These days, it's not uncommon for a musician's career — or some silly new fad — to take off from YouTube. But back in 2005 when the website first launched, the pools of talent being discovered online shocked the masses. Hawaii native and ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro was one of those musicians whose early live recordings went viral. On his most-visited video (with more than 12 million views), recorded in Central Park in 2006, he reconstructs The Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" with nothing more than his uke.
"I was completely blown away," Shimabukuro says of his swift success. "I had no idea that it was even up on YouTube, because I didn't post the video. Someone else had posted it and I didn't even know what YouTube was at the time because it had just started out. I started getting calls from friends on the island and then getting calls from other people and from bands wanting to know if I would open and tour with them."
Since that time, the 37-year-old musician has toured the U.S. frequently. During a Feb. 3 stop at McGlohon Theater, Shimabukuro will play both original songs and covers — all of which are given creative tweaks based on his instrument of choice, the ukulele.
Practically unknown to mainland America until Shimabukuro became a YouTube star, he was already soaking up success in Hawaii and Japan, where he'd signed a record deal with Sony Music Japan and had been touring Japan frequently.
"It's not uncommon for musicians from Hawaii to go to Japan. Hawaiian culture is very big in Japan and it's very popular and that's why we have so many Japanese tourists that come to Japan," says Shimabukuro. "People in Hawaii love Japan. We love the food, we love the culture and there's always been this really strong relationship between Japan and Hawaii since World War II."
Shimabukuro, 37, started his own label, Hitchhike Records, to release his material (which was already available in Japan) to the U.S. market. His latest releases, 2011's Peace Love Ukulele and 2012's Grand Ukulele, were consecutively featured on Billboard's Top World Music Albums charts.
Unlike Peace Love Ukulele, an acoustic album, Grand Ukulele was recorded with a 29-piece orchestra and rhythm section. Of the striking difference, Shimabukuro explains that variety is important to him as a musician.
"It challenges me in different ways. If you're a soloist and you play as a soloist all the time, then you forget how to play with others and I think having that balance is important," he says. "I want to be able to keep my collaborative chops up to par, but at the same time if I need to sit down by myself and put on a two-hour concert, I want to have my repertoire be prepared for that as well, so I think consistently developing both sides is important."
Shimabukuro credits his mother for introducing him to the uke, an instrument native to Hawaii, at age 4. But his craft was largely influenced by Hawaiian musicians like Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, whose "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"/"What a Wonderful World" medley drew more attention to the ukulele's capabilities. Other musicians, including Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Miles Davis, also inspired Shimabukuro.
During his teen years, Shimabukuro began focusing his talents through ukulele lessons and by covering some of his favorite songs. Since then he's tackled classic songs, including Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," and later hits like Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" and Daft Punk's "Get Lucky."
"I had no intention of being a professional ukulele player or trying to play all these difficult songs or anything like that," Shimabukuro says. "It was just fun and for me, taking on challenging pieces was fun. I liked the whole problem-solving aspect, because you only have four strings and two octaves to work with."
He's also eager to help in creating a new image for the ukulele, often misunderstood and not taken very seriously in the music world. In 2013, Shimabukuro created the Four Strings Foundation, a nonprofit organization that coordinates music education workshops nationwide, and provides ukuleles, materials and training tools to schools and educators. "I didn't realize ... how people outside of Hawaii view the instrument. They don't see it as a real instrument, it's almost like a toy."
Shimabukuro, who clearly proves otherwise, notes it is a versatile instrument that practically anyone can take up. "I want more and more people to learn to use it as a vehicle to create music. It's a perfect vehicle for that and the perfect instrument because it's not intimidating, it's very affordable and it's fun."