Jake Shimabukuro brings magic of ukulele to the Hop

by Amelia Rosch | 11/9/15 6:03pm

Ukuleles and Queen Elizabeth II rarely mix, unless Jake Shimabukuro is involved — he performed his songs for her. Shimabukuro, who has been playing the ukulele professionally since the 1990s and became famous for his viral video of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (1968), performed a range of original songs and covers of popular songs at the Hopkins Center last night.

Shimabukuro, who was born and raised on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, said that his mother taught him to play the ukulele when he was four. He said that the tradition of the ukulele in Hawaiian music appealed to him.

“I was into it because it was such a big part of our culture,” he said. “I thought everyone played it. I began by playing traditional Hawaiian music.”

He said that he feels like the ukulele is very appealing to younger children. Unlike a recorder, which many children learn in school, one can sing and play it at the same time, and it is not as large or awkward to hold as a guitar.

“There is an immediate gratification to playing the ukulele because you can learn a chord in a minute and be playing a song right away,” he said. “With other instruments, that can take awhile.”

Shimabukuro said that as he got older, he began to branch out into other styles of music. He said one of the earliest styles he experimented was “Jawaiian” music, a mix of reggae and Hawaiian music which was popular when he was young. He said that Bob Marley’s music acted as a gateway to the rock music that he became famous for playing.

He said that the ukulele’s sound and style lends itself well to playing rock and pop music. The instrument has only four strings, covers a range of two octaves — the same two octaves that most pop music falls into — and creates shorter notes than some other stringed instruments, which gives it a unique sound.

“It’s not the same sound that you can sustain on a guitar or violin,” he said. “It lends itself really well to rock and roll or bluegrass, where it can take over the roll of a banjo or a mandoline.”

He said that as a child, he never dreamed of being able to make a career out of being a musician because he was not able to sing well. Many of the traditionally famous ukulele players were also known for their singing, he said.

“I never thought I would be at that level,” he said. “I just loved their music. I was thinking they were so cool, but I never thought I would be them.”

Shimabukuro said that while he previously toured solo, his latest tour has been with a bass player, which has allowed him to increase the range and register he is able to cover in his songs.

In June, Shimabukuro performed classical music with his ukulele for the first time with the Colorado Symphony. He said that he considered that performance a historic moment.

“[Classical music] was the one style I never thought was possible to play on the ukulele,” he said. “It has such a long history and culture. It was one of the most complex pieces of music I ever played. It was a very exciting time.”

He said that preparing for that concert and working with the composer of the piece he was playing, Byron Yasui’s “Concerto No. 1 for Ukulele” (2015), was like training for a marathon.

Shimabukuro, who signed his first record deal in 2002 with Sony Music, said that touring has given him the chance to see the differences between Hawaii and the rest of the world. He said that his first few years of touring were mostly in Japan because of the strong interest in Hawaiian culture there, as well as on the West Coast. He said one of the major differences he saw was the difference in culture for Asian Americans in Hawaii compared to in the rest of the United States.

“Being Asian American in Hawaii, you are part of the majority there, and you don’t have to prove yourself as much,” he said. “With California versus Hawaii, there’s a totally different mindset.”

He said that he thinks this mindset may come from Hawaii’s history of being a monarchy before being annexed by the United States.

“We were taught to always be respectful of the culture, that we are really guests,” he said. “People still recognize that. We’re a melting pot now, and we’ve come a long way, but no matter where you live, there were people before you.”

In addition to his performance at the Hop, Shimabukuro attended a lunch with students at the Center for Gender and Student Engagement and also held a post-performance discussion.

Zoe Leonard ’19, who attended the lunch, is Hawaiian and plays the ukulele, agreed with Shimabukuro’s comments about Hawaiian culture.

“It’s still apparent,” she said. “There are some people who are still holding onto sovereignty, and there are all kinds of interactions around that.”

This was Shimabukuro’s second time performing at the College. He said that has loved visiting the campus, especially because he did not have a traditional college experience — while many of his friends attended school in the continental United States, he stayed in Hawaii.

Hop outreach and arts education coordinator Erin Smith said that she was impressed by the range of performers that Shimabukuro has worked with, which includes Yo-Yo Ma, Jimmy Buffett and Cyndi Lauper.

In addition to his work with the ukulele, Shimabukuro has also been the feature of an award-winning documentary “Jake Shumabukuro: Life on Four Strings” (2013) and the founder of the Four Strings Foundation, which creates music education workshops for children across the country.