Today’s most popular travel instrument is based on a small, four-stringed, machete guitar brought to the Hawaiian Islands by late 19th Century traders from the Portuguese colonies of Madeira and The Azores. When natives began building replicas out of local resources such as acacia koa wood, the ukulele as we know it today was born.
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Jake Shimabukuro’s family arrived on Oahu when his great-grandfather emigrated from Okinawa, Japan. Like many Hawaiians, Shimabukuro learned to play the ukulele from a young age. At home, the family listened to the heroes of the diminutive, yet powerful apparatus such as Ohta San and the Eddie Kamae, artists who took the traditional sounds of the ukulele and applied them to pop and jazz standards of the day. By the time he saw Troy Fernandez and the Ka’au Crater Boys perform Jimmy Buffet and Grateful Dead songs, Shimabukuro was hooked for life.
“I would never leave home without it,” says the soft-spoken performer. “The nice thing touring with a ukulele is it’s so easy. When I travel, I don’t have to check anything. It makes the physical part of traveling with an instrument a lot easier.”
Once Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s mash up of “Somewhere of the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” reached worldwide popularity in 1993, making a living playing a 1-pound wooden box with strings suddenly seemed like an actual possibility.
“[Israel] would always try to push the envelope,” says Shimabukuro. “That’s when I realized there was more we could do with the instrument. I always strive to do new things because that’s what the people I grew up listening to did. I try to be respectful of the tradition of the instrument, but I love it when I discover something that I haven’t heard before, a new sound, a new chord voicing. It’s always nice to find those little things.”
Shimabukuro played weddings, birthday parties and coffee shops before starting his professional career at the age of 20 with the band Pure Heart. Five year later, he was offered a contact with Sony Japan. He became internationally famous in 2006 when his virtuoso rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” recorded at John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park, New York, went viral via YouTube.
Fifteen years and as many albums later, Shimabukuro is currently working on a new LP with his touring electric-rock trio featuring ukulele, guitar and bass.
“It features the ukulele in a very different way that I haven’t experienced before,” he says. “Ukulele is the only acoustic instrument [in the trio] and I like it that way. The nice thing about electric guitar is it doesn’t have a high top-end. Sometimes two acoustics can fight for space and tone color. With electric guitar, it’s a whole different presence. Ukulele still speaks nicely over it.”
Shimabukuro will soon be releasing a record of duets with some of his favorite artists such as Bette Midler, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Jack Johnson, Michael McDonald and John Anderson.
“I love all different styles of music,” says the charismatic performer. “It’s just me playing ukulele and them singing over it. I’ve been enjoying every moment of this amazing ride.”
When he is not on tour or in the studio, the spirited father of two enjoys volunteering at music-education programs that provide free ukuleles to schools and talking to students about not taking drugs and making healthy life choices.
“I have that passion for the youth and I’m trying to share a positive message with them,” he says. “I was impacted by programs in my school when I was young. If I can inspired that one kid, it’s all worth it.”
As does Shimabukuro’s evocative music, the ukulele continues to grow in popularity due to its accessible, yet limitless nature.
“It’s the only stringed instrument where you can play one-finger chords,” he says. “It’s a lot easier to tune. You only have four strings and they are made of nylon so they are softer on your fingertips. You don’t need a pick to play it. You can strum it and sing songs. All of those things make it easy and fun.” | crystalbaycasino.com