In the Hands Of A Master, The Ukulele Is No Toy Think the ukulele is just a cheap, plastic toy to be played under a palm tree? One listen to Jake Shimabukuro and you'll change your mind. The Hawaiian-born virtuoso visits NPR to show what the tiny instrument can do.
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In the Hands Of A Master, The Ukulele Is No Toy

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In the Hands Of A Master, The Ukulele Is No Toy

In the Hands Of A Master, The Ukulele Is No Toy

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  • Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

So you thought the ukulele was something of a joke, an instrument beach blanket bingos in Hawaiian shirts played for fun under a swaying palm. Meet Jake Shimabukuro, a ukulele virtuoso.

(SOUNDBITE OF UKULELE MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: He's been playing for 25 of his 29 years. Last week, Jake Shimabukuro came out with a new CD titled Gently Weeps. Jake Shimabukuro joined us in our studio to show us what a ukulele can do and talk about why he has stayed with it all these years.

(SOUNDBITE OF UKULELE MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: It's kind of viewed as a toy instrument.

JAKE SHIMABUKURO: Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: Have you always seen its possibilities?

SHIMABUKURO: But when you come across a really finely made instrument like - I play a Kamaka ukulele, so when you come across an instrument like that, you know, that's really well made, you're afraid to even pick it up because it's such a gorgeous instrument. And when you hear it, it just sounds so beautiful that you're actually surprised.

MONTAGNE: Play us something just now that, in a sense, would once and for all explode the myth of the toy, you know, the fun party instrument ukulele.

SHIMABUKURO: All right. Here's a little snippet of Ave Maria.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "AVE MARIA")

MONTAGNE: Franz Schubert, I mean that's one place most people wouldn't think the ukulele would go.

SHIMABUKURO: Soundbite of television show "Late Night with Conan O'Brien")

(SOUNDBITE OF UKULELE MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Why did you pick as a title tune While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the George Harrison classic? And I'm sort of asking because you're playing a ukulele, that's one thing. But also what were you thinking?

SHIMABUKURO: Yeah, George Harrison was one of my heroes. And a lot of people know this about George Harrison - he was an ukulele player and he would take the ukulele with him wherever he went. Until this day, I always wonder, like - I think to myself that, gosh, I think a lot of his songs, I really believe that he got a lot of his ideas from the ukulele because they just work so well with the instrument. You know, like, songs like Something.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "SOMETHING")

SHIMABUKURO: Or...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "HERE COMES THE SUN")

SHIMABUKURO: You know, they just - they're so ukulele-friendly. And While My Guitar Gently Weeps, this one works really nicely with the ukulele so it actually - so I'll play a little bit of it, but it sounds like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "WHILE MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS")

SHIMABUKURO: That's a little short piece there, but it's just a gorgeous song.

MONTAGNE: When you were growing up in Hawaii, what kinds of music did you hear on the ukulele? And I, by the way, am saying ukulele because that's the way a lot of people say it. But ukulele is how you would say it in Hawaii?

SHIMABUKURO: But, yeah, growing up, I mean, I played a lot of traditional Hawaiian music, you know, things like, you know, with this kind of sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Oh, yeah. A little Waikiki Beach kind of song.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Where did you grow up? In Oahu?

SHIMABUKURO: Yes, I grew up right in Honolulu in a little town called Kaimuki. My mom and I would sit around and we'd just play, you know, these traditional Hawaiian tunes. And normally people move to another instrument, like, from the ukulele. I feel that people get bored of playing the ukulele because they hear other things and they want to be able to play other things. But I guess for me I've never gotten bored with this instrument. I've always felt there was so much more to explore and I really love it.

(SOUNDBITE OF UKULELE MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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