Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Jake Shimabukuro and the Ukulele

Jake Shimabukuro says he's on a mission to revolutionize what people think of the ukulele. After hearing his performance of "Bohemian Rhapsody" on TED (embedded below), I have no doubt he has already succeeded in that mission. He has certainly changed my perception of the instrument.

This Friday, May 10, PBS has scheduled a film about Jake Shimabukuro titled "Life on Four Strings." I, for one, will not miss it. The film is scheduled for 9:00-10:00 ET, but check local listings.

Since I first listened to Shimabukuro over two years ago, I have learned much more about his “toy guitar.” What I have learned is enough to increase my appreciation for the ukulele and, especially, the man who is doing so much to popularize its sound.

In March 2011, Shimabukuro was interviewed by Bob Edwards on Sirius XM. If possible, download the interview and spend an hour listening. I hope you are as impressed as I am with Mr. Shimabukuro's intelligence and self-awareness. He’s a man who seems at peace with who he is and what he does. He is, quite simply, an inspiration.

One of the reasons to enjoy music and art is they provide us an opportunity to observe human beings at their best, and Jake Shimabukuro is an example of humanity at its best.

One of Shimabukuro's albums is titled Peace Love Ukulele, and he seems to live by every word of the title. Listening to him speak makes me believe he is in tune with the doctrine of ethos from ancient Greece. Shimabukuro, like the Greeks, believes music is good medicine, possessing the power to change people.

Shimabukuro spends time playing in community outreach programs, going to nursing homes and schools, spreading his belief that everyone should have something in their lives they are passionate about doing, something they believe in. Shimabukuro’s passion is playing the ukulele and promoting the arts. For Shimabukuro, the arts can bring inspiration and something to live for.

It’s Shimabukuro’s observation that something about the ukulele makes people smile. For him, that’s reason enough to dedicate his life to playing it for others.

Shimabukuro grew up in Hawaii where he says everyone played the ukulele. He began playing when he was four. With great devotion to the instrument and an ear for transcribing popular songs, he has become known as the “Jimi Hendrix” of the ukulele, playing such classic tunes as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Hallelujah,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” He also performs original tunes that he has composed himself, tunes such as “Go for Broke,” about the Japanese Nisei veterans of World War II, and “Five Dollars Unleaded,” about the joy of finding a gas station after almost running out of gas.

All of these tunes are played on an instrument with only four strings and two octaves. Shimabukuro points out that if a melody exceeds the range of the instrument, he simply drops it to a lower octave or puts it in a higher range. Most pop tunes, however, don’t go beyond two octaves and for Jake, it’s simply a matter of finding the right key to keep a tune within a two octave range.

In covering well-known tunes, Shimabukuro relies on what he calls the “silent orchestra” to fill in notes and sounds he can’t play on a ukulele. He says he has no need to add drums, bass guitars, strings, or vocals when the audience can imagine hearing what is needed to complete a song. Knowing that he can do nothing to make a song played on the ukulele bigger than the original, he has decided to strip songs down to the bare essentials.

In becoming the performer he is, Shimabukuro has said he was inspired by three famous men.

First, he was inspired by Bruce Lee. For Shimabukuro, Bruce Lee represented someone who was capable of mixing the martial arts, embracing all techniques — boxing, judo, karate. If Bruce Lee had been a musician, Jake believes, he would have embraced all types of music. From Bach to Rock, Shimabukuro embraces all types of music.

Second, Shimabukuro credits Bill Cosby for showing him how to perform on stage. Shimabukuro said he must have watched Bill Cosby over 100 times on HBO, finding him funnier every time. Bill Cosby — one man, with only a chair, and a microphone — was a solo performer able to hold an audience’s attention for long periods. Shimabukuro, like Bill Cosby, has become a performer who goes on stage alone, sitting on a stool with a ukulele, playing and telling stories.

Shimabukuro also learned something useful about playing the ukulele from watching Michael Jordan play basketball. As Shimabukuro points out, basketball is a mind game, and Michael Jordan was at his best when he could get into a mental zone, not blocking everything out, but taking everything in, becoming aware of everything around him. Shimabukuro, like Michael Jordan, wants to be an artist who becomes aware of everything, aware of the audience and how the sound of his ukulele bounces off the wall, aware of the sneezes or coughs emanating from his audience.

Shimabukuro believes his ukulele is an instrument of peace, a humble instrument that makes people smile. That may indeed be true. But I should also point out that even without the ukulele, Jake Shimabukuro seems to be an instrument of peace. He says it’s impossible to feel bad when playing the ukulele. It’s also impossible to feel bad when listening to such an intelligent, gentle soul explain his passion and then use his passion to bring joy into the lives of others.

Peace. Love. Ukulele.

May Jake Shimabukuro have a long and prosperous career.

© 2011 James L. Smith 
(originally posted on

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