In a culture that keeps compacting its tangible items - think iPads and the like - the increasing popularity of the ukulele comes as no surprise to crackerjack player Jake Shimabukuro.
"It's so mobile," said the fourth-generation Japanese-American from his home in Honolulu. "We want to take everything with us. It's very low maintenance; it's light; you can throw it in a backpack. I can go hike up a trail with the ukulele and take it to the beach."
Size isn't its only appeal. Shimabukuro speaks of the abiding affection his Hawaiian culture has for the diminutive guitar. Most folks who grow up there can play the instrument. They learn it in elementary school. In Shimabukuro's case, though, when other kids got ready to pluck their first strings, he'd already been strumming chords for years. His mom plopped a uke in his hands when he was 4, and he never let go.
Shimabukuro will perform Saturday at Stargazers Theatre and Event Center.
"For the first 10 years of my life playing the instrument, I played traditional Hawaiian music," he said. "I was fortunate because the way I got introduced into music and playing was not in the traditional way, in the sense that you learn how to read music and notation, but more by playing by ear."
It was purely fun, he said, when his mom put his little fingers on different strings and told him to play.
"It wasn't so technical, like, 'This is your G7 chord, and you have to learn to play that.'"
Eventually, his mom did enroll him in ukulele school. He gained attention in Hawaii in 1998 by playing in the trio Pure Heart and went on to pursue a solo career, playing a wide swath of musical genres on the tiny instrument with its four strings and two-octave range. National and international attention arrived unexpectedly when a 2006 YouTube video of Shimabukuro's cover of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" went viral.
He's produced more than a dozen albums, including his latest, the 2016 "Nashville Sessions" featuring all original work. Shimabukuro has toured with Jimmy Buffett three times and won multiple Na Hoku Hanohano Awards (Hawaii's counterpart to the Grammys). Fans flock to shows for his covers of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
"There's something about it (the ukulele) that makes people smile," he said. "People don't take it seriously. It makes them drop their guard and put their arms down and say, 'This is great.' When they open up like that, it's easier to connect with them. I feel the ukulele is the instrument of peace. It brings people together and makes them smile."
JENNIFER MULSON, THE GAZETTE 636-0270, JEN.MULSON@GAZETTE.COM