Linda Clyde | Mar 2, 2019

Jake Shimabukuro’s Musical Keynote Pays Tribute to Those Who Came Before

Jake Shimabukuro wowed attendees with a breathtaking performance on his ukulele and connected with them via his thoughtful words on Saturday morning, the final day of RootsTech 2019. Attendees were privileged to hear the thoughts of the master musician, as his usual appearances usually focus solely on his music.

He began his time on stage showcasing 2 pieces of music that perfectly demonstrated his skill on the 4-stringed instrument. At times, Shimabukuro played with incredible speed and intensity, only to switch gears and surprise the audience with the softer, more familiar sounds and rhythms typically played on the ukulele. An entertainer at heart, Shimabukuro danced and moved as if the ukulele were an extension of his own body, evidence of a lifetime of practice and performance.

Though brief, the words Shimabukuro shared with attendees were heartfelt, humble, and filled with insights and wisdom he has inherited from his Japanese heritage and the Hawaiian culture in which he was raised.

After giving acknowledgement to many of his family members, including parents, grandparents, his brother, his wife, and their 2 sons, he shared a Japanese phrase. Translated to English, the phrase stated, “I am what I am, because of you.” This phrase paid special tribute to his ancestors, but particularly to his mother and grandmother who he explained had experienced a lot of hardship in their lives as single parents.  

Another Japanese phrase shared by Shimabukuro translated to, “Lose to win.” He illustrated why he shared the phrase by sharing a lesson he learned from his uncle. One day they were in a park and saw a homeless man. Shimabukuro’s uncle taught him not to judge the man because he could be a veteran—a war hero—who sacrificed everything so that others could have a better life. He lost, so that others might win.

“I soon realized that everything I have in my life is the result of someone else’s sacrifice,” said Shimabukuro. He went on to pay tribute to the Japanese-American Nisei veterans, who became known as the 100th Battalion, an example of individuals who sacrificed so that he, as a 5th generation Japanese-American could have a better life.

Shimabukuro recounted being 4 years old and having his mother place a ukulele into his lap for the very first time and teaching him how to play a chord. He said, “There was something magical about the sound and how it made me feel.” He explained that over the years, as he grew, he didn’t practice, he played. He was passionate about the instrument from the moment it was placed in his hands. “I played so much that everything became a reflex. My fingers just responded to things that I’d heard and felt.”

Human emotion and its intimate relationship to music was another focus for Shimabukuro’s address. He indicated that music is like the language of human emotion. He shared that once he heard someone say that “music is the sound of our feelings.” To Shimabukuro, when it comes to creating music, emotion is essential. “In music it is so important to feel . . . If you don’t attach emotion to each note, then you’re not making music, you’re just making sound.” He quoted neuroscientist, Dr. Antonio Damasio, saying, “We are not thinking machines that feel; rather, we are feeling machines that think.”

A smile came to Shimabukuro’s face when he spoke of one of his grandfather’s favorite household items, a Japanese wooden back scratcher. One day while looking at the back scratcher, Shimabukuro realized it gave him a clear visual of three important life principles he wanted to share.

  1. Be Humble: “When you look at the 5 fingers of the back scratcher, they are curved forward, and when held upright, it looks as if they are people bowing their heads. So be humble, discard all feelings of entitlement. Be the servant leader. Make the sacrifices and work hard for the betterment of the next generation.”  
  2. Be Grateful: “When your back is really itchy and just out of reach, and no one is around to help you, be grateful when you reach for that back scratcher and remember that you didn’t make it this far on your own. There were many people who paved the way and made sacrifices so that you could have the opportunities that led you to every success in your life.”
  3. Be Kind: “When you hold the back scratcher out in front of you, it looks like a hand with the palm up, like you are reaching out to help someone, or giving a gift to someone in need. So, be kind. Give back. Be generous in sharing. Make a sacrifice to give someone else the opportunity to be grateful. True happiness is only found in gratitude.”

In closing, Shimabukuro spoke again of his late grandmother and of her sacrifices for her family and how she always told him, “Don’t bring shame to the family name.” Laughing, he said he could still hear her saying those words to him but cited it as one of the reasons he has been driven to work hard.

Shimabukuro shared the following before asking the audience to sing along to his final piece, Bohemian Rhapsody. “The secret to life, I believe, is living with the realization that we owe a great debt to all who came before us. And we must continue to honor the same principles and do our best, so that the future generation can have a better life than we once had.”

Linda Clyde

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