Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings

Jake Shimabukuro

By Farrah Chow

For some, a hobby is more than just a hobby. Whatever your passion is, it always begins as a hobby. You learn more about that activity, and then you learn more about yourself. 38-year-old ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro was not always a ukulele virtuoso. He was once just a 4-year-old kid who liked to strum the instrument whenever he had time.

Having the instrument to play even helped Shimabukuro endure the hardships of his parents’ divorce. His mother recalls him “stressing out about school and going through depression, but the ukulele was always his release. He just locked himself up in a room and played.” The dynamic changes in Shimabukuro’s family happened so quickly and when he was so young, his natural defense mechanism was to avoid his family and use the ukulele as a tool to create his own fantasy.

Shimabukuro’s fantasy soon turned into a reality. With hard work, lots of charisma and a little bit of luck, Shimabukuro found success through doing something he enjoyed. First, he played at small clubs and restaurants. Then, one of the first YouTube videos, a video of him playing an original ukulele song, went viral. From there, Shimabukuro found himself traveling around the world. But for Shimabukuro, the job is never about the money or even making the music sound good; it’s about the people he performs for. “The moment you’re on stage, you’re connected to everything: physically, mentally, spiritually. You feel like you’ve been doing the one thing you’re supposed to be doing: performing. All I want to do is connect with people. I want to be as sensitive as possible so I can feel what they’re feeling. Music communicates the purest form of human emotion.” Shimabukuro once said in an interview. This is what makes Shimabukuro so charismatic; in order for his audience to listen to him, he listens to them first. He understands his audience and knows the mood to produce. Shimabukuro is seen performing at 3 different scenes: at his old house, at a school, and at a senior center. He is versatile enough to tailor the song to the person, completing the connection between him and them.

What makes Shimabukuro so renowned for playing the ukulele? The ukulele has four strings, and naturally one would think any song played on the ukulele is a happy, Hawaiian sounding song. The musical instrument is usually regarded as a “gimmick instrument,” as Tiny Tim once said. However, little were aware that the instrument has so many musical capabilities before Shimabukuro discovered them. “The ukulele has such a small range and only four strings, but it has a lot of power in that, because it challengers me to bring out the other aspects of music. I never saw the limitations as something that could hold me back.” Much like him, the ukulele had so many constraints. Breaking out of those constraints, in both Shimabukuro’s musical challenge and familial challenge is what makes him so special. The only way to create something new is to try something new. In his younger days, Shimabukuro would write the song on a guitar or piano, and then find a way to recreate the chords on his ukulele.

Critics, often Asian and Asian-American parents, often believe that musical careers are frivolous occupations to hold. They may not understand the difficulty of having to continuously compose new music, and to perform in front of a crowd. In an old clip, Shimabukuro was sweating and his hands were trembling before the performance. But afterwards, he wore a confident smile on his face. For Shimabukuro, he “never feel[s] like [he] deserve[s] praise, so [he] work[s] extra hard because [he] feel[s] this tremendous responsibility to deliver.”

Because Shimabukuro’s childhood went awry when he was 11 years old, he places tremendous importance on family and keeping his own family intact. Although he travels around the world, he still makes time for his wife, Kelly Shimabukuro, and his immediate family. Family is the most important part of life for Shimabukuro. His family and even his manager have sacrificed so much for him to be a successful musician, he strives to do them proud, as well as compromise his time in order to be with them.

Life on four strings is never an easy ride. At times, it may be like a traditional hula song: mellow and jubilant. Other times, it may sound like the blues, or may be rhapsodic like rock and roll. But it’s never the same, as Jake Shimabukuro, Life on Four Strings makes clear. Overcoming adversity is what makes life so capricious and variable for Shimabukuro, as well as why he seems to enjoy it so much.

Afterword

This documentary is very touching and inspirational to me. I utilized a lot of quotes in my essay because I believe they are universally true and that Shimabukuro is a good example to follow for anyone who wants to follow their passion. A few years ago, I saw a poster that promoted Jake Shimabukuro’s tour. At that time, I thought his name was really long, but also quite memorable. Seeing the title of this documentary immediately sparked a flame in my memory, and I had to choose it to write about. I wanted to see why Jake Shimabukuro was famous, and what exactly he was famous for. Looking back at the movie, I believe that Shimabukuro is a self made man. His talent was never innate; most if not all of it was earned through diligence and long hours of honing his skill. As Asian Americans, we have been taught to be hard workers, but some times we burn out. Perseverance is the key to happiness, made evident by Shimabukuro’s success story.

Shimabukuro subtly underscores the importance of family in this film. Although the topic of this film is his musical career, it can be inferred that the true topic that he wanted it to be was his family. He started playing the ukulele because his mother gave him a chance. He continued playing as a reminder to himself that his parents’ divorce was going to be okay. He jumpstarted his career because his ukulele teacher made an album of his best students’ work. And most importantly, he never quit performing because his manager, brother, wife and parents never told him to. They kept supporting him and his devotion to his art. Shimabukuro’s Asian American community empowered his beliefs and is a model example to other Asian American communities. We all need to be supportive of each other.


By Joanne Li

Life on Four Strings is a descriptive documentary of Jake Shimabukuro that highlights how his career as an artist playing the ukulele started off. It touches upon his motivations, influences and the choices he made throughout his life and career that brought him to where he is today. It showed the development that he went through and what made his career possible so that he could go from simply performing around the area of Hawaii where he lived to performing world-wide; spreading his love for music, the ukulele, and the cultures of Hawaii and Japan.

It was interesting to see how he progressed from simply picking up the ukulele at the age of four and being drawn to it to performing in front of hundreds of people and traveling the world. Not only that, but to see the interest that he had and the fact that he never got bored or tired of it was amazing. He said that he didn’t practice; he played the ukulele which just goes with the saying, when you do what you love you will never feel as though you’ve worked a day in your life.

I remember watching the video of Jake Shimabukuro’s on YouTube that went viral a couple years ago. I actually didn’t realize that it was him until they spoke about it in the documentary. I was considering learning the ukulele myself and I was watching a couple of people with covers and performing on the ukulele. I remember admiring his skills and being in awe. I can only imagine that he has that affect on many people. Through the documentary I saw him interact with kids either around the same age at which he started playing the ukulele or older. I can only imagine the inspiration that he instills on those children and the adults that watch him perform. He has shared the culture that he grew up knowing with the rest of the world at Google, in talk shows, and at concerts. Together he finds ways to connect and include all different types of culture in his musical performances, from Hawaiian songs, to rock, to traditional Japanese songs.

This documentary has allowed me to realize that if it wasn’t for people such as Shimabukuro the rest of the world might not know about the Hawaiian and Japanese American culture and the ukulele itself. Without him people would still relate the Ukulele with Tiny Tim and his song “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”. Instead, now the rest of America – and the rest of the world – knows about the ukulele and can relate it to a perspective. I had always assumed that everyone knew that the ukulele could make beautiful music and had never known that before Shimabukuro came along everyone else outside of Hawaii had no respect for the instrument. He connected people of Hawaii, New York, Japan, California, and many other people from all over together. Together the Asian American community bonded together to help build his career with the help from Kaz and her connections by finding managers and producers in Japan to help him launch his solo career.

From watching “Life on Four Strings” I learned about a common trait that many Japanese people possess. According to him, Japanese people have a difficult time dealing with praise and compliments and often times feel embarrassed and don’t believe they deserved it. Due to this trait, Shimabukuro often times felt a tremendous responsibility to own up to it when complimented on his music and performances. I believe that this trait that he possesses allows him to have a growing mindset that pushes him to reach past what is asked of him and give 100% in everything he does.

Overall, this documentary was not only filled with beautiful and interesting music, it showed the amazing steps that Jake Shimabukuro went through and the challenges of he faced to be where he is today. Not only has he found a way to connect and teach the world, but also a way to inspire the people around him by simply doing the thing he loves – playing the ukulele.

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