Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro brought the Aloha Spirit to the Cedar Cultural Center on Sunday night. He engaged the audience by “talking story” (a term used by Hawaiians, meaning taking time to share stories) and every time I glanced around the room—I could tell by the open-mouthed awe—everyone was captivated by his words, his lighting-speed fingerwork, and his unorthodox techniques.
33-year-old Shimabukuro began playing the ukulele, a four-stringed instrument, at the age of four. Starting from traditional Hawaiian tunes, he moved on to experimenting with new sounds, and he is now considered a ukulele master. Shimabukuro dazzled the audience by showcasing the vast potential of an instrument that often appears merely as the punchline of a joke. His piece “Let’s Dance” unfolds in a flurry of notes, Spanish Flamenco so electrifying that I immediately envisioned being part of a crowd celebrating in the streets somewhere in the south of Spain. In “Sakura Sakura,” Shimbakuro mimics the 13-string Japanese koto. He’s even brave enough to take on the flavor of bluegrass, in “Orange World.”
To the delight of his global fan base, he can also pull off engaging pop covers—check out his creative rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” on his album Live. His cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is the song that millions know him by from when it went viral on YouTube in April 2006. (See video above.) Since then, Shimabukuro has collaborated and shared the stage with an impressive list of pop heavy-hitters; he has toured with Jimmy Buffett and collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma, Cyndi Lauper, Bette Midler and—yes—even Miley Cyrus. Not bad for a guy who started out playing local coffee houses off Kapahulu Street in Hawaii.
Shimabukuro’s charming anecdotes made the attentive audience ripple with chuckles. A few months ago, Shimabukuro performed for the Queen of England at the annual Royal Variety show and was told that one of only three rules when he met the Queen was that he didn’t need to bow when she greeted them backstage. “Maybe it’s the Japanese in me,” he said at the Cedar, “but I couldn’t stop bowing when the Queen entered the room. When I watched the video clip later, I thought, ‘What was I doing?!'” Shimabukuro ended his performance with the traditional Hawaiian song “Crazy G.” When the audience encouraged him to play faster, he delivered by playing the song at “Bruce Lee speed,” complete with Bruce Lee’s trademark yelp and tiger-claw-like hand movement before strumming so quickly that his hands became a blur. This ferocious grand finale brought him a standing ovation.
Rarely are we so enthralled that we can momentarily escape from ourselves. Shimabukuro says he’s passionate about the ukulele because it makes people happy. There’s no doubt that the sweet melodies of this Hawaiian ukulele player bring me back to a less complicated time. Shimabukuro says he’ll come back to Minneapolis again, and if not, Hawaii always welcomes us.