Jake Shimabukuro & The Holy Grails of Music

Sienna Morales Photography

We caught Jake Shimabukuro in-between shows to chat about his work with the Fender Play Foundation and the power of musical connection.

Ah, the elusive Holy Grail; the search of which is not just a key plot point in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” but a term to describe moments of transcendence, awesome serendipity, and magical combination. For musician Jake Shimabukuro, there may have been a holy grail in the return to live shows after the pandemic shut down. Or, a zoom call full of enthusiastic students taking part in the Fender Play Foundation Summer Program, eagerly strumming their beloved instruments even across internet delays, to “play your part” to “Turn Up the Sunshine” by Diana Ross and Tame Impala from Minions: The Rise of Gru. “Those students just blew me away,” Shimabukuro enthused, “They were all playing the right chords, they’re playing in sync, and in unison. You could just tell that there was a transformation that happened.”

Facilitating these transformations is the Fender Play Foundation, the non-profit entity housed by Fender itself, devoted to inspiring, developing, and supporting the next generation of musicians by providing instruments and workshops. In July 2022, the Fender Play Foundation hit a new milestone: the program has provided musical experiences to over 10,000 students in LAUSD. They are responsible for the joyous unboxing of shiny guitars, the happy strings of a ukulele being plucked for the first time, and the resonating noise through amplifiers at the inspired hands of a new musician. This summer, the LAUSD and Fender Play Program concluded with a commencement from a ukulele legend: Jake Shimabukuro.

During the last two years, the forced online congregations in turn brought enhanced gratitude upon the return of live music; the holiness of live shows. They can be, as Shimabukuro notes, “a vehicle that allows us to experience the same things…to be in a room where we all feel united and connected.” The holiness of connection and shared experiences was alive, well, and surrounded by a soundtrack through the Fender Play workshops, inspired by unique soulful expression of music. “Ukulele helped me to express emotions, express ideas, and connect with people,” Shimabukuro explains. “Music allows us to feel different things. And when we play it with other people, I feel like we’re able to kind of share very similar experiences. And when you do that, that’s when empathy happens.”

The notion of a “holy grail” by definition can invoke the word “spiritual.” And music can also have a spiritual element. “There’s always these three tiers of things: the physical, the mental and the emotional side of anything that you do,” Shimabukuro explains. We start with the physical aspects: developing calluses, as Shimabukuro reminded me, and muscle memory. We move into mental: musical decisions and choices. “But then the third tier is that emotional; some people call it the spiritual. It’s that intangible thing that we can’t grasp and can’t explain. But we’ve all felt it at some point in our lives,” Shimabukuro concludes.

The sublime beauty and intricacy of music is that it is a reflection, representation, and permutation of our lives, all at the same time. Music doesn’t so much intertwine with life as much as it is life, with all the complexities and shifts that it offers. In that way, Shimabukuro recognizes the power and opportunity that Fender has provided through their program. “You can take these ideas and these philosophies and these concepts, from life and apply it to your music or you can take all the philosophies and concepts and, and ideas that you apply to music and take that and bring it out into your everyday life,” Shimabukuro reflects. “I think what Fender play Foundation is doing is teaching kids students this without them even knowing it. They think they’re learning this instrument, but they’re learning so much more than that it’s going to make such an impact in their lives.”

Throughout his ukulele career, Shimabukuro has sought out his own “holy grail of tone.” The journey included experimenting with the amplification of the ukulele sound in order to enhance melodies and unlock possibilities. “ I didn’t want to necessarily amplify my ukulele so that I could play louder I wanted to amplify the ukulele so that I could play softer,” Shimabukuro explained. “I can create all these different sounds and colors.”

And it’s within these sounds and colors that the credits roll on our Indiana Jones quest and hero departs triumphantly, in this case onward to Saratoga California; a legend and a hero carrying their musical Holy Grail. 

(Featured Photo by Sienna Morales Photography)

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