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'God on the ukulele'

Shimabukuro became international sensation covering While My Guitar Gently Weeps

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In 2006, someone quietly posted a video to YouTube featuring a ukulele virtuoso by the name of Jake Shimabukuro, performing a breathtakingly fast cover of George Harrison's While My Guitar Gently Weeps. The clip was accompanied by a single-line caption: "this guy is a God on the ukulele."

The video went viral, and Shimabukuro, then relatively unknown outside his native Hawaii and Japan, became an international sensation. The clip, which has since been viewed more than 13 million times, introduced the world to a singular talent. His incredible dexterity, both technically and musically, wowed critics, fans and fellow musicians alike; Pearl Jam frontman and fellow ukulele enthusiast Eddie Vedder is a big fan. A career was launched.

His is a star to which many want to hitch their wagon, including Alan Parsons -- yes, the Alan Parsons -- who produced Shimabukuro's latest album, 2012's Grand Ukulele. The legendary English producer/engineer had attended a couple of Shimabukuro's shows near his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., and had become something of a follower.

"I found out he was at my shows after the fact, which is probably a good thing because I think I'd be too nervous to play," laughs Shimabukuro, who will perform a Saturday night slot on the mainstage at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, which kicks off tonight with headliner Bonnie Raitt. "Then he talked about me in one of his interviews, and I happened to catch that interview. I thought, 'Is this, like, a prank?'"

A few months later, the Honolulu-based musician found himself performing once again in the Santa Barbara area and finally met Parsons. "We went out to dinner. All I could think was, 'I'm having dinner with Alan Parsons!' He casually mentioned that he'd like to work with me. I couldn't believe it."

Often, those giddy, caught-up-in-the-moment pledges of "we should totally work together!" don't amount to much, but Parsons made good on his word. Six months after that fateful dinner, Parsons and Shimabukuro -- along with a high-profile rhythm section, including drummer Simon Phillips (the Who, Toto), session bassist Randy Tico and Kip Winger (Winger, Alice Cooper) and a 29-piece orchestra -- were in the studio recording Grand Ukulele.

"One of the things we're most proud of about this record is that there are no overdubs," Shimabukuro says. "I was surprised he wanted to do everything live. I know he likes doing a lot of post-production. It was quite a challenge but it was a wonderful thing. When everyone's playing together, there's a different energy. You could tell everyone was really listening to each other."

Before Shimabukuro, 37, was making music with Alan Parsons, he made music with his mom at home in Honolulu.

"I was born and raised in Hawaii, where everyone learns to play the ukulele at some point," he says with a laugh. "My mom put it in my hands when I was four years old."

As a kid, he spent hours playing traditional Hawaiian folk tunes. It wasn't until high school, when he mastered a ukulele cover of Extreme's ballad More Than Words -- a song his less imaginative classmates were learning on guitar -- that his world changed. "When I realized I could play that on the ukulele, I started experimenting with more pop and rock," he says. "I started to really expand my palette."

It was around that time that he learned an important truth about himself as a musician. "I couldn't sing," he says with a laugh. "I was a horrible singer. I would try to write a song for a girl or something, but I realized I couldn't sing and should never sing."

Success hasn't come overnight for Shimabukuro; he released several solo albums before that YouTube video -- uploaded without his knowledge, by the way -- propelled him to the next level.

"I was very fortunate," he says. "I feel like I was at the right place at the right time. It completely changed my life. I feel like it opened a lot of doors for me. People knew who I was from the video -- 'That's the Asian ukulele guy!' It helped me build a career."

Fame isn't the goal, however. Shimabukuro just wants to share his love of the ukulele, through concerts, master classes and workshops. He's committed to his craft; he still practises for hours a day. "I'm always discovering new music. I challenge myself with different styles and genres. There's never a dull moment."

Indeed, Shimabukuro is continuously surprised by the possibilities that exist within the limits of four strings.

"Those limitations are what gives the ukulele its character and uniqueness," he says. "Every time I play the ukulele, I realize something new. It's those little discoveries that inspire me.

"The ukulele is a little treasure box."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 9, 2014 C1

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