If you’ve never heard of Jake Shimabukuro, just get on YouTube and type in his name. It’s absolutely amazing that one man can draw so much sound out of a simple four-string, two octave instrument.
Shimabukuro, is regarded as an ukulele virtuoso. He is known world-wide, inspiring an ukulele renaissance. He was in Seattle to play the Paramount Theatre Saturday night, April 26, but he took the time to come to Issaquah High School to hold a workshop for the IHS Ukulele Club and music students from Sunny Hills Elementary in the afternoon.
Sunny Hills’ music teacher Phillip Donley had the connection. His old friend Polly Yukevich, also a music educator who now lives in Chicago, is the director of Shimabukuro’s “Four Strings Foundation.” The foundation supports music in education, seeking out music programs that use the ukulele. Shimabukuro said they find schools that are underfunded and provide them with the instruments.
He wants to inspire young people to make music, but more importantly to find their passion, what ever that may be. But the lack of funding for the arts concerns him.
“It’s such a big part of who we are whether we make a career out of it or not,” he said. “I’m in a perfect position to do this, to work with kids and do outreach.”
The father of a 20-month old son, Shimabukuro said he does a free workshop in every city he performs in, also encouraging kids to stay drug-free. When Donley found out he was coming, he said he thought it would be cool to expand it to the entire community.
When the doors opened, kids and adults alike streamed in to the auditorium at the high school, many with their ukuleles in hand. Shimabukuro started off by playing a couple of songs. The first one, the upbeat “Ukulele Five-O” is off his last CD, “Grand Ukulele.” His hands move with lightening speed. It sounds like there are more musicians on the stage with him — but it’s just him.
“Everyone knows the ukulele is a very happy instrument, but it also has its dark side,” he said before playing the lovely Japanese folk song, “Sakura Sakura.”
He told the audience that Portuguese immigrants originally brought the ukulele to Hawaii, his home state. Over time it developed into its own Hawaiian instrument. His mother played, and gave him his first ukulele at age 4. He’s been hooked ever since.
“When I was a kid I was really into Bruce Lee,” he said. That was his introduction to the first song he ever wrote, using the same three chords his mom first taught him, and he sang — which he never does — but it was a fun, goofy song about Lee.
He told the audience that melody, harmony and rhythm are the most important elements of music. He demonstrated different rhythm patterns by playing George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” the cover that launched him into stardom. He became famous internationally in 2006, when a video of him playing Harrison’s song was posted on YouTube without his knowledge, becoming one of the first viral videos on the site.
“Obviously I love dynamics in music,” he said as he played from very soft to really loud.
He’s funny, too.
He said he loves the ukulele because of the dynamic range of the instrument, but yet it’s a very simple instrument.
“When you’ve only got four strings, you’re at ground zero and work your way up,” he said. “People have low expectations!”
Donley’s students joined him on stage for their performance of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”
He followed that with an exercise for everyone on gaining strumming speed. He said the trick is not to bend your arm, but rather use wrist motion.
The IHS ukulele club joined him “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
After the show/workshop, Cameron D’Souza and Quinton Robinson, both freshmen at Liberty High School were in awe. Both have been playing ukulele for a year.
“I thought it was really awesome,” D’Souza said. “He’s the Jimi Hendrix of ukulele.”
Jake Shimabukuro works with the Issaquah High School Ukulele Club.