LEXINGTON, Ky. — Most people think of it as a toy — a cheap, makeshift guitar with four strings suitable mostly as a utensil for vaudeville acts or, in more innocent respects, a child's keepsake. Well, one 4-year-old in the ukulele's homeland of Hawaii got a hold of the instrument and never let go. His name is Jake Shimabukuro.
He has since redefined the ukulele's tonal possibilities, wildly expanded its repertoire as a composer and interpreter and, at age 32, vindicated an instrument often dismissed as a novelty.
"I'm just a big fan of the ukulele," Shimabukuro said recently by phone from Honolulu. "I'm just another supporter, just another fan who wants the instrument to do well. I want to find it all over the world. I want to see it in every culture. I want to hear it in every style of music."
Tours with such disparate artists as Bela Fleck and Jimmy Buffett, along with appearances on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" since 2005, have provided Shimabukuro with some strong allies. But it has been through incessant touring and a series of six solo studio albums that word of his ukulele music has spread.
Shimabukuro's seventh and newest recording, a concert album titled "Live," is a summation of where his music has come from and a strong preview of where it is headed.
"It was a lot of fun putting that album together," Shimabukuro said. "It made every show on that tour more exciting because I knew they were all being recorded. The album is basically a compilation of things from last year's tour through the U.S. and Japan. Then we tried to select tunes where there was a strong association between the audience and the music."
Two of his compositions on "Live" are standouts: "Let's Dance" and "Orange World," tunes that have been part of Shimabukuro's concert repertoire for years. The former sports a textured flamenco sound inspired by renowned Spanish guitarist Carlos Montoya. The latter, recorded while on tour with Fleck, is knee-deep in bluegrass inspiration.
But the cover material best illuminates the stylistic depth at the heart of "Live" and Shimabukuro's music in general. He takes on works by jazz veteran Chick Corea (the signature tune "Spain") and J.S. Bach ("Two-Part Invention in D Minor"), and the traditional Japanese folk song "Sakura Sakura."
Then Shimabukuro dives into the music of giants. For George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," his playing becomes lightly lyrical, almost fragile. Harrison is a major inspiration for Shimabukuro and not just because the Beatle also championed the ukulele.
"I've always loved George Harrison's music and everything surrounding it," Shimabukuro said. "He was always thinking about the world and how he could help make it a better place. He used his music to give good things to the world. I wish I could have met him.
"That he loved the ukulele was a bonus. I've always believed a lot of his tunes and the ideas behind them came from playing the instrument. They translate to the ukulele so well."
Finally, there's "Thriller." That's right. Shimabukuro designed a solo ukulele version of the Michael Jackson classic for "Live." When he recorded the live performance in 2008, Shimabukuro was paying tribute to what was then the 25th anniversary of an album that he cherished growing up. Of course, all of that changed this summer.
"I was just having a lot of fun with the tune," he said. "The 'Thriller' album was always one of my favorites when I was a kid. Plus, I thought the tune 'Thriller' was something audiences wouldn't expect to hear on ukulele.
"Then, a little over a month ago, I was on tour with Jimmy Buffett. We were backstage about a half-hour before we were supposed to go on. That's when the news broke that Michael Jackson had died. We couldn't believe it. I mean, Michael Jackson ... he's supposed to be around forever, you know? And he will be, through his music."
While his strings might be tuned to pop, jazz, classical, folk or flamenco, Shimabukuro's biggest musical charge comes out of seeing the ukulele become legitimate in the eyes and ears of the world. He downplays his role in that global embrace, however. For Shimabukuro, the ukulele itself always comes first.
"It's like having a favorite sports team that you have loved all your life, a team that has always been the underdog," he said. "Still, you root for them all the same. Then, one year, you make the playoffs.
"When I see people giving more respect to the ukulele these days, it makes me feel great. I just want to go. 'Yeah. That's my boy.'"
© Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.)