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Jake Shimabukuro: Life On Four Strings

Airs Friday, February 14, 2014 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Jake Shimabukuro performs at the PBS Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, Calif. on Tuesday, January 15, 2013.

"Jake Shimabukuro: Life On Four Strings" is a compelling portrait of an inspiring and inventive musician whose virtuoso skills on the ukulele have transformed all previous notions of the instrument’s potential. Through intimate conversations with Shimabukuro (pronounced she-ma-BOO-koo-row), "Life On Four Strings" reveals the cultural and personal influences that have shaped the man and the musician.

On the road from Los Angeles to New York to Japan, the film captures the solitary life on tour: the exhilaration of performance, the wonder of newfound fame, the loneliness of separation from home and family. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Tadashi Nakamura, the film premiered Friday, May 10, 2013 on PBS.

Courtesy of Jim Choi

Jake Shimabukuro visits with children in his old neighborhood in Hawaii.

Courtesy of Merri Cyr

Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro.

Courtesy of Jim Choi

Jake Shimabukuro performs at an elementary school.

Courtesy of Merri Cyr

Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro.

A 30-something, fourth-generation Japanese American, Shimabukuro was born and raised in Honolulu, the child of parents who both loved music. Shimabukuro’s mother, Carol, played the ukulele and began to teach him at age four, as soon as his fingers were big enough to reach the chords.

“The first time she put it in my hands I was just mesmerized by the sound of the instrument,” he says. “Every time I played the ukulele or heard it I felt so at peace. It just brought me home.” At age 13, when his parents divorced, Shimabukuro found solace in music, retreating to his room for hours. “I just played — it wasn’t practice — I just played,” he recalls.

In those early years, Shimabukuro was interested in playing everything as fast as he could, changing the sound with distortion pedals and amplifiers. But, over time, he came to believe that trying to make the ukulele into something else was disrespectful. He decided that if he were going to manipulate the sound of the instrument he would do it with his hands.

“Once I committed to that path, the way that I approached music changed,” he says. “It wasn’t just about trying to play as fast as I could anymore. It was about letting the instrument breathe. That was when I really started to learn how to utilize space in my music.”

While on tour in New York, Shimabukuro revisits the site in Central Park where a video was made of his soulful rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Uploaded unbeknownst to him, it became one of the first YouTube videos ever to go viral. His career exploded.

In addition to Shimabukuro’s performances at concerts before sold-out crowds — where incredibly one man and one small instrument can hold huge audiences spellbound — the film captures his appearances at schools, providing glimpses of a man at ease with himself and happy to introduce children to the joy of music.

A few months after the devastating tsunami, Shimabukuro accompanies his longtime manager Kasuza Flanagan to her hometown — Sendai, Japan — the epicenter of the tragedy. The healing power of music is made palpably visible as he begins to play for the residents of a shelter. Wrinkled faces soften, eyes close in memory of a long-forgotten tune, toes tap out rhythm — even smiles break through.

Back home in Oahu, Shimabukuro is surrounded by friends and family. Now married to obstetrician Kelly Yamasato and expecting their first child, Shimabukuro ponders his past — and a future he knows is sure to change.

A production of Center for Asian American Media and Pacific Islanders in Communications in association with Paliku Documentary Films. A Co-Presentation of PBS Hawaii.

"Jake Shimabukuro: Life On Four Strings" is on Facebook, and you can follow @jake_movie on Twitter. Jake Shimabukuro is on Facebook, and you can follow @JakeShimabukuro on Twitter.

Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings - Preview

Enjoy dynamic performances by ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, a native of Hawai’i. 5/10/2013

Video

Life On Four Strings: Hiroshima Peace Park

Above: Jake Shimabukuro reflects and plays his ukulele at the Peace Park in Hiroshima, Japan. Footage was taken during the production of "Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings," the full-length documentary on Jake and his career.

Video

Life On Four Strings: Jake Playing in the Streets of Tokyo

Above: Jake Shimabukuro performing "Me & Shirley T" while on tour in Tokyo. Footage was taken during the production of "Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings," the full-length documentary on Jake and his career.

Video

Life On Four Strings: Aidan and Jake

Above: 10-year-old Aidan James from Honolulu, Hawai’i talks about his hero Jake Shimabukuro before sharing the stage with him at the historic ‘Iolani Palace. Footage was taken during the production of "Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings," the full-length documentary on Jake and his career.

Video

Life On Four Strings: Jake's Drum Strum

Above: Jake Shimabukuro explains how playing drums in high school influenced his famous strum on the ukulele. Footage was taken during the production of "Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings," the full-length documentary on Jake and his career.

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