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Jake Shimabukuro Gives Ukelele A Chance To Shine


Well, contrary to the old belief, the ukulele is no joke. Just listen to this.


CONAN: In just those few chords, you can understand why the ukulele has gained a little respect as a serious instrument. From Japan to the United States, children, teens and more than a few adults use instructional videos on YouTube to learn how to play, and then they sit and watch in awe as they see virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro.

If you play the ukulele, how far do you push your instrument? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jake Shimabukuro joins us here in Studio 3A. His new CD is called "Peace Love Ukulele." Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

JAKE SHIMABUKURO: Oh, thank you so much. It's an honor to be here.

CONAN: And thanks for that little improvisation - Spanish ukulele.


CONAN: You push your instrument pretty far on your new record. For example, your take on the old Queen tune "Bohemian Rhapsody," this is - everybody knows the rock song. It's got a lot of dynamic range, loud and soft - not necessarily the strength of the ukulele.

SHIMABUKURO: Yeah, exactly. It's - that was a big challenge for me, you know, just trying to capture the color and the feel, the spirit of the song. It really - it goes through so many changes, you know, from beginning to end. And so you kind of have to be like a chameleon, you know, as you play the tune, because you have to change internally and just change the kind of player that you are.

CONAN: Let's get - we want to leave time for another tune, so how about an abbreviated version?

SHIMABUKURO: All right. Here we go.


CONAN: Jake Shimabukuro with "Bavarian Rhapsody(ph)." Boy, we're all glad I didn't sing along.


CONAN: Why that tune?

SHIMABUKURO: It was just - it's one of the songs that I thought, you know, when it comes to pop tunes, I mean, that is like - that's the, I guess, you know, the holy grail of, you know, of classic rock tunes. And no one likes touching that song because it's so perfect the way it is, and you can't - you'll never be able to outdo the original. So I thought, with the ukulele, the cool thing about it is you could take the complete opposite approach and just strip it down to its bare minimum, you know.

And so that's kind of what I tried to do. I really tried to just, you know, take the melody. And, you know, and it was very difficult because some parts of that tune, it's hard to decipher what's the melody and what's, you know, and what's not, because there's just so much going on. But it's a beautiful piece. It's just brilliant, and it's one of my favorite pieces to play now.

CONAN: If you play the ukulele, how far do you push your instrument? 800-989-8255. Email: I will go to Matthew, Matthew on the line with us from Ann Arbor.


CONAN: Hi, Matthew, you're on the air. Go ahead.

MATTHEW: Yes. So I just wanted to say, Jake, it was your video "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" that convinced me to buy a ukulele. I played one before at a festival. A friend of mine had a baritone ukulele there, and I thought this is a lot of fun, but still, kind of, of that mindset of it's not a real instrument. I saw that video, and it's definitely real instrument. And so I bought one. Yeah, I've been playing for about two years now.

SHIMABUKURO: Oh, that's fantastic. That's great.

CONAN: And what tune do you play best do you think, Matthew?

MATTHEW: Well, so I play a song called "Alison" by Elvis Costello. That's one of my favorites.

SHIMABUKURO: Oh, yeah. That's a classic, yeah. Oh, nice.

MATTHEW: I mostly bought it because I like to sing, and so it's a great instrument to have the quick learning curve, I think. You can - it's not six strings. It's four. So you can play the chords and sing along with it.

SHIMABUKURO: Yeah. And a lot of chords you can play with just one finger, so it makes it very simple, and, yeah. It's a lot of fun. You can - you don't have to worry so much about the instrument. You can focus more on your singing, right?

CONAN: Yeah.

MATTHEW: Yeah. Yeah.

CONAN: If I had only had four vocal chords, I would've said, "Bohemian Rhapsody" instead of Bavarian. So...


MATTHEW: Yeah. So I just wanted to say thanks for the videos, Jake. They're fantastic.

SHIMABUKURO: All in all, thank you for your support, and best of luck with your ukulele playing.

MATTHEW: Thank you. OK. Bye-bye.

SHIMABUKURO: All right. Happy holidays.

CONAN: Ukulele, not ukulele?

SHIMABUKURO: In Hawaii, we say ukulele, because it comes from the native Hawaiian words uku and lele. And uku means, flea, lele means jumping. So the translation of ukulele is really just flea jumping.

CONAN: Let's go next to Tom, Tom with us from Traverse City in Michigan.

TOM: Hi. How are you doing?


TOM: Hey, I just want to tell you the ukulele is a great instrument, because I travel. I'm an airline pilot, and I travel all over the world, and I take my ukulele wherever I go. And I've been to about 85 countries with it, and I just love it. And I love playing music for people all over the world. It's very universal. It's great.

SHIMABUKURO: Oh, yeah. That's a great story. I mean, that's one of the things I love about the instrument is it's so easy to travel with. I mean, whenever I tour and I go on the road, I never have to check it in, you know. It just goes over, you know, over the overhead compartment or the - under seat in front of me.

TOM: I don't think it counts as carry-on item.


CONAN: You have a privileged category there in the front seat, though.


TOM: Well, I spent a lot of time in the back as the passenger, too. So...

CONAN: All right, Tom. Thanks very much for the call.

SHIMABUKURO: Oh, thank you.

TOM: Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Travel safe. How about another tune? One from the album, one of the unaccompanied tunes on the album is "Hallelujah," the Leonard Cohen tune.

SHIMABUKURO: Oh, yeah. This is - I mean, you know, to me, covering the song of another artist is really like wearing your favorite basketball player's jersey. That's what I tell everyone, you know. So this is me putting on my Leonard Cohen jersey. Here's "Hallelujah."


CONAN: Jake Shimabukuro, "Hallelujah" from his new CD, "Peace, Love, Ukulele." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. That's terrific. Thank you very much for that. One thing about this CD: There isn't what anybody would typically call Hawaiian music on it.

SHIMABUKURO: Yeah. I mean, you know, I started out playing a lot of traditional Hawaiian music. When I was growing up in Hawaii, you know, I played a lot of this kind of stuff.


SHIMABUKURO: And I just loved it. I mean, when I was a kid, that's all I played. And - but then when I was a young teenager, you know, I got turned onto different styles of music, and I just fell in love with everything. But the only instrument I had was the ukulele. So if I wanted to learn, like, a little rock riff, you know, electric guitar riffs like...


SHIMABUKURO: ...or like a classical piece.


SHIMABUKURO: You know, everything had to be done on the ukulele, and it's been my passion since I was a kid. And I just - I'm loving every moment.

CONAN: Let's get Chris on the line, Chris calling from Napa, California.

CHRIS: Yes, hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

SHIMABUKURO: Well, I can't believe I'm talking to Jake Shimabukuro, here.


SHIMABUKURO: Hey, how's it going?

CHRIS: No. I met Jake in Napa once. He was standing in front of the Opera House, and I'd just read - saw his picture on the cover of (unintelligible) and said, holy cow. That's you.


CHRIS: And I said, well, what can you do on a ukulele? He said go Google "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." I said, holy cow.

SHIMABUKURO: Oh, wow. So you went home and you checked it out?

CHRIS: I sure did.


CHRIS: I've been playing ever since.

SHIMABUKURO: Oh, cool, man. Oh, that's great.

CHRIS: Yeah. So I play music with some guys in Marin. We play every Friday night, get together and play ukulele music and eat food and all that kind of stuff.

SHIMABUKURO: Oh, wow. That's - yeah, that's fantastic.

CONAN: Well, Chris, thanks very much for the call.

SHIMABUKURO: Oh, yeah. Thanks for calling in. Happy Holidays to you.

CHRIS: You, too.

SHIMABUKURO: All right. Take care.

CONAN: Could you describe your instrument? It's not the one I remember seeing with Tiny Tim.

SHIMABUKURO: Sure. This one is - it's a Kamaka ukulele, and it was made - hand-crafted in Hawaii by the Kamaka family. It's made out of all koa wood, and the fret board is made out of ebony. And it's a tenor-sized, so it's a little larger than a soprano, or the standard size, but it still has the four-strings.


SHIMABUKURO: You know, with the high G on the top, which makes it very - you know, so the uniqueness of the instrument lies in the tuning, you know, because you're two low strings are in the middle, and your two high strings are on the outside. So...


CONAN: We just have, what, about a minute and 45 seconds. Can you play us out with something?

SHIMABUKURO: Yeah, sure. All right. Here's something maybe a little bit more up-tempo. Here's a song called "143."


CONAN: Jake Shimabukuro's new CD is called "Peace, Love, Ukulele." You can find a link to his YouTube clip that launched his career in our website. Tomorrow, a look at hazing and marching bands in light of the scandal at Florida A&M University. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.