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Ray Routhier

Portland Press Herald staff writer Ray Routhier will try anything. Once. During 20 years at the Press Herald he’s been equally attracted to stories that are unusually quirky and seemingly mundane. He’s taken rides on garbage trucks, sought out the mother of two rock stars, dug clams, raked blueberries, and spent time with the family of bedridden man who finds strength in music. Nothing too dangerous mind you, just adventurous enough to find the stories of real Mainers doing real cool things.

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Posted: November 8, 2016

The ‘Jimi Hendrix of ukulele’ uncovered

Written by: Ray Routhier
Jake Shimabukuro, ukulele virtuoso, will be at Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Jensen Communications Inc.

Jake Shimabukuro, ukulele virtuoso, will be at Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield on Thursday.
Photo courtesy of Jensen Communications Inc.

Jake Shimabukuro has been making people shake their heads for years.

The Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso became famous more than a decade ago because of a YouTube video of him playing the Beatles’ classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” He soon became known as “the Jimi Hendrix of ukulele” and did covers of scorching guitar rock songs, but on his tiny, folksy instrument. People would usually mutter something like, “How does he make a ukulele sound like that?”

Here’s Shimabukoro’s 2006 take on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”

But this fall, Shimabukuro released his first album of all original instrumentals, “Nashville Sessions.” The tunes — some jazzy, some rocking — have all the musicianship Shimabukuro is known for. But for the first time, the music is truly his. He’ll be performing the new material Thursday, accompanied by a bass player, at Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield.

“I just really wanted to come up with my own songs, so I went to Nashville, which I always think of as the home of so many songwriters,” said Shimabukuro, 40. “I’m proud of it because it was out of my comfort zone. If you’re covering a song, people know it and like it.”

Here’s “Galloping Seahorses” from “Nashville Sessions”

Shimabukuro’s popularity has coincided with a ukulele craze around the country. In the past decade, ukulele clubs have sprung up in schools, in retirement communities, at colleges.

Fans talk about how easy it is to play a song on the ukulele compared to a guitar. Though playing like Shimabukuro is not easy.

Here in Maine, uke fans held the second annual Casco Bay UkeFest at St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland this past summer. The free event featured workshops and performances. The Portland Public Library even lends out ukuleles.

Shimabukuro, speaking from a tour stop in Indiana, said it always surprises and pleases him to see the spread of ukulele clubs and festivals around the country.

“We were just in Milwaukee, and they have a big club there,” said Shimabukuro. “I also love the fact that people like Eddie Vedder and Paul McCartney are doing songs on the ukulele.”

In Nashville, Shimabukuro said he soaked up the atmosphere by going to open mic nights, where lots of songwriters try out their new music. He said they are so abundant he found some being held in hotel lobbies.

Growing up in Honolulu, Shimabukuro was drawn to all kinds of music, from jazz, blues and funk to rock, bluegrass, classical and folk. All of those influences can be heard in his covers.

In the late 1990s, he became well known in Hawaii, and by 2002, he had signed a recording contract in Japan. Shimabukuro, who is Japanese-American, said there’s a lot of interest in Hawaiian culture and music in Japan. He performed mostly in Japan and Hawaii until YouTube jump-started his career in the U.S.

Though he’s very proud of his original tunes, he said he still loves doing cover versions.

And he loves showing people what the little ukulele can do.


WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Stone Mountain Arts Center, 695 Dug Way Road, Brownfield

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