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For ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro, it all began with an innocent little YouTube video. The Honolulu-based musician had always dreamed of traveling and playing his unique renditions of classic-rock songs for a larger audience, but it wasn't until a clip of him playing a jaw-dropping version of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" hit the web that his career started to escalate at lightning-fast speed. In the video, Shimabukuro starts off by plucking a sweet, simple melody, and then gradually builds into a climax that has him strumming so fast that his hand is barely visible. The clip went viral, netting over three million views, and Shimabukuro became an overnight sensation.
Four years later, Shimabukuro is still following an upward trajectory, setting himself apart as an intense, disarming, and enigmatic performer. Shimabukuro will hit Minneapolis this week, and the ukulele prodigy took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to catch us up to speed on his remarkable career.
City Pages: The first time many people learned about you was via YouTube. Do you feel like that video has afforded you opportunities that you wouldn't have had otherwise, and did it come by surprise?
Jake Shimabukuro: Oh, definitely. That little four-minute video clip changed my life. Because of that clip, we started getting emails from people in Korea, Germany, all over Europe, Japan, even in countries like Australia, Canada. It was really crazy. To this day I don't really know who posted that video. I have no idea how it got on there. I did that for a television show in New York called Ukulele Disco, and it appeared on the show, and then somehow, I guess maybe a few months after it appeared on that show, someone posted it on the internet and it started circulating through YouTube and some other sites. And it's been the best thing that's ever happened for me.
CP: That's amazing. What's happened since then?
Shimabukuro: People started calling my manager and asking if I could come and play at these festivals and do all these cool things. Since that clip has been on the internet, I've gotten to tour with people like Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Jimmy Buffet, I recently did a thing with Cyndi Lauper, and most recently I recorded on Yo Yo Ma's latest album. Just from this little video clip.
CP: I read that you first started playing the ukulele when you were four. Is that your earliest memory of the instrument?
Shimabukuro: Even before I started playing, I was familiar with the sound of the ukulele because my mom played. She had a ukulele from her teenage years. She was my first teacher, and she started teaching me basic chords and things like that when I was about four years old. Whatever chords I knew, I would play them over and over and over. I just loved the sound of the instrument. I remember growing up and learning all these traditional Hawaiian songs, that was my foundation. I just loved it. I was so passionate about the ukulele because it was so soothing, and so therapeutic, and it really kept me out of trouble.
CP: When did you first stray away from the traditional Hawaiian music and into rock and blues and other genres?
Shimabukuro: When I was in high school. That's when I got turned on to a lot of the rock musicians, a lot of different kinds of music. Everything from Broadway musicals to Metallica to Eddie Van Halen to classical music. I remember the first time I plucked a few notes of the intro to "Sunshine of Your Love" by Cream, and everyone freaked out. Every guitar player was like, "Oh my gosh, how can you play that on the ukulele? You're not supposed to play that on the ukulele!" It would just blow their minds. And that's when I realized, hey, I think I'm onto something here.
CP: What can people expect at your show in Minneapolis?
Shimabukuro: For me, I just love to have fun. I believe that music is a form of therapy—it's all about healing, letting go, having a great time, forgetting about whatever is going on in your life that may be bringing you down. For everyone that will be coming to the show, let's just have a great time and laugh and play some music.
CP: I don't know if you've ever been to Minnesota in the winter, but that sounds like something we could all use right now.
Shimabukuro: I've never been there in the winter time, but I have been there before. I'm looking forward to it, and I know it gets awfully cold there in the winter. I feel a little bad that I'm living in Hawaii while I'm talking to you. [Laughs] It's so funny, recently it's been pretty chilly here in Hawaii—for Hawaii. Like the other night it was 65, and everyone's complaining because they're like, "I had to wear a T-shirt when I slept last night!"
JAKE SHIMABUKURO plays on TUESDAY, MARCH 10, at the ORDWAY CENTER FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS; 651.224.4222