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Ukulele Virtuoso Takes "Bruce Lee" Approach To Music

It’s not all that often that you see a ukulele player performing at sold-out venues, teaming up with the likes of Bette Midler or Bela Fleck, and performing for the Queen of England. But Hawaiian born ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro has done all that and has even been compared to Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis. He’s performing Monday night at McGlohon Theater at Spirit Square and he joined us today.

Kevin: So seeing someone play the ukulele here on the mainland might not be all that common, but how common is it in Hawaii?

Shimabukuro: Oh, very common. I mean all the kids learn it in school, and everyone owns one. Everyone has one buried in their closet somewhere.

Kevin: When you travel outside of Hawaii, do you find that you get a different initial response when you tell someone you are a ukulele player than you do when on the islands?

Shimabukuro: Yeah. I guess in Hawaii everyone expects you to know how to play at least a few chords on the ukulele. It’s a big part of the culture and it’s very respected. But I didn’t realize that outside of Hawaii the ukulele wasn’t viewed that way. But I think it’s great. I love the fact that people don’t take the ukulele seriously. It’s not intimidating, it’s very friendly. I mean everybody knows Tiny Tim’s Tiptoe Through The Tulips.


And it’s great, because I think that when people think of the ukulele that way, the ukulele kind of has a bit of a sense of humor. And like I said, people aren’t intimidated by it. Which is fantastic, because I think people are more and more encouraged to pick it up and try it.

Kevin: Tell us about “THE” YouTube video.

Shimabukuro: That’s what really launched my touring career. It was a tape for a TV show called Ukulele Disco in New York. And it was just a local, community show. We met in Central Park, and they asked me a few questions, and had me play a song. At the time, I was working on While My Guitar Gently Weeps.


So I went back home to Hawaii, and a few months later is when I guess…you know to this day I still don’t know how it ended up on YouTube, but I guess someone just took it off of that TV show and posted it on YouTube. A few months later I started getting calls with people asking me if I was the guy from the YouTube video playing While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Early on, my name wasn’t even on that YouTube video. It had like five million hits already, but all it said was “Asian Guy Shreds on Ukulele” or something like that. It just happened organically. I mean if I’m not mistaken, Justin Bieber, right? I mean that’s how he started out, right? He had a couple of videos on YouTube, and now he’s like larger than life.

Kevin: He’s doing a lot of things right now.

Shimabukuro: Yeah.

Kevin: I’ve read that Bruce Lee factors into your approach to music. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Shimabukuro: Yes. Bruce Lee was one of my heroes when I was a kid. I loved his approach to martial arts and how he didn’t believe in just one style of martial arts. He believed in all styles of martial arts. And I remember thinking how cool that was and maybe music could be approached like that, because all of the different styles of music are like different styles of martial arts. So I remember at a very young age I was always open to all styles of music, and I would listen to everything without categorizing. I wouldn’t label something as jazz or classical or pop or rock. I would just appreciate it all as music.

Shimabukuro – he will be performing Monday night at Mclohon Theater at Spirit Square. His latest album is called Grand Ukulele.