Jake Shimbukuro turns nylon into magic

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Entertainment,Music,Nancy Dunham

Ukulele manufacturers owe a huge debt of gratitude to Jake Shimabukuro.

It's not that many years ago that the little uke was really only seen in old movies (think Elvis Presley in the 1961 film "Blue Hawaii") and at luaus. Sure musicians including the Beatles' George Harrison loved it, but you wouldn't see many people aspiring to play it. Now you can't go to a music festival, certainly not an Americana one, anyway, and not stumble upon at least a vendor or two selling all manners of ukes. That all changed when Shimabukuro broke loose after years of playing.

"Every time I played the ukulele or heard it I felt so at peace. It just brought me home," said 30-something Shimabukuro, who found solace in the instrument after his parents divorced when he was age 13. "I just played -- it wasn't practice -- I just played."

Fans know that Eddie Vedder, Olivia Harrison (George Harrison's widow), Jimmy Buffett and other musical tastemakers have publicly praised his prowess. Indeed Shimabukuro uses the uke to bring jazz, rock, blues and traditional Hawaiian music to new levels.

Onstage
Jake Shimabukuro
» Where: Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW
» When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
» Info: $30 in advance, $35 day of show; 202-408-3100; sixthandi.org

So exciting is his mastery that Shimabukuro is the subject of a documentary -- "Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings," which will air at 9 p.m. on May 10 on PBS (check local listings).

To Shimabukuro the excitement of playing the uke has not waned since he was 4 years old and his mother, Carol, taught him how to play a few chords.

"The first time she put it in my hands I was just mesmerized by the sound of the instrument," said Shimabukuro, a fourth generation Japanese American who was raised in Honolulu and tried various ways of playing the uke before deciding traditional was best.

"Once I committed to that path, the way that I approached music changed. It wasn't just about trying to play as fast as I could anymore. It was about letting the instrument breathe. That was when I really started to learn how to utilize space in my music."

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