Home For the Holidays


(Photo by RYOTA MORI)




This Christmas will be a particularly special one for Jake Shimabukuro; it will be notable not for some grand concert nor far-flung world tour, but for a humbly simple reason:

He’ll get to spend it at home.

“I can get my tan back!” Shimabukuro said in a Nov. 5 Rafu Shimpo interview. The 34-year-old Honolulu native was between shows in chilly Fort Wayne, Indiana, getting ready for the last of his Midwest shows for 2010, before heading off to his first-ever performance in Hong Kong.

“I decided to spend some time with my family and I’m looking forward to that,” Shimabukuro said. “It’ll be nice to kind of catch up with everyone. The past few years I haven’t been home, because I’m usually traveling over the holidays.”

The ukulele virtuoso, quite possibly the most recognized player of the instrument on the globe, joked that his parents still remember his face because “I send them pictures every now and then.”

Christmas at home for Shimabukuro differs little from the traditions most have–it’s all about family…and food.

“Of course, we’re celebrating a very special day,” he said, but quickly chimed, “but you know, it’s all about eating!”

Asked if there’s something special his mother cooks over the holidays–a dish that holds the place as the family favorite–he knew immediately.

“She makes a really great prime rib, that’s something we all look forward to,” he explained. “Or sometimes we have barbeques in the backyard, oysters on the fire, something like that.”

For certain, Shimabukuro family holiday traditions reflect where they live. The images of snow-covered rooftops and cuddling sleigh rides don’t often apply to Hawaii.

“In the past, we’d have family dinners, then go to the beach, because it’s basically a warm Christmas,” he recalled. “The only white Christmas you’ll get is if you go out and find a nice white sandy beach and roll around in it.”

It was on and around those idyllic shorelines some three decades ago where young Jake was introduced to the ukulele by his doting mother, Carol.

“Growing up in Hawaii, all kids learn how to play at least a couple of songs on the ukulele, that’s kind of standard,” he said. “Especially in public school, everyone has to take a couple of courses in fourth or fifth grade.”

Shimabukuro waves to fans Aug. 17 at Hokkoku Shimbun Akabane Hall in Kanazawa, Japan, during his “I Love Ukulele Tour 2010.” (DARRELL MIHO)

A relatively easy instrument to play, most traditional ukulele pieces involved simple melodies and only a few chords. Shimabukuro’s eclectic and expansive applications of the uke into several thoroughly un-Hawaiian genres have made him an international star. More than simply a top-drawer technician of the instrument, he has almost single-handedly transformed public conception of the humble four-string into a piece that can be added to arrangements of pop, rock, jazz, classical or Japanese music. As much as Jimi Hendrix did for the electric guitar, or Miles Davis for the trumpet, Shimabukuro  has done for ukulele.

And it is Japan where Shimabukuro, a Gosei, has perhaps found his widest success. Serving as Hawaii Tourism Japan’s official ambassador to lure Japanese visitors to the island, his face is easily recognized from Sapporo to Fukuoka. With his schoolboy good looks and effervescent enthusiasm, for many in Japan, Jake Shimabukuro is Hawaii.

“I’m just so thankful that I get to spend so much time out there,” he said about his many trips to Japan. “It’s nice when you go to a place where you can appreciate their culture and they can appreciate where you came from. There’s that connection, and to tie it together with music and the arts, that’s even more special.

“To me, music is the greatest language in the world. It’s the most sincere, the most honest, form of communication. There are times when there are magical moments that occur, and those things stay with you forever.”

Shimabukuro said some of the situations he treasures most are those in which he has the opportunity to introduce the ukulele to people who have little or no familiarity with it. Russia, where he played earlier this year, was one such instance.

“A lot of people there, I could tell, were not really familiar with the instrument. Believe it or not, there were a few people in the audience who actually brought their ukuleles to the show, but the majority were not too familiar, but maybe they had heard my name.”

One piece that Shimabukuro regularly performs seems to be warmly received everywhere he plays.

“I do an arrangement of George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps,’” he explained. “A lot of times, in concerts, people start yelling or clapping. That always makes me feel good, that’s always kind of exciting.”

In fact, the former Beatle became intimately enamored with the ukulele several years after the band broke up in 1970.

“Yeah, he was a huge ambassador of the instrument, one of my heroes, my favorite of the Beatles because of his love for the ukulele. To cover his songs is quite an honor,” Shimabukuro said. “It’s kind of like wearing your favorite basketball player’s jersey. Playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is like wearing a George Harrison jersey.’’

Shimabukuro has also worked up a rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which he said “tied up my brain in knots.”

Shimabukuro will next play in Southern California next March 21, joining an impressive lineup of artists who will perform as part of the JapanOC series, presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.

Sharing the bill on March 21 will  be the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, a broadly popular ensemble who have been interpreting a wide variety of styles to sell-out audiences in the UK.

Shimabukuro warms up with his crew prior to his Aug. 17 show in Japan. (DARRELL MIHO)

“They’re really popular, really fantastic,” Shimabukuro said. “They just have a lot of fun with the instrument, so I’m looking forward to it.”

Shimabukuro said he finds it ironic that he first learned of the Ukulele Orchestra via You Tube and the internet, which he gratefully credits for his own success.

“Those things have allowed me to travel to different places, because people have access to everything you do from anywhere in the world. They can check you out and see what you’re all about.”

When he’s not touring, Shimabukuro said at home practicing, applying the term “otaku” to himself, the Japanese colloquialism for nerdy, studious guys. The bespectacled, buzz-cut image used to be his trademark look, but no more. For several years now, the glasses and short hair have have vanished, in favor of a chic, long-haired persona.

“My family all know it’s still me. Without the glasses, and longer hair, they say ‘You ain’t fooling anyone.’ They know I’m still the same nerdy kid.”

After a few weeks at home, it’ll be back to the road, where Shimabukuro said he feels lucky for every day he is able to do what he’s loved since age four.

“I’ve always loved the instrument I play, always loved playing, but I never thought I’d be touring and getting to play in all these great places and collaborate with all these great artists,” he said. “It’s been a dream come true and I’ve been enjoying every moment of it.”

“Every day is a new adventure and I’m always trying to find new ways to be expressive on the ukulele.”

And if not the uke, what might Jake Shimabukuro have learned to play?

“Gosh,” he laughed. “Maybe I’d be playing the kazoo or something.”


“Home For the Holidays” was originally published as the cover story in our Rafu Shimpo Holiday Issue—Saturday, December 4, 2010.


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