The word “ukulele” may conjure up odd images, like gimmicky strumming by actors in old movies or tropical tunes rendered by pseudo-Hawaiians in touristy TV commercials.
But the ukulele, introduced to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants in 1879, has a long tradition as a serious instrument. And Jake Shimabukuro, who covers everything from Bach to the Beatles with world-class virtuosity, has brought the ukulele to new levels of sophistication. Shimabukuro, a fifth-generation Japanese American from Hawaii, has collaborated with diverse artists, including Cyndi Lauper and Yo-Yo Ma, and has toured with the likes of Jimmy Buffett and Bela Fleck.
“I’m always thrilled when people come up to me after a concert and say, ‘Wow, I’ll never look at the ukulele the same.’ They have a greater appreciation for the instrument and that makes me feel good,” Shimabukuro says.
With his ninth solo album set for release in September, Shimabukuro is poised to carry this little four-stringed instrument to the mainland — and beyond.
Having read about you and your work, I have to ask: Is your name now officially “Ukulele Sensation Jake Shimabukuro”?
Oh, I don’t know about that. But it’s been really amazing how people have been supportive, and it’s amazing that the ukulele has been gaining so much popularity. I’m just a big fan of the ukulele itself. Every time I hear the ukulele in a commercial or on television or the radio, you know, I’m all smiles.
Are audiences still amazed at the versatility of the ukulele the way you play it?
I’ll get comments like, “Where were the other instruments on stage? I couldn’t see them.” Or, “Where was the rest of the band hiding?” They don’t see how it’s possible to get all of that sound and color with just four little strings. I like surprising people and I love just watching people’s faces light up when they hear a song they’re totally not expecting to hear on the instrument.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is sort of a signature now for you. Do people still go crazy when they hear your interpretation of that song?
It’s great. I have to say thank you to YouTube and Google. That little video clip has really helped to get my name out there and expose people to what I’m doing with the instrument. And the thing is, I don’t even know who put that little clip on YouTube. From there, people just started emailing it to friends, and I hear now there’s about 5.5 million downloads. I still can’t believe it.
What are among the most satisfying experiences you’ve had as a performer?
In December, I was invited to perform for the queen of England at the Royal Variety Performance. That’s a show that the royal family puts on each year, and it’s kind of a benefit concert. So here I am on stage, playing with Bette Midler. We played the Beatles’ “In My Life.” And just to share the stage with Bette Midler, Lady Gaga, Michael Buble and Whoopi Goldberg — what an honor.
Does the queen dig the ukulele?
It turns out she’s very familiar with the instrument. George Harrison was a big ukulele enthusiast [and] I know that he rubbed elbows with the queen many times. And the ukulele is becoming quite popular in the UK. I think the queen likes ukulele.
How have you been able to process all the success you’ve had with this little instrument?
When I first started playing ukulele, I played all traditional Hawaiian music. When I was a teenager, I started to branch out and play different things. But never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I’d be meeting the queen of England or playing [in] front of thousands of people. I’m just so grateful. And it shows that ukulele has come a long way. You see that when Paul McCartney plays something on the ukulele at his concert in a dedication to George Harrison or when you see Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam playing ukulele. They make it cool [by] showing that it’s not a toy. It’s not a novelty. It can be a very, very serious instrument played in a concert hall.
Is composing as satisfying as performing for you?
In the beginning, I wasn’t focusing on being a songwriter. I liked covering other tunes, like a Beatles tune or a Michael Jackson song, and then I [would] arrange it for ukulele. Now, over the last couple of years, I’ve been finding a great deal of excitement, a great deal of joy in composing, in writing [and] trying to create my own songs. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that.
You’ve recently written a song “Go for Broke” in honor of the 442nd Regiment, the decorated Japanese American World War II veterans.
The Japanese American veterans have always been a huge source of inspiration for me. The way that they live, their commitment, their conviction and their loyalty to this country and patriotism — it inspired me to always try to make the right decision. Whatever I do, I make sure it’s something that my parents would be proud of.
Luis Torres is a journalist based in Los Angeles. He last wrote about Japanese Peruvians in Issue 19.