FRIDAY, APRIL 27—FAIS DO-DO STAGE, 2:45 P.M.
In 2005, Jake Shimabukuro’s stunning ukulele rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” made him a YouTube sensation. The video has since been seen 15 million times.
Unlike ukulele players who use the instrument as strummed accompaniment for their singing, the non-singing Shimabukuro plays melodic lines and strums. “I only sing when I want to make people laugh,” he said from Honolulu. “Because I don’t have a good singing voice, singing has never been something I wanted to pursue. I will sing at home for my kids, just for fun, or when I do school visits, just to get them singing along. But I’ll never sing at a show, because people pay for those tickets.”
Not being a vocalist was a blessing in disguise, Shimabukuro said. Otherwise, he’d never have developed his virtuoso strum-and-melody technique. “To make my ukulele playing interesting, I had to keep a melodic line going on the ukulele,” he explained.
Shimabukuro’s inspirations include the late flamenco guitar master Carlos Montoya. “We didn’t have YouTube when I was a kid,” he said. “So, when I listened to him I thought there must be three guys playing the guitar parts. After I learned it was just one person, I used my imagination to develop something that matched what I heard Montoya playing.”
Shimabukuro played Jazz Fest for the first time in 2007. Touring with Jimmy Buffett, Shimabukuro joined Buffett on stage and also sat in with the Radiators. “I really fell in love with the people, the ambiance, the energy of the music and the festival itself,” he said.
Music from New Orleans wasn’t on Shimabukuro’s radar until he began performing at pre-schools and elementary schools. His children’s repertoire included Dr. John’s New Orleans-soaked theme song for public television’s Curious George children’s series.
“It’s a really cool tune and such an awesome theme song, with the horns and everything,” Shimabukuro said. “I’ve never seen Dr. John perform, but I listened to a lot of his recordings. He’s incredible.”
Shimabukuro upcoming album, The Greatest Day, features arrangements of Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 was 9/Little Wing,” Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle,” the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and his original compositions.
Now 41, Shimabukuro is a frequent performer at U.S. concert halls. He’s come a long way from early gigs on the mainland that included shows at a yoga studio and a pizza joint. “I never thought I’d have these amazing opportunities,” he said. “And now being able to play my solo show at the Jazz Fest, that’s awesome.”