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article imageReview: Jake Shimabukuro Dazzles Markham Audience Special

By Burke Mudge     Apr 20, 2013 in Entertainment
Markham - So I went to a ukulele concert last night.
Pause. Wait. Repeat.
Yes, you read that sentence correctly. While it’s not the equivalent of saying I went to a ‘Xylophone’, ‘Triangle’ or ‘Pan Flute’ concert, I can assure you, it raised
the same eyebrows when I uttered this sentence that any of those shows might.
What made people’s eyes pop a bit was when I emphatically stated “Yes I went to a ukulele concert last night and I might also add, it rocked.”
Perhaps you suspect you are seeing an oxymoron with regards to the concept of a “rocking uke concert” as in the term, jumbo shrimp or loose tights. Well friends, you are woefully unfamiliar with the emergence and evolution of the 4-stringed, 2 octave wooden instrument.
Typically, the term ukulele might conjure up peaceful ocean scenes in Hawaii with hula dancing in the background and you would be quite right to do so because the ukulele is in fact a Hawaiian word and this little guitar did originate there in the 19th century. However, beyond a few simple Polynesian songs to be enjoyed around a Luau on vacation and maybe an old folk song or two, what other applications could there be for this limited little instrument that could?
Imagine if you could give a small, wood-based object with strings to it, to a promising four year old child and ask this little wunderkind to take this inanimate object and bring it to life and make it sing like it never has before. Then ask this young prodigy to make this instrument grow to 100,000 times its little size and stir the hearts of humans everywhere. Further still, ask this child to reinvent this carved wooden object of sound and suggest that in time, with rigorous practice, discipline, love, joy and dedication, he would be able to share this gift with tens of millions of people around the world and bring smiles to the faces of both children and elderly alike. Then fast forward more than 33 years.
Enter Jake Shimabukuro.
He is a 37 year old ukulele virtuoso and to my limited knowledge of the mini-guitar world, likely the only one of his kind in the world. He played last night at the Flato Markham Theatre and to even say the word plays, seems like an understatement. He coaxed songs and sounds from an instrument so humble in stature; one could never imagine if one’s eyes were closed, that these sounds were coming from a ukulele. At times, Shimabukuro evoked the sounds of an angelic harp, a jazzy piano or even a percussion kit. With a blur of fluttering fingers, racing up and down the guitar, I often times was at a loss to find words to describe what I was witnessing as I had never ever seen anything quite like this before. I must further warn any readers that you may come across an excess of superlatives in this piece but pretense be damned, respect for the genius of Shimabukuro demands exactly that.
Malcolm Gladwell famously stated that to become an expert in a particular area of study or training, one must put in at least 10,000 hours of practice. If Shimabukuro can make the ukulele into a bonafide concert befitting of an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo or a jazz concert filled with Oscar Peterson and Charlie Parker riffing and improvising, can you conceive of the amount of hours he would have required to put in from the age of four to present?
More remarkably, the playing comes off as both joyful and effortless, as though he cannot wait to entertain and surprise you with what a "uke" show by Jake Shimabukuro has in store for you. In many of his entertaining chats with the audience he joked about how the best thing about performing on world tours for audiences everywhere is that fewer crowds have such low expectations for a live show than people attending their first ‘ukulele’ gig.
So what exactly is the show like? To do it justice, I would really need to bust out my thesaurus to really attempt to do it any justice at all, but I will do my level best.
After a truly impressive introduction by the General Manager of Flato Markham Theatre, Eric Lariviere explained he had been trying to bring Shimabukuro here for years but April 19th was the very first time, and only Shimabukuro’s fourth time in Canada.
Interestingly, this was not just any crowd who received Jake warmly with ecstatic applause at the outset, but it became apparent this was a ukulele-heavy crowd, in that there were large “ukulele” groups in attendance. Who knew there were underground uke communities, well, anywhere?
There was a pretty stellar light and laser show that was well-matched and timed to Shimabukuro’s playing, particularly when he drifted over into frenzied free-style jams that turned his limbs into a blur and the sound into something sonic that filled the entire theatre.
Over and over, I found myself thinking how remarkable it was that one man and one instrument could be so diverse in style and play that there was absolutely no back-up band needed or exploding pyrotechnics to keep us interested, just pure musical talent.
Initially, he launched straight into a song that had the audience spell-bound from the start and flew into a second one that was so dizzying it was not until he began to strum the opening notes to Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” that people were able to take stock and realize just what they were witnessing. Needless to say, the ukulele interpretation of Adele was brilliant, unexpected and one of many surprises to come.
After virtually every song, the audience burst into applause as if to say “we’re sorry we may have doubted you, we get it now, please play more..” During the songs, the audience was in rapt silence, simply enjoying observing and absorbing. Occasionally, such frenetic outbursts of guitar wizardry would elicit mid-song applause and Shimabukuro happily fed off the positive energy.
Even the man himself noted when speaking to the crowd later in the show that he couldn't help but be amazed at his life and where his ukelele had taken him and his growing family (as he announced the recent birth of a son, 8 months prior). Thinking back to his early days, Shimabukuro began his career playing just for the fun of it and largely enjoyed playing in coffee shops. He could never have imagined in his wildest of dreams that he would be playing not just to sold out theatres, but that even his producer now is none other than Alan Parsons, who recorded The Beatles and Pink Floyd to name but a few. He has played alongside Lady Gaga, Ziggy Marley and even for the Queen of England herself. Even Ukulele-convert, Eddie Vedder is quoted as saying “Jake is taking the instrument to a place that I can’t see anybody else catching up with.” Quite right.
Some of the show highlights were not just the extraordinary cover tracks but his masterful original compositions, like “Missing 3” which was an accidental track of brilliance that he composed after a broken string, and he decided to see what sort of song he could create with only three strings. I guess it’s like asking what type of mathematics Einstein could compute if his calculator were missing a digit and still being able to get the correct answers somehow.
At some point, I began to recognize Shimabukuro’s use of ‘harmonics’ on the guitar strings, something I’d first learned of when beginning to appreciate the mastery of Mr. Edward Van Halen. Shimabukuro's use of harmonics mixed with flamenco-style guitar was flawless. In fact, he had a song called ‘Dragon’ which was a tribute to his rock guitar heroes and he used this opportunity to electrify his ukelele and employed some pedal effects which truly turned it into roof-raising guitar rock show I alluded to earlier. It left the crowd utterly speechless.
Other show highlights really do defy words. Just search youtube for his performance of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and you’ll see what I mean.
Speaking of youtube, when Shimabukuro was thanking the crowd and getting ready to play his final song, he made note of the fact that many of the audience members may have in fact discovered him on youtube. Turns out, it’s not just Justin Bieber who can thank the medium of modern talent discovery for his fame and fortune. Shimabukuro’s version of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral many years ago and at last count, was seen by over eleven million people. It’s surely worthy of a watch and then you will begin to get a sense of what an evening with Jake Shimabukuro is like.
Add “Ukulele Concert” to your bucket list, this is truly an experience to take in live. In the meantime, he has a stellar new album of original compositions and some covers that will tide you over until then.
Jake Shimabukuro dazzles audience with his live Ukulele concert
Jake Shimabukuro dazzles audience with his live Ukulele concert
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