By Greg Olwell
A version of this article originally appears in the Spring 2017 issue of Ukulele.
Several months ago, ukulele star Jake Shimabukuro began posting pictures to his social media accounts of himself with what appeared to be ukuleles in the midst of being repaired. Had the world’s most famous ukulele player suddenly stepped into instrument repair? We spoke with him about this project for a sidebar in the feature on Jake’s new album Nashville Sessions.
Several months ago, you began posting pictures that looked like you were repairing ukuleles. Are you branching out into lutherie?
My buddy Leo Daquioag has a non-profit called Music for Life Foundation that does a lot of work with music education. He found out that many of the public schools in Hawaii have Kamaka ukuleles that were part of the music programs in schools.
When I was a kid, it was mandatory to learn the ukulele in school—every kid in the 4th and 5th grade learned how to play ukulele. But the schools lost funding about 20 years ago and they put the ukes in storage. Because they were in stored, sometimes in hot basements, they weren’t maintained and the bridges popped off and they cracked.
I found out there are hundreds of these ukuleles. I told my friend that if he can get these ukuleles to me, I’d do my best to repair them for free. I joked that since 2016 is Kamaka’s centennial year, I’ll repair 100 of these ukuleles. It started out as a joke and I knew almost nothing about repairing ukes—I had to learn how to re-glue bridges, re-glue tops back on to the sides, and fix cracks. I’ve been learning from the people at Kamaka, from online videos, and from luthiers who have been commenting on photos posted of me working on the ukuleles. So far, I’ve repaired about 40 ukuleles. [On December 30, he announced that he completed his goal of repairing 100 ukuleles before the end of 2016.]
I take some of these ukuleles on the road with me, including the clamps and glues, and work on them while I’m on the road. I find the work really therapeutic, too. I enjoy sitting there sanding down the bridges and learning about the instrument.
What happens to these ukuleles once you’ve repaired them?
We take them back to the schools that have re-implemented their ukulele programs. They’re also trying to get funding to hire instructors to teach the kids to play.
I’m a firm believer in music education, so anything I can do to get other people excited is worth it.