When I say that one of the top three concerts I’ve ever been to was just one guy with a ukulele, people don’t believe me. Did he have a backing band? they ask. No. Was he singing, too? No. Just one person and a little four-stringed instrument. I’m, of course, referring to Jake Shimabukuro, a ukulele virtuoso born in Honolulu, HI, who will be bringing his chops to Saratoga Springs’ Caffè Lena on Monday, July 30. (He’ll be performing at 7pm and 9pm.) Shimabukuro took the ukulele, an instrument long relegated to accompaniment, and turned it into a diverse solo instrument fit for practically any musical genre. His signature sound is evidence of this: He plays a smooth mix of rock, blues, classical, jazz and traditional Hawaiian. A video of Shimabukuro playing his own fiery arrangement of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in Central Park went viral shortly after it was posted to YouTube in April 2006. (See below; it’s been viewed a staggering 16 million times and counting.) Since then, the Hawaii native has been living the dream, performing with a multitude of music stars from a diverse range of genres, including Yo-Yo Ma, Jimmy Buffett and Cyndi Lauper. He’s also recorded more than a dozen albums along the way. I talked with him about his upcoming gig at Caffè Lena, and what it’s like being a ukulele star.
Will your gig at Caffè Lena be your first? Have you ever been to Saratoga?
You know I’ve been in that area, but I believe this will be my first time having a concert there. So I’m really looking forward to it. I love those real intimate venues. I started out playing in little coffee shops [in Hawaii]. The first coffee shop I played at in Hawaii was a little place that couldn’t seat more than ten people. But I’ve always loved having that intimacy, feeling like you’re just in someone’s living room playing. That’s always a real treat.
When did you start playing ukulele?
My mom played, and she put it in my hands when I was about four years old. She taught me a few chords, and I just fell in love with it.
How many hours do you practice per day?
I used to practice a lot. I never really clocked my time, but I could sit and just play for five or six hours straight, you know, without even a bathroom break. [laughs] I just loved it. My parents would take it away from me so I’d do my homework or eat dinner. But even when they sent me to my room to go to bed, I’d sneak out and grab my ukulele and practice really quietly in my bedroom. Then about five years ago, my wife and I had our first baby. And then practice time got a little shorter. [laughs] And then three years ago we had our second baby, so now I’m lucky if I can even get an hour in at the end of the day.
You once said: “If everyone played ukulele, the world would be a better place.” Do you still feel that way?
I think what’s nice about the ukulele is that it’s not intimidating. There’s something about the instrument; when you pick it up and play it, it brings out the kid in you. I’ve seen people do this many times: They’ll pick up the ukulele and do a funky or real comical pose with it. There’s just something about it. You don’t feel like it’s a real or serious instrument. When you pick it up, you feel silly. I think it’s great.
Did you set out to change the opinion that it’s not a real instrument? Or did it just sort of happen?
Yeah, I think it just kind of happened. I remember when I was a kid, I’d just turn the radio on and try to play along to whatever song was playing. I remember that being so much fun. That’s when I realized that the ukulele is capable of playing a lot of different types of music. Because when I first started, the ukulele was mainly used for traditional Hawaiian music, and that’s what I love. Later on, I gained an interest in different styles of music—classical, jazz standards or rock ‘n’ roll and blues—and it completely changed the way I played the instrument.