During his recent Japan Tour, ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro offered an inspiring lecture and performance to students enrolled in a class that I am teaching with Professor Hideto Fukudome at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Education (“Introduction to International and Cross-Cultural Education”).
Jake is from Honolulu, Hawaii, and his great-grandparents were immigrants to Hawaii from Okinawa and Fukushima prefectures. At the age of four, Jake picked up the ukulele and his mother was his first teacher and inspiration. Jake first played the ukulele professionally with the Hawaiian folk-pop trio Pure Heart. The group’s debut album, released in 1997, was a hit in Hawaii and it swept four categories at the Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards—Hawaii’s equivalent of the Grammys. By the early 2000s, Jake became famous in Japan and Hawaii as a solo musician. In 2006, a clip of Jake playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” became one of the first viral videos on YouTube and made him internationally famous. Since then, he has performed on late-night shows including Late Night with Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel Live!
Jake has also composed the original music for a number of film soundtracks, including Hula Girls, 2007, and Saidoweizu, 2009. In 2012, the documentary Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings premiered, showing Jake’s rise as an ukulele virtuoso. He has collaborated with numerous musicians, and his music was featured on Yo-Yo Ma’s Grammy Award-winning Songs of Joy and Peace and Ziggy Marley’s Grammy Award-winning Love Is My Religion. His latest CD is Jake & Friends.
Jake’s lyrical-like lecture was highlighted by four of his hit songs. He began with “Over the Rainbow,” which was inspired by a version that he heard from the late singer and ukulele musician Israel Kamakawiwoʻole. He then spoke about how a koto performance of a Japanese song, “Sakura” (cherry blossoms), inspired him to compose his version on the ukulele, underscoring his openness to learning from various styles of music, instruments, and musicians. Graduate student Marie Fujimoto, who is a concert violinist, commented, “I loved Jake’s approach to music and to the audience. I felt that his music comes from something personal, and I was drawn to his sensitive and expressive sound immediately. And concerning his arrangement of ‘Sakura,’ it’s amazing how he is engaging with his own ancestral roots so creatively.”
Following his performance of “Sakura,” he spoke about how life experiences—including a visit with a friend’s grandmother who was suffering from Alzheimer’s and had visions of blue rose petals falling from the ceiling—inspired him to compose “Blue Roses Falling,” which he performed for the audience. One could see tears among several in the audience. David Janes, Executive Director of Global Citizens Initiative, commented, “Jake’s lecture and performance remind me of his role not just as a music ambassador but as a music education ambassador who cares so deeply about humanity.”
He concluded his performance with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and mentioned that composer George Harrison loved the ukulele. His performance gave the audience a glimpse into why his YouTube video of the song went viral and why he is considered the virtuoso that he is.
In 2021, Jake was nominated by President Joe Biden to serve on the National Council of the Arts, yet his many commitments have not diminished one of his passions—working with students and teachers. Fukudome commented, “Despite Jake’s whirlwind Japan Tour, which included performances in Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, Yokohama, and Tokyo, he took the time to meet with our students. This truly demonstrates his dedication to education and underscores his role as a cultural bridge-builder between countries like Japan and the United States. I was moved and inspired by Jake’s performance. Learning in college is often seen as something done by the brain, but how the senses, the heart, and the body work together is crucial to learning. Today’s opportunity to experience how the mind, emotions, and hand relate to each other through Jake’s performance was meaningful for all participants.”
Fujimoto continued, “Also, his lecture was chill, but also insightful and inspiring. I just admire how he learns from so many things like talking drums and hand techniques of Bruce Lee (!) and applies them to the ukulele.”