Shimabukuro spreads the ukulele gospel through his new Four Strings Foundation
By David Knowles
In today’s ukulele universe there’s no star as bright as Jake Shimabukuro. The Hawaiian-born virtuoso is not only considered the Jimi Hendrix of the uke, he’s routinely given credit for helping to generate the instrument’s so-called third wave of popularity.
With his YouTube videos—like his version of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”—garnering millions of views, sold-out concert tours, and an abundance of news coverage, Shimabukuro has become the guy nearly everyone reflexively thinks about when the word “ukulele” is uttered.
But Shimabukuro isn’t drawn to the stage out of a hunger for fame. He likens his passion for spreading the ukulele gospel to the way a Chicago native roots for the Bulls or Cubs. “I was born and raised in Hawaii, so whenever I see a ukulele out there, it’s a big part of where I’m from,” Shimabukuro says, during a tour stop in Portland, Oregon. “The ukulele is representative of my home team, so when I hear it in commercials or see it in movies, it’s like, yeah, that’s so awesome!”
Sharing his love of the uke with others is perhaps just as important to Shimabukuro as playing the instrument well. In 2013, he started the Four Strings Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to use the ukulele to expand music education in public schools. He works hard to make that goal a reality.
“I’ll get a call from a school, say, in Chicago or Seattle or wherever, and they’ll say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this music program,’ and they ask whether I can stop by,” Shimabukuro says. “So far it has been a very positive experience. These kids have really been responding to the music and the instrument. I’ve been giving ukulele lessons to these kids—anywhere between 20 to 200 kids in a room—and it has just been working extremely well.”
Whether the teachers or elementary-school kids have heard of Jake before-hand or not, they all seem to leave the workshops not just as Shimabukuro fans, but as ukulele converts.
“Sometimes we go to schools where the music program has brought us in, and the principal will be skeptical about this ukulele thing, but after we’re finished, they’re hooked, and they see what a positive effect it has,” Shimabukuro says. “They understand that my message is for kids to find their passion in life, whether it’s music or dance or maybe it’s studying medicine and becoming a doctor, whatever. It’s about finding a passion, working hard.”
Shimabukuro discovered his own passion for the ukulele when he was just four, and his mother began teaching him chords at their home in Honolulu.
“I never thought of it as practice. I just wanted to play all the time,” Shimabukuro says. “I just picked it up and strummed it and had fun with it. In fact, my parents had to take it away from me so I would do normal, everyday things like eat dinner, go to bed, or do homework.”
Over the next few years, Shimabukuro’s acumen on the ukulele became the stuff of YouTube legend, and it was through his growing social-media presence that the aptly named Polly Yukevich connected with him.
A graduate student at the University of Illinois who had just written a successful $10,000 grant so that a suburban Chicago school district could purchase hundreds of build-your-own ukulele kits for its students, Yukevich had a hunch that Shimabukuro would approve of her efforts.
“At the time, I knew who Jake was, I listened to his music, and I thought it would be so cool if he would tweet something about our grant,” Yukevich says. “So I tweeted him, then sent him a letter and gave a call to the number on his website, saying, ‘Hey, we’re doing this project!’ About a week later, I got a call from his management telling me that Jake wanted to be directly involved with my project. He did a two-hour Skype session with the kids and completely captivated over 300 12 year olds.”
What Yukevich didn’t know at the time was that Shimabukuro was looking for a way to give back to kids on a regular basis.
“I thought that was the last time I’d ever see him, but then I got a phone call from him asking if we could work together on some ideas, and the rest is history,” says Yukevich, who is now the director of Four Strings Foundation. “The biggest part of what we’re doing is getting people to make music on a daily basis. Ultimately the goal is to change the way that music education is in schools right now. It hasn’t really changed in the last 150 years. It needs to be more relatable for kids.”
Since last August, Shimabukuro has visited 15 elementary schools from Alaska to Maine to California, where he has not only wowed students with his own skills, but, more importantly, inspired them to start strumming themselves. As word has spread about the foundation’s mission, donations have started to come in, and sponsors have begun stepping forward to lend a hand.
“We’re excited. It’s always great when you have someone like Jake, who brings a lot of passion to the instrument,” says Scott Emmerman, director of marketing and sales at Lanikai instruments, whose company has donated 100 mahogany soprano ukuleles to the foundation and has committed to send more. “We want to do anything we can to promote playing the ukulele by people who are just discovering the instrument.”
Of course, school kids are a natural fit for the ukulele, as numerous elementary school districts have discovered over recent years.
“You can easily store 20 to 30 ukuleles in a classroom,” Shimabukuro says. “Also, the ukulele is capable of playing melodies—you can do songs like ‘Hot Cross Buns’ or ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’—and at the same time you can teach kids harmonies by playing basic chords. You can’t do that on a recorder. And the size is perfect for young people.
“Some schools try to incorporate the guitar, but a lot of times kids can’t even get their arms around the body of the instrument. Guitars are also a bit more expensive and require more maintenance. You start getting into all these extra costs.”
Though Yukevich says that the foundation is currently working on a “shoe-string budget,” the goal is to ramp up operations so that the annual number is close to $1 million. But even with a small budget, given Shimabukuro’s star power, the foundation is having an impact.
“Honestly, I probably get more enjoyment out of it than even the kids do, but watching their faces light up, it’s great,” Shimabukuro says. “A lot of them have not even seen a ukulele before. I show them that you can play these rock riffs or hip-hop riffs, something very familiar to them. Recently, I’ve been playing that ‘Let it Go’ song from the movie Frozen, and they just will go crazy, or the Pharrell [Williams] song ‘Happy,’ and they just light up. You make that instant connection with them, and they become open. You can just talk and share. I tell them this is my passion, and I want you to find your passion and work hard at it.”
While making a stop at a San Francisco Bay Area elementary school, Shimbukuro was reminded of his own rocky childhood, and how the ukulele can help a child grapple with emotional pain.
“The teacher told me there was this boy who was really depressed because he had just lost his father to cancer,” Shimabukuro said. “At the end of the workshop, the teacher brought him over to me. He was really shy and he asked me, ‘Why do you play the ukulele?’ So I shared the story of how my mom was my first teacher. I was about four years old, and every day we would sit together and play, and she would teach me chords. When I got a little older, my parents got a divorce, and once that happened my mom had to work all the time. She took three jobs in order to support me and my younger brother. So for me, playing ukulele as a kid became a way to remind me of that time I had spent with her. I shared that story with the boy, and he told me that he was going to do that, too. That every time he played the ukulele, he was going to think of his dad.”
There’s no telling how many people Shimabukuro has inspired to take up the ukulele. Whether they first encounter him in a concert hall, on YouTube, or in the classroom, the virtuoso seems to forge an instant bond with his audience.
“Truly, almost every moment that I see him is one of those moments when he’s connecting with someone,” Yukevich says. “The thing that is so amazing about him as a person and what is so great about having him as an inspiration for the foundation is that he does captivate whoever he is with, and he’s so sincere. When kids see it, they gravitate toward him. Kids who were off the wall five minutes before he gets there almost go into this state of Zen. I feel pretty lucky to be able to work with him.”
While Shimabukuro may be the ukulele’s most famous evangelist, he is quick to point out that he sees the ukulele itself as a tool for self-expression rather than the be-all and end-all. “You don’t have to be a musician to play it. The ukulele is fun, and music should be that way. It shouldn’t be intimidating or limited to the people who ‘have talent.’ Music is the language of emotion. If you know what it’s like to feel happy or sad, you can make music. That’s what the foundation is about.”
With a growing number of classrooms around the world trading in their recorders for ukuleles, the future of music is undoubtedly undergoing a shift. More and more kids are gravitating to the uke as a means of expressing themselves, and thanks to Shimabukuro and Four Strings Foundation, they won’t lack for good role models to help inspire them.
“I can’t wait to see what happens in the next few years with more and more people picking it up,” Shimabukuro says. “There are a lot of young people taking the instrument and doing different things with it, being experimental. I’m excited for all the great music that’s going to come out of that.”