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‘Ukulele Virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro Talks About Bruce Lee, TED Talks and the Future of the ‘Ukulele

Since becoming a father two years ago, lightning-fingered ‘ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro doesn’t spend quite as much time on the road as he used to. Now he travels just seven months out of the year, with a quick trip home every three weeks or so. HONOLULU Magazine caught up with him during a brief recent visit.


photo: david croxford

Every instrument has its limitations. Think of the piano. Yeah, it has 88 keys, and it has a huge range, but you can’t bend notes on a piano like you can on a guitar or an ‘ukulele. And a piano’s not a portable instrument. That’s one advantage of the ‘ukulele. It’s very portable.

WHEN YOU’RE PLAYING the ‘ukulele, it almost puts you in that same state of mind as yoga. You come home at the end of a long day, you pick up the ‘ukulele and strum a few chords, and your spirit just opens up.

I CAN BE at LAX sitting by my gate, and I can just be softly playing “Hi‘ilawe” to myself, and I’ll forget I’m at the airport. I’m completely transported to another world. It brings me back home.

I USED TO joke that one of the best things about being a touring ‘ukulele player is that audiences have such low expectations. I used to say that a lot. Then I stopped saying it, because growing up in Hawai‘i, I never really felt the ‘ukulele was not a serious instrument. If Auntie Genoa Keawe was just strumming two chords on the ‘ukulele but singing her heart out, to me, that was just as moving and just as valid as Yo-Yo Ma playing one of the Bach cello suites.     

I’M A HUGE FAN of Bruce Lee. He saw all forms of martial arts as just a form of human expression. His whole focus was expressing Bruce Lee. As a kid, I applied his philosophy to music. For me, playing the ‘ukulele is not so much about playing an instrument. The ultimate goal is using it as a vehicle to express who you are.

I HAVEN’T practiced as much as I used to since my son was born. He loves music, and we’ll sit down together and check out musicians on YouTube. He loves Buddy Rich, the great drummer. When he likes a video, he wants to watch it over and over. That’s great for me because I can kind of study and notate things. Even though I’m not with my instrument, I’m still researching and learning about music.

I’M NOT a good singer. Many people have told me that.  

THE ‘UKULELE is evolving. I spend a little bit of time playing all these different styles of music on the ‘ukulele. But in the future, I think somebody’s going to be, like, the Yo-Yo Ma of the ‘ukulele —you know, someone who’s been playing ‘ukulele for 40 years, but only playing Bach. There’s going to be the Pat Metheny of the ‘ukulele. The Muddy Waters of the ‘ukulele. The Miles Davis of the ‘ukulele. The Tower of Power of the ‘ukulele.

I DID A TED Talk in 2010. The theme for the conference was “What the World Needs Now.” My talk was on the ‘ukulele, and I said, if more people played the ‘ukulele, there’d be more joy in this world, and happier people. At the end of the talk, I said, “If everyone played the ‘ukulele, the world would be a better place.”


Jake Shimabukuro’s 2014 worldwide tour culminates Dec. 5 with a performance at the Blaisdell Concert Hall, The Third Annual Jake Shimabukuro and Friends Concert. For more information go to jakeshimabukuro.com.




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