The stories behind how the ukulele got its name are as colorful as the history of the islands themselves. Although the instrument is today almost exclusively associated with Hawaii, the ukulele is actually of Portuguese descent. The most widely accepted tale regarding its name revolves around the arrival of Portuguese immigrants to the Hawaiian Islands in the late 1870s with a braguinha—the ukulele’s forerunner. Legend has it that when the Hawaiians saw the speed of the musician’s fingers as they danced across the fingerboard of the instrument, they dubbed the instrument “ukulele”—translating to English as “jumping flea”. True or not, it’s the kind of story you want to believe.
Kind of the way you want to believe in a 28-year-old ukulele virtuoso who can cross the Pacific and bring the music of the islands to the masses.
I was first exposed to Jake Shimabukuro while I was in Hawaii a few years ago. While I didn’t know who he was at the time, his ubiquity among the islands is unmistakable. His music is played in restaurants, airports, malls, hotels… virtually everywhere. With Shimabukuro’s fourth album, the all-instrumental Dragon, the ukulele maestro shows why he is a perfect ambassador for the Aloha State to the rest of the world. Now it’s time for the Mainland to catch up.
Kicking off the whole affair with “Shake It Up!” signals that this isn’t going to be some simple plucking of that plastic toy ukulele you had when you were four—although Shimabukuro could probably work some magic with that, too. The only track in this collection that wasn’t played live, the experiment is wildly successful. Playing over a high-energy looping of Afro-Cuban drums and percussion, Shimabukuro’s flamenco-tinged ukulele gives the piece a distinctly Latin feel when mixed with Daniel Pardo’s synthesizer-altered flute work disguised as horns.
Appropriately Asian in texture, the quiet nature of the fingerboard tapping technique highlights Shimabukuro’s understated genius on the title track, inspired by his idol Bruce Lee. This is beautifully augmented by the first of three string section appearances on the disc. You can picture the graceful dragon moving through the sky that Shimabukuro himself had in mind when he composed the piece.
Like “Shake It Up!”, “3rd Stream” is another up-tempo ukulele Latin-jazz-rocker (no, you read that description right!). Shimabukuro’s unique finger-play and Pardo’s flute flirt with and chase each other like kids on a playground, while Noel Okimoto and Dean Taba’s drums and bass play schoolyard monitor, superbly establishing the pace and keeping the peace.
Shimabukuro delivers what passes for a ukulele dance track on the album by using a dance groove to boost a song based on the second movement of Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez”. The only cover on the album, “En Aranjuez Con Tu Amor” is one of the most expressive songs in the collection. Marking the second appearance of the violins, violas and cellos, there is a lushness to the piece that belies the apparent contradiction the use of strings might otherwise raise, and which actually enhances the song perfectly.
The music gathered here evokes so much more than a Don Ho caricature of the islands, but if you’re looking for an island vibe, that’s in here too. The most straightforward island song on the disc is “Toastmanland”, with the ukulele and the Hammond organ blending together like a sunset into the ocean horizon.
The slick “With U Always” opens with Shimabukuro playing electric guitar before switching to his ukulele and turning the guitar duties over to Bin Yasuno. Along with having a day dedicated to him in Honolulu this October, Shimabukuro is also the “image character” for Hawaii Tourism Japan’s campaign to market Hawaii to Japan. Unfortunately, this song, which was produced for that promotion, feels like a product of Madison Avenue and somehow doesn’t quite feel like it fits among even this eclectic group of songs.
Ultimately, the creativity and diversity are what make Dragon so remarkable. Shimabukuro recorded the tracks to two-inch analog tape, eliminating the ability to fix any imperfections. He applied unique finger-tapping techniques. He used unconventional approaches to composition. He employed a wide range of musical styles. Taken collectively, Shimabukuro seems determined to brush away any preconceived notions the world may have about Hawaiian music and the ukulele.
Hawaii’s current favorite son seems to be the embodiment of the island state’s friendly, laid-back, genuine spirit. In his liner notes, Shimabukuro claims “Dragon is really an honest and sincere portrait of me trying to grow as an artist, and as a person as well”, and that authenticity comes through in every note.