Bhi Bhiman is an American singer-songwriter from St. Louis who now resides in the Bay Area. The songs on his latest album, Rhythm & Reason (released in May 2015), deal with the immigrant experience, including single “Moving to Brussels,” the music video of which features Keegan-Michael Key (of Key & Peele). You can follow him on Twitter here.
When my parents emigrated from Sri Lanka to San Jose, California in 1969, they were welcomed with open arms into a huge Hawaiian family. They’re still very close family friends, and through them, I grew to love and appreciate Hawaiian music. After one of my Hawaiian “cousins” insisted I pick up the 1999 self-titled debut album by a Honolulu band called Pure Heart, I quickly fell in love with their sound and their songs.
If you looked through my CD collection when I was seventeen and growing up in St. Louis, MO, you’d find albums by Soundgarden, AC/DC and Bob Dylan right along with that first Pure Heart album. Hipsters might scoff at the easy listening vibe of that record, but their musicianship and their songs are undeniable. Pure Heart was sort of a fusion band, with one foot in Hawaiian tradition and the other foot out the door. That was the first time I ever heard Jake Shimabukuro and his ukulele. Simply put, the dude could shred. I’ve been a Jake fan ever since.
Shimabukuro’s new album, Travels, showcases why many consider him the finest ukulele player of his generation. It’s partly because he is a seemingly always thirsty sponge for different musical styles and genres who uses his massive range of tastes to transform the humble ukulele into a springboard for jazz, rock, folk and classical music, all of it presented through his unique lens. On about half of Travels, Jake is joined by a band consisting of drums, bass and keys.
With titles such as “Passport,” “Train Ride” and “Red-Eye,” the concept behind Travels is pretty clear. The album begins with “Departure Suite, Pt. I,” which sets the tone of the album with a sense of discovering the new. It puts me on a moving walkway at the airport in the early morning sun, and I have no idea where my plane is headed. “Ichigo Ichie” takes its title from a Japanese proverb (thanks Google) that roughly translates to “treasure every encounter, it may never recur.” As a touring musician, those are wise words to live by, because, aside from the shows themselves, life is all about slowing down and enjoying and appreciating the smaller moments. The song could be a soundtrack to a first encounter between two people who are destined to be together for the rest of their lives, a very beautiful notion executed extremely well by Shimabukuro. “Passport” is a multicultural mix of styles that is as much Caribbean and jazz-oriented as it is Hawaiian; it’s also probably the most danceable song on the record.
In 2006, a YouTube clip of Shimabukuro playing a cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” made him a star, and Travels includes a couple of covers of well-known pop songs; both tie into the album’s theme of travel. The first is “Low Rider,” the oft-covered 1975 hit by the band War. This version isn’t much of an interpretation — it’s more like a straight cover, and while Shimabukuro obviously enjoys the tune and had fun recording it with his band, I don’t think it would have been missed if it had been omitted from the record. But his cover of the Jackson 5’s 1970 hit “I’ll Be There” is a different story. Jake plays his uke unaccompanied and makes this very familiar song his own. “I’ll Be There” fits the theme of the record very well, since a traveling musician — and Shimabukuro tours all over the world — is often far away from family and loved ones. It’s something I can relate to: I have a wife and an eighteen-month-old at home in California as I write this while touring through the Midwest.
Like one of my musical heroes, Booker T. Jones, Shimabukuro has a knack for summing up the essence of his largely instrumental tracks with titles that perfectly fit the mood and intent of a song.
“Hi’ilawe” is a beautiful take on one of my favorite songs of all time, a Hawaiian standard I first heard by the slack-key guitar legend Gabby Pahinui. Gabby’s version is considered by many to be the definitive one, and although there is no vocal on this version, Jake speaks through his ukulele. Only a few special artists can clearly express their feelings and emotions through their instrument. There is no doubt that Jake can play a uke unlike anyone else. He mixes a lot of styles with his playing. Two of the most obvious are a classical guitar-like approach and a love for rock & roll — he’s a Hawaiian Randy Rhoads, if you will. He’s able to shred on the uke, then turn right around and play with incredible sensitivity.
A few other songs stand out, but maybe not for the best reasons. “Train Ride,” for instance, suffers from a definitely questionable and cheesy keyboard sound. Another example is “Everything Is Better with You,” which is a modern Hawaiian love song written by Jake. I think some will find it hard to get past the cheese factor on this one. But, having listened to a lot of Hawaiian music, I can tell you that the cheese factor comes with the territory. And it comes from an honest place in Hawaiian music — it’s not trying to be cool or trying to impress people on the mainland, it just comes from the heart. If it comes out corny, so be it.
A lot of musicians are snobs — it’s a fact. There’s a joke about musicians where one meets another and asks “What kind of music do you play?” And he says, “I’m a folk singer.” And the other guy says, “I thought you said you were a musician…” Shimabukuro clearly has a love and appreciation of both the hotshot players and the Hawaiian folk players. And it’s pretty clear that he is a lover, not a hater. All this makes his music more enjoyable to me. It’s something I try to bring to the table with my own music: a sort of “something-for-everyone” mentality. I am all about bringing people in, not pushing them out, and Jake Shimabukuro certainly is making music for the people.