Shimabukuro plays the instrument with a strumming technique that can be both fast and loud — which a rock guitarist might call “shredding” — and slow and quiet. Sometimes simultaneously. On “Let’s Dance,” a flamenco tune he composed, he uses both techniques, slapping the strings at the base of the instrument with one hand and gently plucking the strings along the neck of the ukulele with the other. Close your eyes, and the resulting sound is as if two guitars were playing. Open your eyes, and you see the other thing that’s made Shimabukuro a draw: He’s intense. Theatrical. Typically dressed like a rocker, in jeans and a graphic T-shirt, Shimabukuro does everything one of those guys might do except for smashing apart his instrument at the end of the performance.
“In Hawaii there have always been people who could play the ukulele really well and in a similar style to Jake,” says Ryan Esaki, who runs a website out of Hawaii called Ukulele Underground. “But the difference with Jake is that when he performs, he exudes so much passion for the instrument you can feel his energy just being in the audience.”
That passion is palpable not just when Shimabukuro plays but also when he talks about the ukulele. He’s something of an evangelist for the instrument, claiming that the world would be a better place if everyone played the ukulele. “I know that sounds funny,” he says in a laid-back, Hawaii-meets-hippie accent. “But it’s so true. The ukulele is the instrument of peace. You can’t possibly be angry when you’re strumming a ukulele. You have to smile when you play it and when you hear it. It brings happiness to people.”
Laughs, too. The ukulele is not just the instrument of peace; it’s also one of comedy. In the 1960s, Tiny Tim famously parlayed a falsetto singing voice and a twangy ukulele into a career. Today, comedy and the ukulele still go together: In California, a band called the Ooks of Hazzard has become famous for its goofball performances, and halfway around the world from there, a group called the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is noted for its intentionally absurd shows that feature musicians in formal wear playing such compositions as the theme from Shaft all on ukuleles. Now, how are you supposed to take the instrument seriously after witnessing something like that?
Shimabukuro, who has an album due out in October and a PBS documentary about his life that will air in 2013, still doesn’t care. “I love that the ukulele is not intimidating,” he says. “If most people think of it as a toy, I embrace that because I think that people should not be afraid of music and of trying to play music for themselves. I could sit with a person for three minutes and I could teach them a whole song on a ukulele. It is that easy to play.”