... I had a great time. But as soon as I got home, man, I played that thing for three hours straight."

Jake Shimabukuro brought his 'ukulele along with him to a Les Paul show in New York earlier this year "just in case."

Just in case Paul — a pioneer of electric guitar design, worshipped by just about every notable ax slinger of the past half-century — offered to share some stage time with him. And just in case Shimabukuro's room at the "kind of iffy" hotel he was staying in got broken into.

So, no surprise, the 'ukulele also was with Shimabukuro when he talked his way backstage before the show to actually meet Paul.

For Shimabukuro, shaking the hand of his longtime hero was reward in itself. But the 'ukulele virtuoso took yet another chance.

"I just said, 'Mr. Les Paul, my name is Jake Shimabukuro. I'm an 'ukulele player from Hawai'i and I play a little bit of jazz. And I was wondering if you let musicians sit in with you for a song or two because I would love to do something with you.' "

A still awestruck Shimabukuro was amusingly tongue-tied as he recounted the story from a Los Angeles tour stop last week. "I figured the worst thing he could say was 'no' and never remember me."

Paul declined. But forgetting the 28-year-old Shimabukuro's humble request proved difficult.

"Halfway through his performance, he stopped and said, 'You know, I met this young man from Hawai'i backstage before the show,' " said Shimabukuro, repeating Paul's words. " 'And I'm so curious and can't stop thinking about what he does, that I'd like to call him up to do a song.' "

Shimabukuro, of course, bounded to the stage and plugged in. Though nervous — "I was shaking! My hands were shaking!" — Shimabukuro made it handily through a solo.

"And then he said, 'Let's do one together!' " recalled Shimabukuro. "So we ended up playing 'Fly Me to the Moon.' ... Danny DeVito was sitting in the front row with his wife and kids. It was too unreal!"

Post-show, Paul shook Shimabukuro's hand and offered a prediction.

"He told me, 'Young man, you've got a bright future!' " said Shimabukuro. "But I was still, like, 'Wow! Les Paul!' "

Meeting Les Paul was just one unexpected first in a year full of 'em. This year also saw Shimabukuro step up Mainland touring for the first time since he began to draw arena-sized throngs of fans to Japan shows in 2003.

His first-ever stops in Chicago, Nashville, Atlanta, Austin and Indianapolis two weeks ago also marked the first time Shima-bukuro played five back-to-back nights flying between five Mainland cities. Gigs with cosmic banjo master BÚla Fleck and The Flecktones and big-in-Britain jazz-pop vocalist/pianist Jamie Cullum were Shimabukuro's first opening slots as part of national tours.

Shimabukuro returns home next week to headline the Music Meets Aloha festival at the Waikiki Shell. It's the first annual fund-raiser for the mixed-race bone marrow donor recruitment project of the MAVIN Foundation.

Also on the Music Meets Aloha bill are Maila Gibson, drummer Noel Okimoto & Ohana, Japanese singer/songwriter Masayoshi Yamazaki, and Australian — and oddly enough, all-male — vocal trio Beautiful Girls.

"We've been traveling so much since January," said Shimabukuro. "I think if you accumulated all of the days that I've actually been home this year, it would probably be a little over two months."

Return trips to Japan — where Shimabukuro is often recognized in public and rushed out of venues to protect him from mobs of fans — were still part of the career plan this year. Sony Music released his third solo CD "Walking Down Rainhill" in Japan in June, two months before its U.S. release — proof of the importance of Shimabu-kuro's Japanese fan base.

"This is the first year I've been really making an effort to tour the Mainland," said Shimabukuro. "I always knew that the Mainland market would be the most difficult for me as an 'ukulele player, because they have a certain image and stereotype of what 'ukulele music is."

Shimabukuro is angling to change some minds.

"I want people to regard the 'ukulele as a serious instrument ... that is capable of playing all sorts of music," said Shimabukuro. "That's always been my main goal because I've always believed in the 'ukulele. And I've always believed that it's the true underdog of all instruments."

Audience conversion (Les Paul included) has come one show at at time. Finishing a show in Texas with a stunning "Star- Spangled Banner," defying the 'ukulele's four-stringed, two-octave range. Showing Kansas audiences a talent for plucking with his teeth à la Jimi Hendrix. Stretching and distorting notes with guitar pedal effects for a 10,000-strong crowd in Colorado.

Shimabukuro's Mainland touring has already started to pay off.

In August, "Walking Down Rainhill" became Shimabukuro's first recording to debut on Billboard's World Music chart. It peaked at No. 14. Enraptured music scribes nationwide have breathlessly compared Shimabukuro's mastery of his craft to that of Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen.

Shimabukuro was both humbled and embarrassed by the comparisons.

"Of course, I feel totally honored and flattered ... but also undeserving," said Shimabukuro. "I mean, those guys are my heroes. These are guys who have really done something for their instrument. Both of them are icons of innovation and creativity."

Shimabukuro was more afraid of drawing the wrath of Van Halen and Hendrix fans in the process.

"They must get disgusted, like, 'How can anyone compare those guys to an 'ukulele player?' " said Shimabukuro, laughing.

Still, Shimabukuro couldn't help gushing over any attention finally paid to his instrument of choice.

"You'd never think of Eddie Van Halen and 'ukulele in the same sentence. Never!"

Or Les Paul and Danny DeVito, for that matter.

Reach Derek Paiva at 525-8005 or dpaiva@honoluluadvertiser.com.