Sunday, May 05, 2013

Jake Shimabukuro: From Hawaii to Sendai on Four Strings

Although the ukulele is descended from Portuguese instruments, Japan has long been the instrument’s second home outside Hawaii.  Likewise, Japan had always been an important market for the fifth generation Japanese Hawaiian virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro.  Filmmaker Tadashi Nakamura documents Shimabukuro’s post-2011 Japanese tour and other career highlights in his profile Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings (trailer here), which airs on PBS this Friday.

Shimabukuro was a shy kid who was understandably troubled by his parents’ divorce.  He did not have a privileged upbringing, so it is hard to begrudge the good fortune he experienced early in his career.  As a mere teen, Shimabukuro established a following, fronting a Hawaiian fusion band.  He struggled a bit at the start of his solo act, but a video of Shimabukuro performing George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (posted without the musician’s knowledge) became one of youtube’s first viral sensations.

From that point on, Shimabukuro became the reigning king of ukulele crossover-breakouts.  While not jazz per se, he incorporates extensive jazz and rock influences.  It would be interesting to hear him play a session with Lyle Ritz, the original jazz ukulele player, especially considering Shimabukuro’s knowledge and respect for his instrument’s history.  In fact, Strings often shows Shimabukuro acting as an educational ambassador—like a Wynton Marsalis of the ukulele.

When dark clouds gather in the third act, Shimabukuro is not directly affected.  However, as a native of Sendai, his loyal longtime manager is deeply distressed by damage and tragedy left in the wake of the tsunami and earthquake.  Shimabukuro does his part, performing for displaced survivors, while remaining all too conscious there is only so much his spirit-raising efforts can do. 

Indeed, throughout Strings, Shimabukuro never falls into any shallow celebrity traps.  If that makes him sound likably boring, at least his music is dynamic and vivid.  Nakamura showcases his performances well.  Of course, his famous Central Park Beatles rendition is included, but the film’s defacto theme “Blue Roses Falling” is actually a more interesting piece. Frequent festival patrons and Indy Lens viewers might be more familiar with Shimabukuro’s music than they realize.  He composed music for Hula Girls (set in the hardscrabble Fukushima prefecture) and some of his tunes were licensed for Debbie Lum’s Seeking Asian Female. 

Essentially, Strings paints a portrait of a nice guy, with a nice story, performing some impressive music.  However, the third act carries a bit of emotional heft.  Recommended for open ears, Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings has its national broadcast this Friday (5/10) on most PBS outlets (following a special presentation on Hawaii’s PBS station this past March).