Ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro reunites with some old buddies in what promises to be a night of “Pure” magic at his third annual concert Friday.
Fourteen years is an awful long time between concerts, but when the opportunity came for ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro and the other members of former contemporary island music group Pure Heart to reunite for a one-night-only performance, they didn’t punt on the long-awaited jam session. Instead, they agreed it was time — finally! — to once again re-create a bit of magic on stage.
“Can you believe it’s been that long?” says Shimabukuro, who along with vocalist/guitarist Jon Yamasato and percussionist Lopaka Colon last performed as a group at the now-defunct Don Ho’s Island Grill eatery in 2000.
The band will come together Friday evening at Blaisdell Concert Hall for the third annual Jake Shimabukuro & Friends Concert, which celebrates the uke master’s extensive musical career. The show kicks off at 8 and promises music fans many of the band’s island-favorite and radio-friendly tunes, including Bring Me Your Cup, Hey Baby and How Can I Get Over.
“At first, we were talking about doing just two or three songs as Pure Heart. But then, as we rehearsed more and more, we kept adding to the song list. Now, we’ll probably do seven or eight songs!” says Shimabukuro, who just last week wrapped up his 140-date Uke Nations Tour. “You know, all those years we were apart, we’d still see each other and whenever we’d talk, we’d always say, ‘Yeah, we gotta get together and jam.’ Friday night we’ll finally be able to do just that after 14 years, and I’m excited!”
Still, the concert not only marks a reunion of former Pure Heart members, but a celebration of those who first helped the fledgling band when it released two LPs in the late ’90s, and those who later assisted Shimabukuro as he embarked on a solo career. Two of the evening’s performers, Bryan Tolentino (ukulele) and Chris Kamaka (upright bass), were members of Kuuipo Kumukahi’s band more than a decade ago, and were gigging at the Sheraton Waikiki when they offered Pure Heart its first chance at playing in front of a large audience. “Jon and I were just starting out at the time,” remembers Shimabukuro, “and during Kuuipo’s break, Chris and Bryan invited us up on stage to jam a few songs. In my mind, that was our first-ever performance as a band. Before then, we were just playing at friends’ birthday and graduation parties.”
Other musicians who will be appearing on stage with Shimabukuro are Del Beazley (six-string guitar), Asa Young (12-string guitar), Noel Okimoto (drums) and Dean Taba (bass). “I wanted Del and Asa to be a part of the concert because the first time I went to Japan to perform, those guys went with me. And then when I went solo, Noel and Dean were the guys who really helped me shape my sound,” adds Shimabukuro, who aside from gearing up for his annual Friends showcase is currently working with Hawaii Symphony to premiere an ukulele concerto next year. “So I wanted all of these musicians to be a part of this special concert because these people have been so influential in both my professional and personal lives. I’m so proud to be sharing the stage with them.”
Beyond Friday’s concert, here’s what else Shimabukuro told Musical Notes about his thus far star-studded career as an ukulele wizard:
MN: Since picking up the ukulele at age 5, you and the instrument have been largely inseparable. Ever gone more than a day without strumming a few chords or playing some scales?
JS: I actually went an entire week once without doing so! When I got married and was on my honeymoon, I stopped playing altogether. After returning home, I picked up the instrument and my fingers were all soft and sensitive! Really, I wish I had more time to practice now. When I was younger, I’d play the instrument six to eight hours a day.
MN: And you turned all that practice time into a noteworthy career. You do know that there are probably at least a dozen kids in various parts of the world right now who are watching one of your YouTube videos or listening to one of your albums’ head-scratching, blistering solos, and saying to themselves, “I want to grow up to be Jake Shimabukuro one day,” right? Did you ever think you’d be so influential to so many of today’s musicians?
JS: No, not at all. When people ask me what started this whole ukulele thing, I tell them that honestly, for me, it was Iz’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Because the song was placed in movies, people from all around the world were exposed to the sound of the ukulele in such a natural and pure way. You hear the strumming of the instrument at the beginning of the song and it just transports you to another place. And then this beautiful voice comes on and it was something I don’t think audiences had ever heard before. Suddenly people couldn’t get enough of this instrument.
MN: And the demand for the sound led to the market being flooded with more brands of the instrument than ever before.
JS: Correct. There have never been so many different manufacturers in the history of the ukulele. Today there are literally hundreds of different brands of the ukulele — it’s insane! Even the annual NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show in California is turning into an ukulele showcase. The instrument is taking over the world!
MN: Why do you think that is?
JS: In part because the ukulele is such a friendly, non-intimidating type of instrument. I mean it looks like a kid’s toy! But you see the impact it’s having on so many different artists like Eddie Vedder, Jason Mraz, and even Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney.
MN: Of the many ukulele players who preceded and followed you, who stands out the most?
JS: Eddie Kamae. He was one of my first heroes. The stuff he was doing on the ukulele back in those days was unbelievable! I mean, he was the pioneer, the first virtuoso of the instrument. For the people who came after him, they now had someone to follow, someone to look up to. I’m not sure who Eddie had to look up to, so I give him all the credit for having the vision to create something that had never been done before on the ukulele. Without Eddie, there wouldn’t have been all the others who followed him, like Ohta-San, who used to tell others that Eddie was the best and who eventually developed his own style that was out of this world; but also others like Peter Moon, or Kelly Boy De Lima, whose fingerpicking is unmatched, Troy Fernandez, Benny Chong or even Gordon Mark. They all have their own thing going on.
MN: I noticed you left your name off that list. You’ve had your own thing going for a while now and your impact on ukulele playing has been far-reaching.
JS: For me as a kid learning the instrument, the goal was always the same: How do I achieve my own sound and my own style? I would try to copy as much as I could of Eddie Kamae, but I knew I could never top Eddie, or top Ohta-San, or top Peter, or Troy or Kelly Boy. So I knew that I had to go out and find my own path.