Jake Shimabukuro is a ukulele virtuoso, known for his rapid strumming techniques and infusing bluegrass, jazz, rock and flamenco into his music, giving the ukulele a new sound. When he gave a concert at Citrus College in Glendora, California, playing songs from his LIVE album and his Beatles cover album “Across the Universe,” I was there to interview him backstage. This is what Jake had to say about the ukulele, college, life goals, art and music.
New U: Why do you think the ukulele has become popular with young adults?
JS: I think because it is easy to travel with and you can just throw it over your back. You can take it to the beach, a coffee shop, the park – you can take it anywhere and just strum it. I think that it’s very simple to learn and you don’t need to dedicate a lot of time to learning the instrument in order to be an acceptable ukulele player. It’s a very friendly instrument and that’s what draws people to it. It makes people smile, and feel good, and that’s what you want. With music you want something to relax you, take the stress out of your day, and find that nice happy place. That is what the ukulele is for me. That’s why I love it so much.
New U: What kind of ukulele do you have?
JS: I play a four string tenor, made by a company called Kamaka. Kamaka handcrafts all of their ukuleles in Honolulu, Hawaii. I absolutely love the sound and their ukuleles – they were the first family to start manufacturing ukuleles from Hawaii about 100 years ago. To me, growing up in Hawaii, a Kamaka is the real sound of the ukulele. That’s why I have always been so faithful to them, because they really know how to capture that authentic ukulele sound.
New U: What made you stick with that instrument in particular?
JS: I felt that there was a lot of potential for the ukulele. When I was a kid I started with playing traditional Hawaiian music, but I haev always thought that the ukulele is capable of doing so much more than what typical ukulele music was: strumming and vocals. As a solo instrument it could have so much potential. I imagined it being used in pop music, rock, or even metal; I would experiment and try different things. On some of my earlier recordings there’s a lot of distortion. I would do a lot of electrical ukulele stuff using wa-wa pedals and it was a lot of fun. But recently, maybe in the last four years, I’ve been working my way back to acoustic, the natural sound of the instrument, and that’s been rewarding as well.
New U: What do you think of higher education and pursuing a degree in college?
JS: I think it’s great; it’s very good and important. But more importantly, I think you have to know what it is that you love to do. When I was in college I was taking all these music courses…I didn’t have any desire to play other instruments, but I took piano and voice to get a different perspective on music. When I didn’t have homework, I’d be on campus reading more about music, or I’d be at home practicing all the time. When you find something you’re really passionate about or really believe in, you want to dedicate your whole life to it.
Do the thing that makes you happy. For me it’s playing the ukulele. I really want to encourage people to figure out what they love doing and just do it, because when you’re passionate about something you accomplish amazing things. I think it’s a great thing when you feel like you want to do that one thing. I know that I’m most happy when I’m doing this, so I have no regrets.
But there are so many things that distract us and a lot of that has to do with television and media. It’s not about status or power. The most important thing is your own happiness and you achieve that through relationships with people – real relationships with people, not computers. It’s about making real human connections; taking time out of your day to spend a moment with a good friend or family member.
A lot of the time we get caught up in this high-paced lifestyle and these days people don’t have patience; we live in this world where everything is just a click away. It’s instant gratification, and because of that we don’t have the patience to tolerate people anymore. We don’t have the ability or experience to sit down with someone and explain something to them. To me it’s truly sad, because we think we are moving forward when we’re really moving backwards. That’s why music and art are so important! They allow us to sit and enjoy the moment because we can concentrate on what is happening right now. When people go to art or music festivals they’re there and they’re enjoying themselves. They’re not thinking about what they have to do afterwards. We need more of that and that’s why I support the arts. We need it now more than ever.
New U: What advice would you give to those that play the ukulele or aspiring ukulele players?
JS: I think the most important thing is just to have fun with it, just enjoy it. That’s the best thing you can do for the instrument and for yourself, because if people see you having fun playing the ukulele it will inspire them to play it in turn. If you enjoy playing the ukulele then it heals you – it makes you feel better, it make-s you more relaxed. It’s a very beneficial thing for the body, for the mind and spirit.