Everything's jake with Shimabukuro and the ukulele

Jake Shimabukuro will play the Dogwood Arts Festival's Rhythm N Blooms event Sunday at the Knoxville Botanical Garden.

Jake Shimabukuro will play the Dogwood Arts Festival's Rhythm N Blooms event Sunday at the Knoxville Botanical Garden.

Jake Shimabukuro

  • What: Rhythm N’ Blooms Festival
  • When: Friday-Sunday
  • Where: Latitude 35, John Black Studio, Square Room, Market Square, Crass Couture, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville Botanical Garden & Arboretum
  • Tickets: $60 (full three-day festival), $30 (one-day pass, not including Tennessee Theatre shows)
  • Jake Shimabukuro will perform at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at the Knoxville Botanical Garden & Arboretum, 2743 Wimpole Ave. For a complete Rhythm N’ Blooms schedule visit www.rhythmnbloomsfest.com

Jake Shimabukuro has a simple philosophy.

"If everybody played the ukulele, the world would be a better place," says Shimabukuro, driving between Austin and Dallas. "More and more people are picking it up. They go, 'Wow, I can do this!' The ukulele is everybody's instrument."

Maybe so, but not everybody is going to play like Shimabukuro. Anyone who has witnessed the Hawaiian native play George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" on YouTube (and more than 10 million people have), can attest that Shimabukuro is the reigning master of the little uke. He's touring all over the world. PBS is currently planning a documentary on him, and in Hawaii he's almost a national hero.

"I see it as such a great representation of Hawaii," says Shimabukuro. The ukulele was developed in Hawaii in the late 1800's modeled after instruments brought to the islands by Portuguese immigrants. With only four nylon or gut strings, it was easy to play and produced a happy sound. The ukulele made the jump to the mainland United States in 1915 when George E. K. Awai and his Royal Hawaiian Quartet and Jonah Kumalae performed at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. By the 1920s, it had become a fad instrument of the jazz age. In the years after it faded to almost novelty status on the mainland, but in Hawaii it remained part of the islands' identity.

Shimabukuro first began playing his mother's ukulele when he was 4. Many musicians in Hawaii start out on the instrument but move on to guitar.

Shimabukuro stuck with his four strings and adapted some surprising popular songs into his repertoire, including hits by Queen and David Bowie and began playing in Hawaiian clubs and coffehouses.

His famous YouTube video resulted from an appearance on a New York City community TV show called "Midnight Ukulele Disco." Shimabukuro was filmed on a small camcorder in Central Park in 2004. Not long afterward the video went viral and Shimbukuro was an Internet star.

Soon he was landing gigs at nice theaters and being asked to tour with Tommy Emmanuel and Jimmy Buffett and performing alongside artists from Bela Fleck to Bette Midler.

"When I was growing up there was no such thing as a traveling solo ukulele player," says Shimabukuro. "One of the best things about being a solo ukulele player is people's expectations are so low!"

He says first-time audience members at his shows are regularly surprised by what they get in concert.

"They see the YouTube clip and think they have an idea of what I do. Then I play jazz, classical, Hawaiian tunes, patriotic tunes ... 'Bohemian Rhapsody' ..."

The choice of instrument also makes travel a lot easier. While musicians complain about instruments being damaged by baggage handlers, Shimabukuro can take his ukulele on a plane with him.

"It's the easiest instrument to travel with. In this day and age we want all devices to be mobile — smart phones, iPads. This is kind of like the iPad of instruments."

It also makes it easier to compose music in different locations.

"Environment can play a big part in what you're creating. You'd rather hike up a mountain with a ukulele than a guitar!"

Shimabukuro hopes to release a new album in the fall. He says he's not alone in changing the perception of the instrument. Train's hit "Hey, Soul Sister" featured a ukulele. Eddie Vedder recorded an entire album of songs with the ukulele and upcoming uke-weilding singer-songwriters, including Julia Nunes (who also got her initial boost from YouTube) are also raising its profile.

"Now people are going, 'Wow, the ukulele is not just a toy. It's a vehicle for making serious music.'"

But, he says that because the ukulele almost feels like a toy can sometimes be a good thing.

"People are not intimidated by this instrument — and everyone should be able to make music."

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