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PBS documentary: Meet the rock star of the ukulele
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If you have a hard time believing that a ukulele player can be a rock star, then you've never heard of Jake Shimabukuro.

He was one of the original YouTube sensations. A video of him performing "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" in Central Park, uploaded in 2006, was viewed millions of times.

"At the time, I didn't even know what YouTube was," he says in the PBS documentary "Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings."

If you're thinking of Don Ho and "Tiny Bubbles," think again. Shimabukuro's talent is impressive. The 36-year-old has been playing since his mother gave him his first ukulele when he was 4.

"It was like I was holding a newborn baby for the first time," Shimabukuro said. "She told me where to put my fingers, and I strummed the four strings and fell in love with the sound. And I just couldn't put it down."

He has done what no other ukulele player has done before — become a mainstream star. It's even more astonishing because he's not a singer.

"My style really came about because I'm a terrible singer," Shimabukuro said. "I just wanted to connect with people. And I always believed that I didn't need anything more than this instrument."

But "Life on Four Strings" is not a performance piece. If anything, the hour will leave you wishing there were more of Shimabukuro doing what he does so well.

Filmmaker Tadashi Nakamura's documentary follows Shimabukuro on his 2010-11 concert tour and delves deep into his life.

"Tad did such an amazing job in not just capturing what I do as an artist, but I loved how he captured life as an Asian American," Shimabukuro said.

Nakamura was the youngest filmmaker to get into the 2008 Sundance Film Festival with "Pilgrimage," a documentary short. He sees Shimabukuro's story as "universal. But at the same time, coming from a working-class family in Hawaii is a story that's actually very rarely told."

Nakamura said he "grew up on hip-hop" and "wasn't as familiar with the ukulele or Jake."

"What was great was that not only was he a virtuoso, but he looked like me. Except his part goes this way, and my part goes that way. But to be an Asian American really spoke to me."

It's almost impossible to watch "Life on Four Strings" and not like Shimabukuro. His unjaded nature is part of his charm. You can hear his excitement when he talks about performing with Yo-Yo Ma. And about performing with Bette Midler for Queen Elizabeth II.

"I couldn't even make this stuff up," Shimabukuro said. "I mean, it's really incredible."

But there's also footage of him performing for senior citizens and children. There's a heart-touching moment as young kids in Sendai — a Japanese city devastated by the tsunami — look thrilled to get their own ukuleles and have Shimabukuro teach them how to play.

"I just feel so honored and so grateful that my mom introduced me to this instrument at such a young age because it has definitely opened a lot of doors for me," Shimabukuro said. "And it's helped to shape me as a person as well. I've learned so much from this instrument. I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for the ukulele."

spierce@sltrib.com

"Life On Four Strings"

The hourlong documentary premieres Friday, May 10, at 8 p.m. on PBS/KUED-Channel 7.

Television • YouTube sensation Jake Shimabukuro is subject of PBS documentary.
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