It surely means something that we live in an age containing the greatest ukulele player ever born, but I'm not sure just what it means. His name is Jake Shimabukuro, a twenty-nine-year-old from Hawaii, and he can make a four-string ukulele do everything but sit up and begand the question, when you hear him, is why: If you are this good on a ukulele, why are you playing a ukulele?
Take a look at him here, for example, playing "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." It sounds good from the beginning, but the moment, I think, when it ceases to be merely good and becomes simply impossible is the second time through the chorus (at 1:40 in the clip), when Shimabukuro starts adding on the rhythm guitar's partapproximating two guitars on his four-string instrument. (On the original Beatles song, as I remember, George Harrison played the rhythm part and Eric Clapton sat in to play the lead.) By the time he reaches the piano-like arpeggios at 3:38, the listener's capacity for astonishment is exhausted: The man is some kind of mad genius, because the ukulele just isn't capable of doing all this.
There are a number of clips of Shimabukuro available on the web. You can see him doing some jaw-dropping banjo parts on his uke here, and some flamenco guitar/mariachi passages here. In this clip, he walks on stage to help a couple of young performers play a surf-guitar tune and ends up making them sound like the Ventures. The quantity of sound he can get from his instrument is perhaps the most astonishing part of his playing. Last year Frets magazine carried an interesting interview about Shimabukuro's strange musical upbringing: Do you remember the first time someone told you, "You can't do that on a ukulele"? "That's just itno one ever told me I couldn't do anything on the ukulele. I never had it in my mind that I couldn't do certain things. Music was just music. If I heard a song, it didn't matter what genre it came from or what instrument it was played on. I always believed that it was just notes and I have those notes on my instrument so I should be able to play it."
A few weeks ago, we began the questbring 'em back alive!to explore the wilds of the web and find, for the discerning readers of First Things website, humanity's most bizarre and beside-the-point musical instruments. I'm not sure why. Maybe because we're a journal of religion, culture, and public life, and the culture part was starting to seem anemic. But probably it was because, sometimes, you just don't feel like first things. I think the day I started hunting down weird instruments, I had fallen down to twenty-third or twenty-fourth things.
Of course, real cultural criticism is hard, but mockery is easy, and if we can't do what a real critic like Terry Teachout does, we can at least find something silly to make fun of. Remember, for example, the safari from which came photos of the genuine beer-bottle organ, and a clip of its native woodnotes wild? Or the double violin, two violins jammed together at the neck like a weightlifter's dumbbell and played with a jury-rigged pair of bows joined with what looks like tinker toys?
Today I was going to add the ukulelean instrument that, for purists, ranks somewhere between the accordion and the theremin in pointlessness: If you're a good-enough musician to make a ukulele actually sound good, you're too good to be wasting your time with a ukulele.
But now I don't know. Is a talent at something unimportant thereby an unimportant talent? Edward Gibbon surely thought so, writing of the multitalented Emperor Gallienus in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: "It is difficult to paint the light, the various, the inconstant character of Gallienus, which he displayed without constraint, as soon as he became sole possessor of the empire. In every art that he attempted, his lively genius enabled him to succeed; and as his genius was destitute of judgment, he attempted every art, except the important ones of war and government. He was a master of several curious, but useless sciences, a ready orator, an elegant poet, a skilful gardener, an excellent cook, and most contemptible prince."
"Our age was cultivated thus at length," wrote Dryden of art in a time perhaps much like our own"but what we gained in skill we lost in strength. / Our builders were, with want of genius, curst; / The second temple was not like the first."
That oppositionbetween skill and strengthis a little too sharp-edged to play with. It tempts us, for instance, to praise the primitive simply for being primitive, and to enter the final stages of decadence, in which sophistication turns entirely to irony and devours itself.
Still, you know what Dryden was after. Our cultivated artistic age is full of skillful musicians. There's something disturbing about finding strength in a ukulele.
In addition to which:
His "unmistakable" voice has been mistaken. Despite the man's own words, the Left still claims Bob Dylan as one of their own. Stephen Webb of Wabash College reviews Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, a collection of previously unpublished conversations with the musician, in the current August/September installment of First Things. A convert to Christianity, Dylan consistently refused to conform to the 1960s liberalism with which he is often, and wrongly, associated. Listen again to Dylan: "I hate to keep beating people over the head with the Bible, but that's the only instrument I know, the only thing that stays true." Why aren't you a subscriber?