interview by: Jade Salazar
Growing up in Hawaii, Japanese-American Jake Shimabukuro has always loved playing and listening to the music of the ukulele, but when he posted a video of himself playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in Central Park on Youtube, he never could have imagined his love of the traditional Hawaiian instrument would one day land him standing between Bette Midler and Lady Gaga, shaking hands with the Queen of England.
Brightest Young Things: How did you start playing the ukulele?
Jake Shimabukuro: I first picked up the ukulele when I was four years old. My mom taught me a few chords and I was hooked.
BYT: Tell me about your new album "Grand Ukulele" and your recent work with legendary producer Alan Parsons.
JS: It was a dream of mine to someday work with Alan Parsons. I've been a huge fan of his work for years. "Grand Ukulele" is a compilation of original works along with four cover tunes - Rolling In The Deep, Over The Rainbow, Fields of Gold, and Akaka Falls (a traditional Hawaiian piece). Alan brought together an elite group of musicians to accompany the ukulele on the record, including Simon Phillips, Kip Winger, Randy Tico, and a thirty piece symphony orchestra. One of the things that Alan and I are most proud of is the fact that there are no overdubs on this record - everything was played live in the studio.
BYT: I know you've covered classics from The Beatles and Queen, how do you decide what you want to play or what part of a song calls to you?
JS: I love all styles of music. If I had all the time in the world, I would try to play everything that I ever heard. Covering the song of another artist is like wearing your favorite basketball players jersey - it's just a celebration of your love and admiration for an incredible human being.
BYT: Why do you think the uke speaks to you?
JS: I think the ukulele really speaks to me because I grew up hearing that instrument everywhere I went. On the radio, in school, at home when my mom would play it, at the beach, park, parties, luaus, etc. It is the sound of Hawaii to me.
BYT: I have heard you speak of the peacefulness of this instrument. Why do you think that is important in the world we live in today?
JS: The ukulele makes people happy. I don't know why, but when people hear it or play it, they just seem to smile more. I tell people the ukulele is the instrument of peace because you can't be angry when strumming an ukulele.
BYT: On top of the ukulele, how does the spirit of Hawaii influence your music and your life on the road?
JS: I usually keep a very "laid back" attitude on the road. I believe it's because of my experience growing up in Hawaii. It helps to keep me grounded and reminds me to not sweat the small stuff.
BYT: And how about the spirit of Japan?
JS: I think my Japanese side helps me in developing my passion. My focus and discipline comes from years and years of my parents and grandparents telling me practice, study and work hard.
BYT: Since the uke is not really an instrument people traditionally master and go touring with and become famous playing, I imagine you have had some naysayers and people that were a little doubtful of how far this could go. How did you react to those experiences and what would your advice be to others experiencing the same road blocks?
JS: Actually, I was one of those naysayers. I really didn't believe that I could have a career as an ukulele player. It all started with a four-minute video clip on YouTube that went viral. That's what started all of this. And believe me, I am so grateful for that video - I'm having the time of my life.
BYT: What were your thoughts when originally posting that video and what exactly happened after it started getting so much popularity?
JS: After the video of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" went viral, I started getting calls from other artists to open for them on the road. It was amazing. In the last few years, I've been able to work with some of my heroes like Yo-Yo Ma, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Jimmy Buffett, Ziggy Marley, etc. In fact, two years ago, I got to perform with Bette Midler for the Queen of England.
BYT: What does the future of ukulele music look like to you and how do you feel your influence has impacted that?
JS: I would love to see more people playing the ukulele, especially non-musicians. Everyone should have the experience of playing an instrument. But the truth is, most people are too intimidated to try. The ukulele is the friendliest instrument I can think of. It's affordable, portable, social, and super easy to play.
BYT: This next one is more for personal interest. Have you ever covered any Led Zeppelin and if not, will you?
JS: I recorded "Going To California" a few years back. And of course, I had to learn the intro to "Stairway to Heaven" when I was in high school.
BYT: That is all for me but do you have anything else you would like to tell your fans of DC or fans in general?
JS: Please check out my new documentary "Life On Four Strings" - it'll be premiering nationally on PBS on May 10, 2013.
Catch the incredibly talented and humble Shimabukuro tonight at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. There are still a couple of seats left in the house and this is a gentlemen that couldn't disappoint if he tried. Plus, how often is it that you get to see a live ukulele performance?