Art Talk with Jake Shimabukuro
"Traditional music is very important because you should always be connected to the roots of the instrument you play. That's the only way to fully understand your instrument and to respect the great players that came before you."---Jake Shimabukuro
With fans including Eddie Vedder and legendary producer Alan Parsons, it's not surprising that Jake Shimabukuro is considered one of the best young musicians of his generation. What may be surprising is that Shimabukuro is garnering all these accolades on the ukulele. With two albums under his belt---including 2011's Peace, Love, Ukulele which debuted at #1 on the Billboard World Music charts---Shimabukuro's virtuosic command of the instrument has him doing everything from playing with a symphony orchestra on his latest project to adapting Queen's mega-hit "Bohemian Rhapsody" for solo ukulele. When he's not jamming with the likes of Vedder and Francis Ford Coppola, Shimabukuro's promoting the Four Strings Foundation, which he started because, according to the website, "Students, teachers, and everyday lovers of music need a strong advocate for music education that is participatory, relevant, social, and engaging." We spoke with Shimabukuro by e-mail about the importance of the folk and traditional arts, why he believes "Art Works," and why he would've loved to have dinner with the late Bruce Lee.
NEA: What’s your ten-word bio?
JAKE SHIMABUKURO: I'm an ukulele player from Honolulu, Hawaii.
NEA: What’s your version of the artist’s life?
SHIMABUKURO: I have never thought of myself as an artist. When you play the ukulele, it's hard to take yourself too seriously. I'm just a fan of the instrument---and I love that the ukulele's popularity is growing day by day.
NEA: What do you remember as your first experience of or engagement with the arts?
SHIMABUKURO: When I was 21 years-old, a friend took me to watch the Blue Man Group. I had never seen anything quite like that before. They really blew me out of my seat.
NEA: What was your journey to becoming a ukulele player?
SHIMABUKURO: My mom played the ukulele when she was a kid. When I was four years-old, she sat me down and taught me a few basic chords. I was immediately hooked. I couldn't believe how simple it was to play songs. After that day, all I wanted to do was strum the ukulele.
NEA: There can sometimes be a perception that the folk and traditional arts are for older generations. Why do you think this type of music is still important today?
SHIMABUKURO: When you use words like “folk and traditional,” young people immediately think of old things. The ukulele is a traditional instrument that's used to perform traditional Hawaiian and island songs. Recently, the ukulele has been making its way through the mainstream and pop culture. You have icons like Eddie Vedder, Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift, Train, Jack Johnson, Jimmy Buffett, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Francis Ford Coppola, and Michael MacDonald all playing the ukulele and introducing the instrument to a completely new audience. These guys make the instrument cool.
Traditional music is very important because you should always be connected to the roots of the instrument you play. That's the only way to fully understand your instrument and to respect the great players that came before you. For example, Bela Fleck is an amazing virtuoso of the banjo. He performs Bach pieces with Edgar Meyer and is currently on tour with Chick Corea. But at the same time, he could sit down with any bluegrass group and blow them out of the water.
NEA: Can you think of a performance that really inspired you and tell us about it?
SHIMABUKURO: When I was a teenager, I saw Van Halen perform. I was captivated by their energy and how much fun they were having on stage. It was the first time I saw musicians running on stage and jumping up and down, having so much fun. These guys were really rocking! Back then I would think to myself, that's what an ukulele concert should be like.
NEA: What songs or musicians are on your playlist right now (and why)?
SHIMABUKURO: Recently, I completed a solo ukulele arrangement of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which was probably the most challenging classic rock tune that I had encountered. After recording it, someone asked me in an interview what would be my next challenge. I told them there's no shortage of challenging songs out there. In fact, there are probably a million pieces that I would be too terrified to even attempt. But I always thought an arrangement of the entire B-side of Abbey Road would be very cool.
NEA: Who’s on your wish list of musicians or other artists to collaborate with?
SHIMABUKURO: I would love to record “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with Eric Clapton. He played the guitar solo on the original recording with George Harrison.
NEA: Which artists—living or dead—would you invite to your “fantasy” happy hour?
SHIMABUKURO: Paganini, Buddy Rich, Jaco Pastorius, and Bruce Lee (because he's the coolest guy ever!).
NEA: You’ve just started the Four Strings Foundation. Can you tell us about it?
SHIMABUKURO: I love sharing my passion with people, especially kids. The three points that I always include in my basic message are practice, be drug-free, and have fun.
NEA: At the NEA, we say “Art works,” meaning three things: works of arts themselves, the way art works to transform people, and the fact that artists are workers. What does Art Works mean to you?
SHIMABUKURO: Art is the solution to any problem. Whenever we're faced with a problem, we have to use our own creativity and expressiveness to overcome it. I truly believe it's the one thing that saves us all. Art is love. Art inspires. Art Works.
Visit our "Featured on Art Works" playlist on the NEA YouTube channel to hear Jake Shimabukuro's "Bohemian Rhapsody" cover.