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Jake Shimabukuro: Ukulele Virtuoso

Aired January 15, 2012 - 14:00   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Checking our top stories, more information now on that grounded cruiseliner in Italy. Two more bodies have been found in the wreckage; that makes five people now confirmed dead since the ship ran aground and sank near an Italian island. More than a dozen people are still unaccounted for.

Some passengers made it to safety by jumping for it.


MARK PLATH, SWAM TO SHORE: They only had rafts left, but the angle of the boat was so steep they couldn't get us out. They brought us to the down side of the ship close to the water, and we -- they had a life raft that they blew up, but it got caught under one of the cranes and the boat started moving very quickly.

There were maybe 200 people there and the life raft exploded because the boat was on top of the life raft. And at that time the water was only two meters from us so we jumped in and swam to shore.


WHITFIELD: On what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's 83rd birthday, National Park Service rangers placed a wreath inside the new memorial honoring him at the National Mall in Washington.

Today, at the start of the King holiday weekend, the Interior Department announced a correction will be made at the historic site, an inscription on the monument paraphrases a quote from King. Now they will correct it.

Cordova, Alaska still digging out of a record 18 feet of snow, but where are they going to put all that snow? We'll check in on them in the 2:30 Eastern hour of our newscast.

I'm Fredricka Whitfield. More news at the bottom of the hour, 2:30 Eastern Time.

Right now, time for "THE NEXT LIST" with our Sanjay Gupta.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: His motto is if everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place, and it's a motto Jake Shimabukuro takes pretty seriously. You see, Jake is a virtuoso ukulele player. Although you don't typically think of those two words going together, you're about to see why they perfectly describe this agent of change.

Jake is soft spoken, he's insanely likable, and he seems to be as much in awe of the attention he's getting these days as we were in watching him perform. But don't let his easygoing spirit fool you, because the moment he takes the stage is the moment you witnessed just how totally dominating he's been in redefining the instrument he believes can change the world.

This is THE NEXT LIST. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

JAKE SHIMABUKURO, VIRTUOSO UKULELE PLAYER: My name is Jake Shimabukuro. I'm a ukulele player from Honolulu, Hawaii, and I started playing when I was about four years old. Learned from my mom. She was my first teacher.

I started out playing all traditional Hawaiian music until I was about - you know, until I was an early teenager, and then I just got into different styles of music and play it for the first time.

You know, I tell people all the time that you don't have to be a musician to play the ukulele, because when I was a kid, I mean, clearly I - I mean, I - I don't think there was any indication that I'd be doing what I'm doing today.

You know, I started playing the ukulele at the age of four, and the first thing I learned were - were the three cords, the Hawaiian Vamp, which sounds like this. And I was totally happy doing that, and with three cords I immediately could already play 300 traditional Hawaiian tunes.

It was great. I mean, and I - I played it all the time. I remember just rushing home from school so that I could pick up my ukulele and play. And I never thought of it as practice. It was just something I wanted to do, you know, like going out and playing with your friends, you know? I wanted to come home and strum my ukulele. I was kind of a strange kid, I guess.

Because when I was a kid there was no such thing as a - as a touring solo ukulele player, so I really didn't know what I was going to do with my life. You know, I started out performing in coffee shops, you know, just in Hawaii. I had a couple of bands, you know, like in high school and stuff that we'd play together.

Just a lot of traditional Hawaiian music and some other fun stuff, but playing some weddings, some - you know, doing my cousin's birthday party or something.

Until about six or seven years ago, when I - I was in New York, and I did this local TV show there called "Ukulele Disco," which was a local show in New York that just featured different ukulele players. We shot my segment in Central Park, and at the time I was working on my favorite George Harrison piece, which was "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

I had a bunch of friends that were going to school, you know, on the mainland. And then a couple of them e-mailed me and said, hey, you know, there's this video clip of you going around our campus. Did you know about this? I was like, no. What do you - what do you mean? They're like, yes, on this site called YouTube.

DAN COURTENAY, OWNER, DAN'S CHELSEA GUITARS: My name is Dan Courtenay. This is Dan's Chelsea Guitars here in New York City.

Customers started asking for ukuleles, and one of them goes - says go to YouTube and look at this kid in Central Park play the uke, and I was like OK, whatever. And then another customer said that, and another customer. Most of these guys were like, you know, 20 years old or so.

So finally, I have him come around the counter and go on - and show me what a YouTube is. I don't know what that was.

SHIMABUKURO: At the time I didn't know what YouTube was, right? YouTube wasn't that popular yet. So I was like, OK, so I went on and there was this - that clip. Someone took it off the - the TV, you know, the - from the television show and put it on YouTube.

COURTENAY: There is this kid in Central Park, who was so spectacular.

SHIMABUKURO: And in a matter of months, I mean, it had like millions and millions of views.

COURTENAY: I owe that guy a lot because I sold so many of these instruments because of this guy, because I said look, a lot of people were still looking at this as toys. So I say, this is what you can do.

SHIMABUKURO: And right after that, I started getting - you know, my manager started getting flooded with e-mails from people saying, hey, you know, we want to - we want to bring this guy out to the West Coast or the East Coast or the Midwest. And - and that's how it all started.




SHIMABUKURO: Sometimes I can't think of a better way to end my day than coming home and just strumming my ukulele for a few minutes. I mean, I joke around and tell people that it's an entire yoga session in one strum, you know? You just - you pick it up and you - you just feel better already.

I think it's so fitting, you know, the ukulele is getting so popular now, and I think it's because people are discovering how wonderful this instrument is.

COURTENAY: So I've had this store here for about 22 years, and I used to sell these ukuleles by the box because nobody wanted them. Things changed in the '90s and now this is probably the most popular string instrument in America right now. Also it's the number one string instrument in Japan. People come in every day looking for the instrument.

SHIMABUKURO: So that's why I think this instrument is very special, because you don't really have to have a - you don't have to have any understanding of music, to be honest, to play it. And I think that's what - and I think it's great because it makes music accessible to everyone.

COURTENAY: Here's an instrument that was really this instrument, which is called the cavaquinho, and what it is, is a Brazilian - it's a Portuguese instrument.

So guys go to Hawaii, and somehow this turns into this. And they make this other instrument that is pretty much the same but isn't the same, and this whole other kind of music comes out of it. I mean, that's the closest you're going to get to God to me, is music.

SHIMABUKURO: With the ukulele, you don't feel like you need hours and hours of practice. You can just pick it up for the first time, you know, take your finger and do this, you know? And just have fun with it, and it - it just feels good. Everything feels right.

COURTENAY: What Jake does is astounding because he takes this very simple instrument and makes this ethereal music that is just remarkable. What's also remarkable is that's what he chose to play. There's something magic about this instrument.

This guy doesn't put all his time into a guitar. He's putting all his time into a ukulele, and he's making music on this that you couldn't make on the guitar.

So it touches everybody from all cultures. This guy is - and it's just wonderful to see a young man be able to do something like this. Very cool.

GUPTA: Listening to Jake play, it's easy to hear his love of the ukulele. Watching Jake play, the speed at which his hands move and create those percussive sounds, well that sets up a whole other experience to appreciate.

SHIMABUKURO: These are my hands, you know? And obviously they're my hands, but these are my hands. Yes. And my nails are - are very short, you know? I don't - I don't have long nails and, you know, and my fingertips are - are quite soft. They're not very callused.

I'm really not strumming as hard and loud as people think, you know? But it's, you know, it's because of the application (ph).

You know, the ukulele itself is not a very loud instrument, all right? And, you know, compared to like a trumpet, right? A trumpet is really loud. You don't have to (INAUDIBLE) a trumpet and the sound would just fill up a room. But, at the same time, the trumpet can't play - can't play really soft.

It was always a challenge for me on the ukulele to learn to play softer, not louder, because anyone can play loud on the ukulele but it was - but it was developing how to play softer. So even if I'm playing like a -


So, learning to play softer for me was another realization that OK, musically, if I want to be more powerful or if I want people to hear me, you know, then it's not just about screaming cords into their ears but it's about drawing them in as well, you know? So there are moments when I liked to get really soft, and so that - so that we can all lean in together, you know?

Like I can almost feel sometimes the audience kind of leaning in, and I'm kind of leaning in, and we're all trying to - and we're all leaning in, trying to listen to - you know, trying to listen to those notes or, you know, trying to get a sense of what's happening. And, to me, it's in those quiet moments that the music is making its most powerful statement.




SHIMABUKURO: I love the sound checks because I get to come out and, you know, get a good feel for the room and to look around and just kind of pick up on the vibe.

(INAUDIBLE). Bring more of that in the --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is that better?

SHIMABUKURO: But of course it changes. You know, once the - once the audience comes in, that's when you know what environment you're going to be making your music in.

FARAH (ph), AUDIENCE: My name is Farah.

ANDY (ph), AUDIENCE: My name is Andy.

We came all the way from New York, and we first saw Jake in a TED conference online. Jake's video is just him playing music, and so simplistic and yet it was so - you know, so genuine. And the fact that it just spoke to us and it was just so - it was really good.


ANDY: And so that inspired us to actually get a uke, and we did start playing a little bit of our own.


SHIMABUKURO: Can you try - see if maybe (INAUDIBLE) kick in some of the lower stuff (ph).

Sound checks change all the time, you know, especially as a solo artist. You know, when you're on stage by yourself and then you're playing in an empty hall, once the people come in and then you play that first cord again, it's - the sound is completely different.

BONNY HUNTER (ph), AUDIENCE: My name is Bonny Hunter (ph), and I'm here for two reasons. One is that I volunteered so that I could see Jake play again. I heard him last year. And I also want him to sign this ukulele for my grandson.

SHIMABUKURO: I'm not the kind of person that can do the same thing over and over and over, so that's why touring, playing in a different venue every night, in front of a different audience, is so rewarding, you know, because it always feels fresh.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I play the ukulele myself, so it's really exciting to see someone just sort of bring this instrument to a place I never thought possible.

SHIMABUKURO: You're playing with a different audience and the audience, you know, the people who are there, brings something - something entirely new and something different to the song. And that's why I can play it over and over and just - and genuinely love playing it every night.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because he touches my soul with his music. What else? You know, I don't know that many other musicians who can do that.

SHIMABUKURO: By the time you get up on stage already, you shouldn't be thinking about the music, you know? You had all the time to prepare and to practice and all that, so once you get up it's all about just letting go, letting your - your body do whatever comes naturally, you know?

And you want to be spontaneous. You know, I think music is very interactive. It's a - it's a language.

A big part of playing an instrument or making music is really about that connection of - of mind and body and allowing it - you know, just the trust between the mind and the body and letting - letting go of your thoughts. And music should be that way.

When you get up on stage and you start playing, you know, sometimes you may just feel something and it may take a completely different direction. Songs are just - are just vehicles. It's really the emotion and the heart and the soul that (INAUDIBLE).




SHIMABUKURO: To me, the ukulele is truly the instrument of peace because you can't possibly be angry when you're strumming a ukulele. It's very difficult.

But it brings a lot of joy to people and I think that, you know, people always talk about how healing and therapeutic music is, right? But it's not just the act of listening to it or not just going to a concert, but it's really, to me, you can really benefit from music if you learn how to make it or create it or be a part of it, or be a part of the creation of it.

No greater joy, musically speaking, when you're - when you're behind an instrument or with an instrument and you're creating something beautiful. You know, like when you can pick up an instrument and just do that, it's like oh, I made that sound, that thing that just made the room light up or made everyone smile. You know, I - I just created that, you know? And there's a - there's a joy in that, and I wish everyone could feel that.

And that's why I think the ukulele is so great, because with the ukulele, it's so easy to play. It gives everyone that chance to - to speak music, you know, to learn that language, rather than just watching other people speak it all the time, you know? And there's something very empowering about that, I think.

So the whole idea of peace and love and ukulele and just if everyone played the ukulele the world would be a better place, that whole idea, I genuinely believe that.

Why not, you know? You have guys like - you know, people like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, you know, Francis Ford Coppola. You know, these are people that have everything in the world that they could ever want, but they loved playing the ukulele. You know, they loved picking up their instrument and just - and just playing together.

There's something about this instrument that just takes you back maybe to your childhood, makes you feel like a kid.

If you've never played an ukulele before, but you saw one and you just picked it up, it makes you want to do something silly. Like you want to pick it up and be like, yes. You know, hey look at me, I'm playing the ukulele. You know, you want to do something fun and silly and you want to - and that's - I think that's what's beautiful about it.

You - it's - there's no room for egos, you know, when playing the ukulele. You just - you pick it up. It is what it is and it makes you feel - it makes you feel young, makes you feel like a kid. It makes life simple.

I really believe that this is the instrument of peace. It brings people together, it makes the world a better place, and it continues to spread joy throughout the planet.

GUPTA: It's easy to see that Jake was born to do what he loves. After all, he started playing the ukulele at age four.

But his passion has taken him far beyond just being a musician. Jake has become this ambassador for ukulele enthusiasts worldwide, and a quick Google search will show you there are many of them, and they are organized.

And whether he meant it or not, he has joined a unique collection of individuals whose common bond is being an agent of change, and that earns him a musical spot on THE NEXT LIST.

For more on THE NEXT LIST, you can go to, or visit my life stream at

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thanks so much for watching.