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Sound, Size of Ukulele Strikes Right Chord in Asia

Hawaii's Jake Shimabukuro was the headliner for a ukulele festival in Seoul, South Korea.
Hawaii's Jake Shimabukuro was the headliner for a ukulele festival in Seoul, South Korea.

A small stringed guitar-like instrument, the ukulele, best known for its association with Hawaiian music and long derided as little more than a novelty, is finally earning some respect.

Its size and simplicity is winning the ukulele new fans, especially in Asia. A lot of the credit for its newfound popularity goes to a fifth generation Japanese-American, virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, who is on tour in Northeast Asia.

Sound, Size of Ukulele Strikes Right Chord in Asia
Sound, Size of Ukulele Strikes Right Chord in Asia
It could seem odd to hear a tune playing that is not traditionally heard coming from the four nylon strings of the ukulele, usually associated with hula dances and beachside luaus (parties) in the Hawaiian islands.

But Jake Shimabukuro is not a traditionalist.

He is arguably the world's finest ukulele player, earning comparisons to rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix and jazz legend Miles Davis. The 34-year-old native of Hawaii actually takes pride in his instrument's underwhelming reputation.

"People don't recognize it as a serious or even a musical instrument. They think of it more along the lines of a toy," he says. "They think it's something that any child can do. That's wonderful because it's the perfect tool to introduce people to music. You don't necessarily have to be a musician to play the ukulele. It's kind of the underdog of instruments. But I think that's part of its charm."

Riding an unexpected wave of mass appeal, Shimabukuro is performing across Japan with a 14-show tour in August and September. At his first performance this month in South Korea, tickets sold for up to $100 per seat. His concerts, lasting up to two hours, consist of just him and his ukulele. He does not sing and has no accompanying musicians on stage.

(VOA - Steve Herman)

Tokyo resident Kyoko Ujihara is among those in the audience in Seoul. Ujihara says she first heard Shimabukuro's songs on the radio about six years ago. Several years after that she decided to pick up the ukulele herself.

Ujihara says the ukulele was around in Japan during her grandfather's era and was associated with Hawaiian music. But it is popular again now and this boom was caused by Jake's style which can include everything from jazz to rock.

Ujihara's interest in the ukulele has now turned into a business. She says she is making carrying cases for the instruments after realizing there were not any cute ones.

Shimabukuro notes that in an age where making things smaller is better, as well as a contemporary Asian esthetic that cute is cool, it is no coincidence that the tiny musical instrument has become a hit in the region. Living in small homes and riding public transportation are the norm in Asia's urban centers. That makes the ukulele less of a lifestyle challenge than, say, playing the drums or the cello.

"The size definitely draws people toward the instrument," he says. "It's such a tiny instrument yet you can do so much with it. You only have four strings but at the same time do you really need more than that? I think the ukulele is perfect because it's simple. You have all the tools to make music, to at least feel like you're making music to fulfill that creative, artistic side."

Sound, Size of Ukulele Strikes Right Chord in Asia
Sound, Size of Ukulele Strikes Right Chord in Asia
Before Shimabukuro's concert at a university in Seoul, Cheon Chang-hi, is strumming on one of the ukuleles for sale in the foyer.

Cheon says after an automobile accident put him in the hospital for an extended time he searched for a new hobby. The recent college graduate happened to come across American music educator Mike Lynch's ukelele instructional videos on the internet and was hooked.

"When I saw his video I feel very exciting," he says. "So I want to learn myself, so I did start this instrument. This is very easy to play and I like this soft sound."

Shimabukuro notes the ukulele's mellow sound and its association with a mid-Pacific island paradise has increasingly given it an identification as the musical instrument fostering peace and global harmony.

"It's very friendly. It's inviting. It's encouraging. It's the perfect instrument to represent peace. There are no egos in the ukulele world. At least, not yet anyway," he says.

And that world includes two of the world's richest men. Investor Warren Buffet, who has been playing since college, says he taught Microsoft founder Bill Gates to play the ukulele.

But one does not need to be wealthy to pick up the instrument. It is possible to find a quality beginner's ukulele for under $100, another reason for its appeal in tough economic times.

Sales of the instrument globally are reported to have increased by one-third annually in the past several years.