Though he had made several albums, become a regular on the coffeehouse circuit in his native Hawaii, and attained the status of a popular concert draw in Japan, ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro was virtually unknown as far as the rest of the world was concerned. Then a YouTube video of him covering George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" in New York's Central Park garnered 12 million views, making him an internet sensation overnight.
"It single-handedly changed my life," the affable Shimabukuro says. He's a fourth-generation Hawaiian native of Japanese descent, and he's clearly still amazed by the turn of events. "It started a touring career that's taken me all over the world. Even today, people come up to me and tell me they saw that YouTube clip. So it's still growing and still introducing what I do to a lot of people. It's very exciting, and I feel very lucky to be in the right place at the right time."
But luck has played a very small role in his success. He's earned numerous accolades from fellow musicians, audiences, and critics, who have compared him to Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis in terms of his musical mastery. He's performed for the Queen of England. "She said, 'You play so beautifully,' " he recalls. "That was a moment. I couldn't stop bowing!"
Still, he continues to defy stereotypes, given that his instrument of choice, the ukulele, is sometimes dismissed as a mere curiosity or, worse, a simple child's toy with no serious musical value. Shimabukuro has given the ukulele a new kind of prominence, using it to reinvent everything from rock standards to classical works, all with exceptional virtuosity. His latest album, Travels, takes on traditional island tunes, jazz, Latin sounds, and, in what's become his trademark of sorts, surprisingly faithful renditions of two popular standbys: the Jackson 5's "I'll Be There" and War's classic "Low Rider."
His previous album, 2012's Grand Ukulele, was produced by revered veteran producer Alan Parsons — the man behind the board for legendary albums such as Abbey Road and Dark Side of the Moon, plus those by his own Alan Parsons Project.
"That was a major project," Shimabukuro says. "The name of the album was Grand Ukulele, and for me, it really was a grand experience."
Shimabukuro is quick to admit that at first he had a hard time convincing people to take the music seriously. Though, for him, that's not exactly a problem as much as an exciting obstacle.
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"That's what I love about it," he says. "Audiences have such low expectations. So for a lot of people, it adds that element of surprise to the concert."
Whether the ukulele does one day rise to the ranks of its big brother, the guitar, Shimabukuro is standing by his instrument. "I would never stop playing. I'd go back and play coffee shops if the phone stopped ringing."
Jake Shimabukuro, 8 p.m. Saturday, November 14, at Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 W. Flagler St., Miami; 305-547-5414; miamidadecountyauditorium.org. Tickets cost $25 to $50 plus fees via tigertail.org.