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Virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro Takes Ukulele Seriously

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Virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro Takes Ukulele Seriously


Virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro Takes Ukulele Seriously

Virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro Takes Ukulele Seriously

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro is redefining the traditional Hawaiian instrument. Guest host Jennifer Ludden talks to Shimabukuro about his new CD, Peace Love Ukulele.

(Soundbite of music)


Want to guess what that instrument is? Okay. Time's up. And don't worry if you did not recognize the ukulele.

Jake Shimabukuro has redefined this traditional Hawaiian instrument. He's been described as a ukulele virtuoso, grabbing the musical baton from Tiny Tim and setting it on fire.

(Soundbite of song, "Ukulele Brothers")

LUDDEN: That's called "Ukulele Brothers," off Jake Shimabukuro's new album, titled "Peace, Love, Ukulele." And he joins us from the studios of Hawaii Public Radio. Welcome.

Mr. JAKE SHIMABUKURO (Musician): Aloha.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: So for those who may not know much about the ukulele here, tell us about the fun little instrument that you play.

Mr. SHIMABUKURO: Well, it is a fun little instrument. You know, I've been playing it since I would four years old. It has four strings, it looks like a mini guitar, and it has just a very cute, friendly sound, for lack of, you know, better words. But I always feel that the sound of the ukulele is kind of - it's so peaceful, you know, and I think of it as an instrument of peace, you know. I tell people all the time that if everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place.

LUDDEN: And you can strum or pick the strings like a guitar, is that right?

Mr. SHIMABUKURO: Yeah. It's, you know, the range of the ukulele is a little, you know, it's quite limited. You have two octaves. Your lowest note is a third string, which is the C-string, and that's actually middle C on the piano. So if you play the piano, you have - the lowest note is middle C, and then I have a C above that, and then one more C above that. So basically two octaves is all that you have.

LUDDEN: Can you give us that - let's here that range there. You've got a ukulele with you.

Mr. SHIMABUKURO: Sure. So this is my lowest note. This is the open third string.

(Soundbite of ukulele)

Mr. SHIMABUKURO: And that's like middle C on the piano. And then I have a C above that.

(Soundbite of ukulele)

Mr. SHIMABUKURO: And then I have another C way up here.

(Soundbite of ukulele)

Mr. SHIMABUKURO: So that's it. You know, basically two octaves to work with.

LUDDEN: So does that - is that limitation what maybe has been responsible for the instrument not really getting much respect over the years?

Mr. SHIMABUKURO: I don't know. I think it's just - it's one of those instruments, not very intimidating, and most people don't think of it as a real musical instrument, you know, which is fine by me. I mean, I tell people all the time that you don't have to be a musician to play the ukulele, you know, because it's that easy.

It's so simple, you can play hundreds of songs by just learning, you know, two or three chords. And simple chords, you know, where you only need to hold down, you know, maybe one or two strings, you know, at the same time. So it's quite easy and it's very relaxing.

It's not - because the strings are nylon, it's not painful in your fingers. So, you know, it's almost like a - it's like a yoga session almost, you know, just strumming, strumming a couple of chords. It's like an entire yoga session.

LUDDEN: But I have read that it is not easy to play well, which you do. Let's listen to some of your finger picking on track nine, a work called "Five Dollars Unleaded 2010."

(Soundbite of song, "Five Dollars Unleaded 2010")

LUDDEN: You said you started playing at age four. Can you tell us about that?

Mr. SHIMABUKURO: Growing up in Hawaii, you know, everyone has an ukulele, you know, in their home tucked away somewhere in the closet or something, you know. So my mom played and when I was four she finally sat me down and put it in my hands and taught me a few chords, and I started out playing a lot of traditional Hawaiian music.

Later - well, later, you know, when I got older, I started listening to different styles of music like rock and roll and jazz and classical, and you know, and then I had this urge to play other genres of music, you know. And the only instrument that I had access to at the time was the ukulele.

You know, so if I heard a guitar piece I really wanted to play, or a piano piece I really wanted to play, I had to learn it on the ukulele.

LUDDEN: You certainly are open to a wide range of works here. You're known for reinterpreting the ukulele, and also reimagining some classic songs one normally would not think of of being on the ukulele. Let's give a listen to one of your pieces on this new album. It's Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

(Soundbite of song, "Hallelujah")

Mr. SHIMABUKURO: You know, covering the song of another artist is kind of like wearing your favorite basketball player's jersey. You know, it's like putting on your Michael Jordan jersey or something. So when you cover a song like "Hallelujah," it's really just about putting on a Leonard Cohen jersey and just saying that I'm a huge fan. You know, Leonard Cohen is amazing, just a mastermind, and really one of the great geniuses of our time.

LUDDEN: There's another song on here I just have to ask you about "Bohemian Rhapsody."


(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. SHIMABUKURO: That was a, you know, I - you know, whenever I do interviews, people ask me, you know, so you do all kinds of, you know, different genres of music, and so do you thing that any song is possible to play on the ukulele? You know, and I'll often say, yeah, I think, you know, if you use your imagination, I think, you know, any song can be played on the ukulele. And they'll always stump me with - they always say, well, can you play "Bohemian Rhapsody"? You know? And...

LUDDEN: Ah. So this is your answer to the challenge.

Mr. SHIMABUKURO: You know, so I was like, okay. Well, you know, earlier this year I thought, well, I better put my, you know, put my money where my mouth is. So I sat down with the song and I listened to it, and I just thought, wow, how would I pull this off on the ukulele, you know. Because it's not just about, you know, getting the right notes and all of that, but it's about really capturing the spirit and the energy of the song, you know. Because when you listen to "Bohemian Rhapsody" from beginning to end, I mean, Freddie Mercury takes you on this journey.

LUDDEN: Before you start playing, let's get our goodbyes in here. Jake Shimabukuro, he joined us from the studios of Hawaii Public Radio. His new CD is titled "Peace, Love, Ukulele." Thank you so much.

Mr. SHIMABUKURO: No, thank you. All right. So here is my - here is me putting on my Freddie Mercury jersey now.

(Soundbite of ukulele)

Mr. SHIMABUKURO: Here is "Bohemian Rhapsody."

(Soundbite of song, "Bohemian Rhapsody")

LUDDEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon's back next week. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

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