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Ukulele great Shimabukuro has world on four strings


Published:   |   Updated: January 30, 2014 at 01:32 PM

Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro says his life was changed forever by a YouTube video.

After a clip of him playing George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral in 2006, Shimabukuro shot to international fame.

“It opened doors for me and I still have to pinch myself because it does seem unreal,” says the Hawaii native who is performing at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater on Friday.

“I grew up playing the ukulele like every kid in Hawaii,” Shimabukuro said in a recent telephone interview. “But I love trying to see what can be done with the instrument, challenging myself but at the same time having fun.”

Shimabukuro, who has toured with Jimmy Buffett, is making this solo tour to promote his latest album, “Grand Ukulele.”

Since 2006, he has appeared on numerous TV shows (Conan O’Brien’s and Jimmy Kimmel’s talk shows included); been the subject of a PBS documentary “Life on Four Strings”; performed on Garrison Keiller’s “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show; and even played a gig for Britain’s royal family.

“I got to shake hands with the queen,” he says, recalling that she liked his accompaniment to Bette Midler’s performance of the Beatles’ “In My Life.”

Shimabukuro has stretched the musical range of the ukulele and inspired others to take up the instrument. “It blows my mind how popular the ukulele has become worldwide because in Hawaii we learn it in elementary school,” says Shimabukuro.

Critics have compared him to Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis. Rolling Stone magazine proclaimed him a musical hero. His 2011 album, “Peace, Love, Ukulele,” which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard World Charts, included covers of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

His latest album, “Grand Ukulele,” was produced by Alan Parsons, best known for his work on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and The Alan Parsons Project.

The album includes original compositions, including playing in the style of the mandolin, a rockabilly number, a surf rock piece, and a song in the style of a music box. He also covers Adele’s “Rolling In the Deep; Sting’s “Fields of Gold” and the Judy Garland classic “Over the Rainbow.”

He says “Over the Rainbow” is a tribute to the late Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwoʻole, a Hawaiian performer who had an international hit with his ukulele mash-up of “Over the Rainbow” and “It’s a Wonderful World.”

“He was one of my inspirations when I was growing up,” says Shimabukuro. “Unfortunately, he died before I even started to play professionally. He died before his song became such a huge international hit. Because of that, his version has such a haunting sound that moves me.”

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