It’s a rare thing in pop music when a cover song becomes nearly as popular as the original. And it’s an even rarer instance when a cover overtakes the first cut in popularity. Elvis’ “Blue Suede Shoes.” The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout.” Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah.” Any song that Smash Mouth has recorded for a Shrek movie. OK. Scratch that last one.
You can add Israel Kamakawiwoole’s cover of “Over the Rainbow” to the list, and rightfully so. The late Bruddah Iz, a larger-than-life legend in the world of Hawaiian music, transformed the Judy Garland classic into a hauntingly beautiful beach-side ode that has resonated with not only islanders and visitors, but the world at large. Today, Iz’s “Over the Rainbow” is a staple of movie soundtracks, TV shows, and commercials. In many ways, it is now the standard.
So it was with some trepidation that Hawaii-born ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro decided to take on the classic song. Iz’s shadow was hard to escape. “I still am a huge fan of Iz. I wish I could’ve met him,” he says, noting that he grew up listening to Bruddah Iz. “Even though it is not his original, I think of his arrangement as his original.”
But Shimabukuro was able to see beyond Iz’s version with the help of famed producer and band leader Alan Parsons. At the time, the two were recording the ukulele wunderkind’s latest LP, Grand Ukulele, at Parsons’ house. Shimabukuro says, “He wanted to go back and remember the context of the song, just so that I could go back and listen to the source and be re-inspired and to have a new, old take on it.”
In order to get his young protégé in the right frame of mind, Parsons sorted through his videotape collection and pulled out an old VHS copy of The Wizard of Oz. “We actually watched the whole movie in his living room. The last time I watched it I was a little kid,” Shimabukuro says. “I used to play that song a lot, but after watching the movie, my phrasing completely changed. The way that I felt the song changed. The way I feel when I play it now is different. I can hear Judy Garland’s voice. I see her singing with Toto.”
When Shimabukuro covered “Over the Rainbow,” it wasn’t the first time he tackled one of the all-time great pop songs. The young ukulele master became an international sensation when his cover of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral. On Shimabukuro’s latest, he not only tackles The Wizard of Oz tune, he takes on one of the rock world’s most powerful power ballads, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Not surprisingly, he pulls it off with aplomb.
“I love to cover songs I love to listen to,” Shimabukuro says. “I tell people all the time that to me, covering a song of another artist is like wearing your favorite basketball player’s jersey. It’s a celebration of your love and admiration for that person. Whenever I’m playing ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps,’ that’s me putting on my George Harrison jersey. If I’m playing Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ I’m putting on my Freddie Mercury jersey.”
Of course, Shimabukuro isn’t shy about taking on a challenge either. “There are times I tackle something because it requires a specific technique I need to develop. It presents that challenge,” he says. “I believe there’s no such thing as an easy song. Every song presents its own challenge, and sometimes the songs that appear to be very simple can be the most difficult to execute.”
In conversation, Shimbukuro comes across as a humble but confident guy with a gentle sense of humor and a peaceful soul. And that’s no surprise given the fact that Shimabukuro once stated, “The ukulele is the instrument of peace, and if everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place.” When reminded of this quote, he says, “I said that half-jokingly of course, but I do believe that when you play the ukulele, you can’t possibly be angry.”
He adds, “I guess in a way I really do think that the world would be, at the very least, a happier place if everyone played it.”
The ukulele alone is not solely responsible for Shimabukuro’s easy-going demeanor. There’s also the place he calls home — Hawaii. “I’m probably biased because I was born and raised there, but there’s an energy there, in the people, the lifestyle, that is very healing,” he says. “I really think that being close to the water, being close to people who embrace that lifestyle — it’s a little bit more laid-back, it’s a little bit more relaxed — it’s great. It makes you live longer. It’s a stress-free environment in a lot of ways.”
These days, Shimabukuro is proudly leading the laid-back charge of the ukulele brigade as it storms the pop music charts. Today, the little Hawaiian instrument is the key ingredient to many a Top 40 hit, from Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” to Train’s “Hey Soul Sister” and Bruno Mars’ “The Lazy Song.”
“It’s a very easy instrument to play,” Shimabukuro says. “It’s lightweight, it’s affordable, but it’s capable of playing all kinds of music. I think that’s what’s drawing people to the instrument now, especially a lot of singer-songwriters.”
He adds, “To see it winning over the hearts of so many people now is just thrilling and exciting. I really think it’s going to be the year of the ukulele.”