Hosted by UCSB Arts & Lectures, musicians rock out around town on ukuleles
Jake Shimabukuro stood on an outdoor stage, leaned back, closed his eyes, bent his knees, swayed his hips, tapped his foot and rocked out on a cloudy day.
On his ukulele.
The 42-year-old Honolulu native’s right hand on Thursday became a blur as he strummed heavy rhythms into the four-string instrument as if it were an electric guitar. He put power and finesse into everything from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” to George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” before a large crowd in UCSB Storke Plaza.
Some students brought their ukuleles for Mr. Shimabukuro to sign after the concert, which was part of a UCSB Arts & Lectures day of programming that included George Hinchliffe’s Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.
“This is my first ukulele. It’s broken. Now I have a good excuse to get it fixed,” Brendan Abatacola told the News-Press as he waited in line of fans eager for autographs and photos with Mr. Shimabukuro.
“I was very impressed,” the 20-year-old environmental studies major and junior said about Mr. Shimabukuro. “He did not make one mistake.”
Carly Kay had heard Mr. Shimabukuro at a previous concert and wanted to hear him again.
“He’s just breathtaking. The way he can have his instrument sing is incredible,” the 21-year-old communications major and junior said.
Mr. Shimabukuro’s road to UCSB started Thursday morning at The Granada, where Arts & Lectures presented him in a concert and talk for a thousand or so fourth through sixth graders from 12 schools throughout Santa Barbara County.
“Aloha!” Mr. Shimabukuro told the students.
“Aloha!” the kids yelled back.
He explained to the kids that the Hawaiian word “ukulele” means “jumping flea” and that his last name is a Japanese word meaning “Island Bag.”
“If you can’t pronounce my last name, you can just call me ‘Jake Island Bag,’ ” he said. “Mr. Island Bag!”
The boys and girls laughed.
He quickly showed the kids the cool sounds of the ukulele as he played a famous guitar riff from the Cream song “Sunshine of Your Love.”
He talked about melodies and chords in-between performances of music such as Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s ukulele arrangement of “Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz” (1939).
Mr. Shimabukuro, who started playing the ukulele when he was 4, demonstrated how just a few chords can make a hit.
“I’ve got my C major, A minor, got my F. I’m a terrible singer, but I’m going to do my best,” he said, successfully persuading the kids to sing along with him on Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”
As Mr. Shimabukuro played at The Granada, kids at Isla Vista Elementary School listened to George Hinchliffe’s Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.
The eight-piece ensemble entertained the children with songs such as Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” from “Despicable Me 2” (2013). The kids were all sitting on the floor, but some of them swayed to the beat. There were a lot of ear-to-ear smiles.
Nathan, a 10-year-old fifth grader who preferred not to give his last name, told the News-Press he loved hearing the ensemble’s various songs from Britain. “It was amazing. I really liked the English music they played today.”
One of the players, Richie Williams, told the News-Press he hoped the ensemble surprised the kids with what can be played on ukuleles. “You can rock out. You can do anything!”
The ukulele ensemble went on to prove that point at a concert Thursday night at UCSB Campbell Hall.
But well before then, UCSB students heard Mr. Shimabukuro’s noon ukulele concert in Storke Plaza. Before he played his first song, the clock chimed on Storke Tower, and the spontaneous musician played the same notes as the clock on his ukulele.
Mr. Shimabukuro went on to play a medley of songs such as Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”
He also played his original songs such as “Dragon,” inspired by the 1970s Bruce Lee movies “Enter the Dragon” and “Return of the Dragon.”
“I remembered there was a scene where he was talking about the dragon whipping its tail,” Mr. Shimabukuro said, explaining he tried to replicate that sound with the strings.
He demonstrated a flamenco influence on another of his original songs, “Let’s Dance,” which had an intense percussive section and a powerful crescendo.
The ukulele player concluded his concert by performing Queen’s complex “Bohemian Rhapsody,” making his instrument represent the band’s blending of voices and musical genres.
“I did a couple interviews where people asked me if I thought it would be possible to do that on the ukulele,” Mr. Shimabukuro told the News-Press afterward. “That same year, I got asked to be a speaker at a TED Talk. For the presentation, I wanted to learn that (‘Bohemian Rhapsody’).
“It took a long time to get it right,” he said. “I still tweak it every now and then.”
Mr. Shimabukuro said he wanted to show audiences what you can do on the ukulele.
“It’s an instrument you can pick up and start playing right away, very quickly, which is nice,” he said. “If you like rock music, you can learn rock riffs. If you like blues, the same thing. If you like jazz standards, it’s the perfect instrument for all of that.”
Mr. Shimabukuro said he enjoyed playing at The Granada and UCSB and noted he had previously considered a career in education.
“Now I get the best of both worlds. I get to work with kids and do these concerts.”