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Jake Shimabukuro Changing the World Through Music

Aired August 19, 2012 - 12:00   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: His motto is if everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place. It is a motto Jake Shimabukuro wrote takes pretty seriously. You see Jake is a virtuoso ukulele player.

While 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 easy going spirit fool you. Because the moment he takes the stage is the moment you'll witness 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 4 years old, learned from my mom. She was my first teacher.

Started out playing all traditional Hawaiian music until I was about -- you know, until I was an early teenager and I just got in to 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, clearly -- I mean 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 4. The first thing I learned was the three chords to the Hawaiian vamp, which sounds like this. And I was totally happy doing that. With three chords, I immediately could already play 300 traditional Hawaiian tunes.

It was great. I mean, and 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, like going out and playing with your friends.

I wanted to come home and strum my ukulele. I was kind of a strange kid, I guess. When I was a kid, there was no such thing as a touring solo ukulele player, so I really didn't know what I was going to do with my life.

I started out performing in coffee shops just in Hawaii. I had a couple of bands, like in high school and stuff where we'd play together. There is a lot of traditional Hawaiian music and other fun is to have. We play in some weddings, some during my cousin's birthday party or something.

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

I had a bunch of friends that were going to school. And couple of them e-mailed me and said, 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 mean? They're like, yes, this site called YouTube.

DAN COURTENAY, CHELSEAGUITARS.COM: 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 says go to YouTube and look at this kid in Central Park play the uke.

I was like, OK, whatever. Then another customer said that, and another customer. Most of these guys were like 20 years old or so. So finally I have him come around the counter to show me what a YouTube is. I don't know what the hell it is.

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 clip. Someone took it off the TV, from the television show and put it on YouTube.

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

SHIMABUKURO: And in a matter of months, 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 they said, look, a lot of people were still looking at these as toys. I'd say, this is what you can do.

SHIMABUKURO: And right after that I started getting -- my manager started getting flooded from e-mails from people saying, we want to bring this guy out to the west coast or the east coast or Midwest, and that's how it all started.



(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) 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 is an entire yoga session in one strum.

You just, you pick it up and -- you just feel better already. I think it's so fitting. The ukulele's 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 stringed instrument in America right now. It is also the number one stringed 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 -- 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: It is an instrument that was really this instrument, which this is a Portuguese instrument. So guys go to Hawaii and somehow this turns in to 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, take your finger and do this, you know?

And just have fun with 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 didn'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 a guitar.

So it touches everybody from all cultures. It is just wonderful to so see a young man be able 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.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) SHIMABUKURO: 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 chords into their ears, but it's about drawing them in as well, you know?

So there are moments when I like 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 leaning in trying to listen to -- you know, trying to listen to those notes or 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, to look around and just kind of pick up on the vibe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is that better?

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


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My name is Andy. We came all the way from New York and we first saw Jake in a tent conference online.

Jake's video is just him playing music, and so it was so simplistic, and yet it was so -- it was so genuine and the fact that it just spoke to us and was just so -- it was really good.


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

SHIMABUKURO: Can we try to see if maybe -- sound checks change all the time especially as a solo artist. You know, when you're on stage by yourself and you're playing in an empty hall, once the people come in and you play that first chord again, the sound is completely different.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi. My name is Annie Hunter 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 is 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, bring 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: He touches my soul with his music. What else? 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 practice. So once you get up, it is all about just letting go, letting your body do whatever comes naturally, you know?

And you want to be spontaneous. I think music is very interactive. It's a language. A big part of playing an instrument or making music is really about that connection of mind and body and allowing it just the trust between the mind and the body and letting go of your thoughts and music should be that way.

We get up on stage, you start playing. Sometimes you may just feel something and it may take a completely different direction. Songs are just vehicles. It is really the emotion and the heart and soul that you put in those vehicles.




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 is very difficult.

But it brings a lot of joy to people and I think that 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 behind an instrument or with an instrument and you're creating something beautiful. Like when you can pick up an instrument and just do that, it's like -- I made that sound.

That thing that just made the room light up, or made everyone smile, you know? I just created that. You know, and there's a -- there's a joy in that and I wish everyone could feel that.

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 speak music, 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 -- 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 love playing the ukulele. You know? They love picking up their instrument an 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 never played an ukulele before but you saw one and you just picked it up, it makes you do something silly. You want to pick it up and like, yes! Look at me, I'm playing the ukulele.

You want to do something fun and silly. I think that's what's beautiful about it. There's no room for egos when you're playing the ukulele. You pick it up. It is what it is and 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 and it brings people together, makes the world a better place, and it continues to spread joy throughout the planet.


GUPTA: It's easy to say that Jake was born to do what he loves. After all, he started playing the ukulele at age 4, but his passion has taken him far beyond just being a musician. Jake has become this ambassador for ukulele enthusiasts worldwide.

A quick Google search will show you there are many of them and they are well organized. Whether he meant it or not, he's 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 live stream at I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thanks so much for watching.