He's the accidental, Web-generated superstar.
Certainly, you'll find few more unlikely candidates for fame than Jake Shimabukuro, a slight, Hawaiian-born musician whose specialty is the ukulele. But one day in 2006, as Shimabukuro was playing his version of George Harrison's While My Guitar Gently Weeps on his ukulele in Central Park, a passerby took a video and uploaded it onto YouTube.
Twenty million views later, Shimabukuro was a star. He has gone on to perform with such diverse artists as Yo-Yo Ma and Bette Midler - and to be the subject of a PBS film, Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings, airing May 10.
Shimabukuro says he started out when he was 4 years old, playing traditional Hawaiian songs and such familiar ukulele standards as Tiptoe Through the Tulips. So how did he get from there to George Harrison and Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, one of his other big YouTube hits?
"It all started when I was a teenager," he told TV writers on the final day of their Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, Calif. "There were a lot of popular songs on the radio, and in order to impress the girls, you had to play tunes that were on the radio."
Over the years, Shimabukuro has developed a musical style that is energetic to the point of athletic. With feet stomping and hands flying, he bypasses the uke's built-in two-octave limits, pushing it past its normal use of strumming behind a singer, and using it to both carry the melody and soar around it. It's a style, he says, designed to overcome his own limitations.
"My style came about because I'm a terrible singer. Because I couldn't sing; if I would just strum the chords of the song and sing, no one would recognize it."
Plus, he says, it allowed him to stand out. After all, he says, there aren't a lot of other competing ukulele players out there.
Shimabukuro has played all sorts of music with and for all sorts of people, including a performance he did with Midler for Queen Elizabeth II. "I just feel so honored and so grateful that my mom introduced me to this instrument at such a young age, because it definitely opened a lot of doors for me, and helped to shape me," he says. "It really is such an honor to be a part of all of this."
Directed by Tadashi Nakamura, the film follows Shimabukuro on a concert tour over the course of the season. Along with the performance footage, the documentary shows him working with kids and spreading the joy of playing his four-stringed uke.
"Sometimes I refer to it as the instrument of peace," he says, "because you can't be angry when you play the ukulele."