Whether you are staring at a painting, watching a modern dance, glancing at graffitti, listening to an opera, or sharing a Youtube video—you appreciate what is creative, artistic, and therefore relevant. But do you understand it? Behind all of the art is an artist. Knowing more about the person who made the art can make all the difference in the world in how you perceive, understand, and ultimately enjoy that art.
I got the chance to learn from and about Jake Shimabukuro, the "Elvis Presley of the Ukelele", in a live interview I attended a few days ago. Like all great interviews you gain insight into the person and what makes them tick. His life is a great profile in passion, persistence, and the assistance of others. I gained some extraordinary life lessons from him that I'd like to share with you.
Here's a guy who loves the ukelele (oooh-k00-lay-lay). Born and raised in Hawaii where the uke is a respected instrument and cultural icon. Not something shared by us mainlanders. We think of it as a toy or perhaps a tropical party prop. The ukelele is taught in Hawaiian schools, much like the recorder is in the lower 48. So he learned the ukelele as a young kid and fell in love with it. He literally could not put it down when he was young. He said, "My parents had to pry the ukelele out of my hands, so I could do other things, like eat." The ukelele has only four strings and so its range is more limited than a guitar, but Jake never thought way. "Once I learned 4 chords I could play 3000 Hawaiian songs." Maybe he exaggerated, but most ukelele players accepted these limits. Not Jake. He experimented, he mastered, he re-invented this tiny instrument over many years. All the while he tried to make a living playing in bands playing covers. After many years, his music won awards in Hawaii. And after a decade or so he recorded a few songs that included George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". He played this song in 2004 on a local Hawaiian tv show. A couple years later, one of the first videos uploaded onto Youtube in 2006 was this tv show starring Jake. Jake still does not know who uploaded it or how they got the video. People were astounded by what he could do with a ukelele. Long story short it went viral, perhaps one of the first multi-million view Youtubes! It" launched" his career at the age of 29.
I first heard about Jake from the 2010 Ted conference. Watch!
Despite his growing fame and success he is a humble guy who knows his roots. He still loves the ukelele and he has become its greatest evangelist and ambassador. In fact, there is evidence that more people are selling, buying and playing the ukelele because of him! He continues to learn about how he can express himself through it. It is clear he is still an artist driven by his art. Refreshing to see and hear this.
Since he writes all of his own music, he uses a process to get into the emotion and state of mind of the inspiration of the music–like method acting he assumes the role before he plays for each song.
And for all these reasons I appreciate his art, his expressions–his music even more.
Here are the life lessons I got from his interview:
- Find your passion and pursue it with all of your heart. He said he feels each strum, each note inside his body before he expresses it. His talent is wrapped in his emotions–that's passsion!
- Relish the role of the under dog—the challenger. Don't be daunted by the negativity and the voices of doubt that intend to derail your dreams. Can you imagine how many people told him the ukelele would not be a good career choice?!
- Not only become proficient but improvise, free-style and make your passion express the uniqueness of you. One of his heroes is Bruce Lee. He admires how Lee mixed methods, styles, and disciplines to blend a new form of martial art.
- Persistence, practice and never giving up pays off. First you are true to yourself and others will follow. Find people who support you and push you. Success is being you!
- When the door of opportunity opens, walk through it. When the kindness of strangers and "lady luck" shines on you–take advantage of it. An unknown person who loved how Jake played uploaded that video and transformed Jake's life.
- Use your emotions and passions to guide your best work. To bring the best out of you. Engage your feelings into your work and your "art"–express yourself authentically!
One of his new songs is More Ukelele. Jake wants the world to know and love the ukelele. He said this song was inspired by the following SNL skit More Cowbell!
Never will listen to Jake's music the same way. The same goes for you, the artist in you. When people understand who you are, why you do what you do—they see you, understand you and your causes more clearly. They appreciate you.
Bang your cowbell—we need more cowbell!
Thanks for reading. John