SALT LAKE CITY — Jake Shimabukuro might be the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele, but the musician wants to let people in on a little secret: He can’t sing.
Well, he sings occasionally, but with a Louis Armstrong-esque voice used “only as a joke to make people laugh,” Shimabukuro told the Deseret News.
But rather than letting this be a hindrance to his career, the ukulele virtuoso has found a way to transform his vocal ineptitude into something positive.
“Because I can’t sing, I have to interpret the melody somehow,” he said.
So Shimabukuro took “Bohemian Rhapsody” and found a way to bring to life Freddie Mercury’s vocals, the lead guitar and the piano on one small four-string instrument. It’s this very skill that caused the musician’s rise to fame in 2006 when a video of him playing George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral — one of the first YouTube videos to go viral.
“It just kind of went around the world and a whole bunch of people saw it and that’s what made me realize, ‘Wow, maybe just being a solo instrumentalist could work,’” Shimabukuro said. “That people were open to the idea of just hearing the ukulele … it could change people’s perception of the instrument in a more modern way.”
Since the mid-2000s, Shimabukuro has continued changing people’s perceptions of the ukulele with each performance, and his concert at Brigham Young University’s deJong Concert Hall Thursday, Feb. 15, should be no different.
Reflecting on his rise to fame via a viral video, Shimabukuro considers his success to be the product of a perfect storm.
“Nobody really knew what YouTube was at the time — I didn’t know what YouTube was at the time,” he said with a laugh. “The idea of sending someone a video or posting a video or having a link to a video, that was not common yet. We were just learning how to send someone a photo. … I think that I was just in the right place at the right time, because I recorded the song for a TV interview and this new technology was just coming out … I’m so thankful for that — it really started a worldwide touring career for me.”
Born and raised in Hawaii, Shimabukuro had countless ukulele influences and began exploring the instrument at age 4 under the encouragement of his ukulele-playing mother. He recalls his immediate love for the instrument — a near obsession that led to his parents having to take the ukulele away at times so he could get other things, including homework, finished.
But it wasn't until he first left his home state that Shimabukuro learned the ukulele was not as beloved, or in some cases, even recognized as a solo instrument in other places.
“Growing up in Hawaii, we all love the ukulele there and we all respect it and appreciate it,” he said. "But once I started traveling outside of Hawaii, I realized that people weren’t as familiar as they thought they were with the instrument.”
The musician cites three major musical events — although humbly excludes his own contributions — that have helped people think of the ukulele beyond luau music. First is Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (IZ’s) classic ukulele medley of “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” that received plenty of playtime in movie soundtracks upon its release. Shimabukuro cites the ukulele-driven pop song “Hey, Soul Sister,” released in 2009 by the band Train as the second event, and finally, points to Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder's 2011 album “Ukulele Songs.”
Shimabukuro continues this quest to reveal the ukulele’s full potential. This time around, he will perform alongside a bassist and guitarist, although he promises he will do a solo set — and play his classic renditions of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Beatles songs and rock tributes while also introducing some of his newer material to be released summer 2018. The new material includes six original songs and six covers — including “Eleanor Rigby,” Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and a reggae-infused version of The Zombies’ “Time of the Season.”
In addition to showcasing the ukulele’s power, Shimabukuro is also an outspoken advocate of being drug free, taking time at each concert to relay the importance of that message with his audience — especially kids.
“It’s just a quick message to encourage the young people there to study hard in school, find your passion, work hard at it and just be drug free," he said. "I share with them that I’ve been drug free my whole life and the musicians up on stage with me, they’ve all been drug free their entire lives, and just kind of encourage (the audience) to do the same.”
It’s been more than 10 years since Shimabukuro made his ukulele gently weep, and that one viral video has allowed the musician to live out his dream night after night.
“I’m just very grateful that I got to turn something that I love and enjoy — something that I would do anyway even if I couldn't make a living in it — into my career and just practice and play, perform and do that all the time, every chance that I get. It’s just truly a blessing.”
If you go …
What: Jake Shimabukuro
When: Thursday, Feb. 15, 7:30 p.m.
Where: BYU's deJong Concert Hall, Provo
How much: $22-$47