Facebook R&B crooner Mario has been relatively quiet on the music front for…
- Posted on Dec 21st 2010 2:30PM by Steve Hochman
He's revolutionized the ukulele – the simple four-stringed mini-axe that is more or less the state instrument – with virtuoso technique and imagination far beyond anything that could have been conceived before. He's been dazzling audiences from Honolulu to Bonnaroo with such displays as the surprisingly moving, even tender solo uke rendition of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' that's on his upcoming album, 'Peace Love Ukulele' (due Jan. 4), as well as having been seen worldwide in a live rendition via a popular YouTube video.
Shimabukuro's take on it might be seen as a less Hawaiian than Bonarroozy one. It's a vibe thing.
"Nothing real obviously traditional Hawaiian," he says of the album, and his musical approach in general. "There are subtle things that happen in tunes. The Leonard Cohen tune 'Hallelujah,' not a traditional Hawaiian tune but a lot of chord voicings heavily influenced by traditional Hawaiian music. And there's a song on there called 'Boy Meets Girl,' a few licks on end of that tune that reference Sons of Hawaii. Subtle, but they're there."
Jake Shimabukuro, Boy Meets Girl'
On the other hand, vibe is pretty Hawaiian, as well. And it should be no surprise that he singles out the Sons of Hawaii as an influence. The group's 1971 album 'The Folk Music of Hawaii,' is one of his picks when asked about the most important albums from the islands. In some ways, Eddie Kamae – who co-founded the group in the '50s tourist boom years with slack-key guitarist Gabby Pahinui (who became familiar to at least some mainlanders via support from and collaboration with Ry Cooder in the mid-'70s) – serves as the prototype for what Shimabukuro has been doing.
"I heard him when I was a kid, in elementary school, heard all the albums," he says. "He had a couple of solo albums. Songs like 'Malaguena,' incredible stuff. No one ever imagined the ukulele could play more than three chords – other than him. He was the guy. Still is, always will be."
Shimabukuro has had the honor of playing with Kamae on occasion, and they became good friends over the years. (See a short video of them chatting here.)
"First time I met him, I was very young," he says. "I wasn't even performing yet. Never ever dreamed of performing yet when I met him. Was at a local concert and got to shake his hand. A few years later, I started performing and had done an event with him and talked with him, and since then every time I see him it's almost like he's the godfather looking over the progression of my career. Every time I talk with him he has these amazing stories to share of his life and music and perspective, his outlook on Hawaii and music. He's so passionate and has so much knowledge. He'll always be to me like the Miles Davis of the instrument. Miles Davis with a lot of aloha spirit."
But there's a difference in their approaches in that Shimabukuro – who himself has been blessed/saddles with the tag of "the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele" – has thus far not complemented his showcase displays of musical prowess with explorations/transformations of traditional Hawaiian music. But he recognizes the importance of what Kamae and the Sons did in that regard.
"Those guys basically redefined traditional Hawaiian music," he says. "Today when you hear people say what they consider traditional Hawaiian music they refer to the Sons of Hawaii. They incorporated a lot of unique harmonies into the music. They reharmonized a lot of tunes. They added different kinds of rhythmic feels, brought in almost like jazz-swing influences, some blues influence, a little bit of everything. It was an interesting time back then, especially for Hawaii, when it became part of the US as the 50th state [in 1959]. I think lot of people became fascinated with Hawaiian culture."
That's reflected in another album he cites as among the most important. In fact, asked for some suggestions of albums for people interested in exploring traditional Hawaiian music, his top choice was something that's not traditional Hawaiian music at all: 'Pearly Shells,' by Arthur Lyman, whose "exotica" music, created in Honolulu lounges in the '50s, was the sound of an imagined islands life, an easy-listening, sometimes cheesy amalgamation of pop and jazz and even a few European classical themes.
Shimabukuro notes that Lyman and his cohort Martin Denny "created a style of music associated with Hawaii" that was "very obscure and mysterious." But it was also more than that – and less, as detailed in an earlier Around the World column about reissues of Lyman's albums (read it here).
The young ukester's other suggestions hue a bit closer to the traditional realm, though. One was another modernizing ensemble, Sunday Manoa, with the album 'Guava Jam' a personal favorite.
"Sunday Manoa was made up of three individuals who, together, created a style that was truly magical," he says. "Stunning vocal harmonies entwined with masterful slack-key guitar and ukulele playing."
But his two other choices reach back to before the major tourist invasions, to before Peal Harbor and, in the last case, at least in theory, to before the European explorers came ashore.
'Master of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar' collects some of the best recordings of the innovative Sol Hoopii, who took that instrument into new musical territories.
"The Hawaiian steel guitar is one of the only indigenous instruments to Hawaii," he says, with near-accuracy regarding an adaptation that ultimately exerted crucial impact not just on island music but profoundly on country & western. "Sol Hoopii was the first virtuoso of the instrument. His tone, feel and technique were unmatched back in those days."
And then, finally, we come to the deep roots, with the Smithsonian collection of drum dance chants, 'Sounds of Power in Time.'
"This album represents the foundation of all Hawaiian music and culture. The chanting is very powerful and spiritual. This is the music of ancient Hawaii."
It's not all that far from what he does, Shimabukuro insists.
"I started out playing traditional Hawaiian music from the '40s and '50s," he says. "A lot of it was very simple chords. But today, whenever I'm playing, I think that's the way I hear music. One of the things growing up playing traditional Hawaiian music, how it helped me is it's easy. I shouldn't say 'easy' – but I like music that's very simple. I can appreciate simplicity. For example, some of my buddies that grew up playing a lot of jazz or more complex stuff, their ear needs to hear that complexity all the time. Whereas for me, I can play a C Major triad for bars at a time and not get bored. There's a nice range for me in that respect where I can appreciate playing as simple as a 2-year-old can play it."
"Then, of course, I can really stretch the instrument and play things that have more depth and complexity in tones and can appreciate that, as well," he adds. "With 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' taking a song like that with so much complexity, I can say, 'How would the Sons of Hawaii break it down?' Starts with just breaking things down to simple chords. Simple triads or 7th chords or 6th chords and then using my own ear to decipher. 'This section, should I use these extensions here or is it fine as is?'"
He mentions an artistic influence of and kinship with banjo innovator Béla Fleck, who took bluegrass origins into form-stretching explorations of jazz, jam, classical and African music, among other things.
"You can't play anything he plays," he says. "Amazing! He plays that stuff the way we play traditional Hawaiian music. It's in his blood, natural to him. I feel Hawaiian music will always influence the choices I make in music."
So, will he ever make an album that is really Hawaiian music?
"One of these days I want to do that," Shimabukuro says. "Right now, it's kind of like there's so much to learn in music. Right now for me, this is my college education. Right now, I'm trying to learn as much as I can but still not lose sight of the traditions, not be disrespectful of the roots or the players that came before me. For now, I'm trying to explore and expand and trying to be as outside the box while still being in the realm of ukulele music. That's really important to me. At every concert, I'll always end, or have somewhere in the show, one traditional Hawaiian tune. So it comes full circle. You hear all the things you wouldn't expect to hear and then at the end: 'Oh! That's what I expect to hear!'"