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Jake Shimabukuro started playing ukulele at the age of 4 and soon fell in love with the instrument. As he tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson, “My parents would have to take the ukulele away from me so that I would do things like my homework, eat dinner, or take a shower, you know I just loved it so much, every moment that I had free I wanted to strum the ukulele.”
Shimabukuro played with some bands and had a solo career in his native Hawaii, but it was the posting of his performance on YouTube of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in 2006 that jump started his career.
That video has received well over 12 million hits and made Jake Shimabukuro a worldwide sensation. He’s even performed for Queen Elizabeth. Currently he’s touring supporting his latest DVD “Grand Ukulele: Live in Boulder.”
Shimabukuro speaks with Hobson about his music, his instrument and why everyone should play the ukulele. He also performs several songs.
On the pronunciation of ‘ukulele’
“In Hawaii we say ‘oo-koo-ley-ley’ because it’s made up of two Hawaiian words: uku and lele. And ‘uku’ means flea and ‘lele’ means jumping, so it really is the jumping flea of instruments.”
On how the ukulele is different from other instruments
“You can take it to the beach. I can sit on the sand, get my feet wet and strum the ukulele. You couldn’t do that with a violin. Even the guitar — the guitar is a little bulky. With the ukulele, I can throw it in my backpack and I can hike up a mountain, and I can sit on the top of that mountain and and strum the uke. If I’m doing a three-mile hike, I wouldn’t want to be lugging a guitar up there with me, right? The other thing is, it’s very durable because of the size. It’s much smaller. You don’t have as many problems when you travel and you go to different climates. Acoustic instruments, the wood is always bowing and that kind of stuff. But with the ukulele, because the neck is much shorter, you have much less of that.”
On the range of music he plays
“It’s amazing because the ukulele, you only have four strings to deal with. And you have a range of basically two octaves. … So you’re dealing with a very limited range and only four strings. There are two things: One, it’s very easy to play, because you’re only dealing with four strings. But on the flip side, it’s very difficult when you’re trying to express complexity in music. So taking a song like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or one of the Bach inventions becomes a tremendous challenge when you’re trying to find the right voicings for those chords.”