By Pat Moran
Taimane Gardner is used to the ukulele being disrespected. “It happens everywhere, even in Hawaii,” the Oahu native says. “I get into a cab, they see my instrument case, and they ask me what I play. When I say ukulele, they say, ‘But what do you really do? How do you pay the rent?’”
The notion that the ukulele is only fit for luaus and novelty numbers still lingers, but Gardner loves to turn those expectations upside down. “When I get onstage, people may not take me seriously at first. So when I play, the wow factor is much more extreme. It’s very satisfying seeing their misconceptions get blown out of the water.”
With her custom-built, flat-black-finished Kamaka ukulele, Gardner has been blowing away audiences for most of her 26 years. A prodigy with a contagious zest for performing, she honed her showmanship and stagecraft at age 13 with mentor and legendary crooner Don Ho.
Under the tutelage of modern ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro, she added flamenco to a style palette that already included classical and rock. Now, with her reputation as a ukulele virtuoso secure, Gardner charts a new course with her first self-produced, self-released album, We Are Made of Stars, which showcases her previously unheralded singing and songwriting.
It all began with a precocious girl playing rock star. Gardner recalls strumming a ukulele her father gave her like an electric guitar until she broke a string. She was five years old. Classes with renowned Hawaiian instructor Roy Sakuma imbued her with the preternatural focus, passion, and confidence she displays onstage today. Competing in contests from ages six to 14, Gardner learned, “You get remembered by being showy.” She loved performing, and with a “temperament on the feisty side,” attention came easy, she says.
Gardner’s love of playing was complemented perfectly by Kamaka, the family-run business that has been handcrafting ukuleles for nearly 100 years. She freely admits her bias toward Kamakas; after all, she’s “very good friends with the family who makes them. . . . When I was five, I would go to their shop and tell them I was interested in how ukuleles were made,” recalls Gardner, who’s been playing Kamakas ever since. “They have a sort of magic. When you strum a chord, it rings and shimmers. The Kamaka sounds like a ukulele but it can sound like a mandolin or a guitar as well, depending on the way it is played.”
Just as Kamaka expanded the tones at Gardner’s disposal, another teacher—ukulele superstar Jake Shimabukuro—broadened her horizons beyond the traditional Hawaiian songs and surf numbers that comprised her early repertoire.
“Jake showed me how to play flamenco—those powerful strums and chords!” Gardner says. “I was drawn to flamenco’s raw passion. You don’t have to speak the language to feel it. Flamenco took me elsewhere.”
With a backlog of traditional Hawaiian songs, plus music she learned from Shimabukuro, Gardner took an unusual step for a 13-year-old ukulele virtuoso: She hit the beach. “I was walking in Waikiki, and the beach boys were jamming on Kalakaua Avenue, the main tourist drag,” she says. Gardner felt an instant connection with the “beach boys,” a group of young homeless men who made ends meet by busking along the avenue.
“I pulled out my ukulele and we all started to jam. We had so much fun playing together.”
While busking with the beach boys, Gardner was discovered by beloved entertainer Don Ho, of “Tiny Bubbles” fame. Still in high school, she became a featured performer in the crooner’s twice-weekly talent show.
“Don would sing, then bring performers onstage—dancers, singers, and me,” she says. For Ho’s show, she “played surf songs like ‘Miserlou’ and ‘Wipe Out.’ I also honed my popular Led Zeppelin-meets-Beethoven medley, a mash-up of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and ‘Für Elise.’”
Performing with Don Ho and at Waikiki luau shows sharpened Gardner’s professionalism and precision. She gained renown as a ukulele phenomenon who could peel off blistering rock riffs, then turn on a shiny dime to deliver delicately fingerpicked Bach. Yet, Gardner was growing dissatisfied with her career. She needed to rethink her musical options, unsure of which path to follow. “I was in college and getting tired of playing the same surf medleys. It was burning me out because there wasn’t any room for creativity.”
Luckily, a close friend took her to Ong King Art Center, an underground art gallery in Honolulu’s Chinatown. “It was the complete opposite of Waikiki,” she says. “Improvising and creating on the spot was the hot thing. I was introduced to artists and musicians who looked at music and art differently. It was the moonlight compared to day.”
New to improvisation, Gardner found ideal collaborators in Ong King’s house band, Quadraphonix. “It was a stroke of luck we hit it off,” she says. While playing one of her staples (“Miserlou”), she and the underground combo caught fire. “I played the melody and they improvised in A. Our chemistry made us lifetime musical partners and friends.”
Quadraphonix guitarist Shree Sadagopan exposed Gardner to Indian scales and melodies, while the combo’s percussionist, Jonathan Heraux, became her partner—both onstage and off. Captivated by these “magic collaborations that could never be repeated,” Gardner began to approach music in a whole new way. “I started writing songs and getting weird,” she says.
Pursuit of the wonderfully weird led Gardner to Blackie, her elegant, warm-sounding instrument. “Blackie was my favorite Kamaka—the one that sounded just right.” Crafted by Casey Kamaka, grandson of company founder Samuel Kamaka Sr., Blackie was a labor of love, an artistic collaboration between craftsman and musician.
“It was a first for Casey to use the flat-black lacquer for the finish,” Gardner says. The ukulele’s soundhole design was inspired by Gardner’s tattoo, a fusion of Samoan male and female symbols that reflects Gardner’s heritage. (Her mother was born in Samoa, and Taimane means “diamond” in Samoan.) For Blackie, she switched from a spruce top to a cedar top, giving her a softer, mellower sound. This offset Gardner’s aggressive playing style, which incorporates flamenco’s golpes—the rhythmic tapping on the instrument’s top.
Gardner’s spirited “love taps” eventually took their toll on Blackie, and she was forced to retire her prized ukulele. (She’s now playing a koa Kamaka tenor as a backup, “until Blackie Two is born.”) But before Blackie was put out to pasture, Gardner’s favorite ukulele helped her chart a new artistic course—by the stars.
For We Are Made of Stars, her first self-produced album, Gardner raised more than $26,000 through Kickstarter. Coming on the heels of three record-label releases, the new album was self-released this spring, and it represents more than a brand new business model for Gardner.
Though her nimble fingerpicking and percussive flamenco-inspired tapping and strumming is still on display, the project presents Gardner as a writer as well as an instrumentalist, the creator of a song cycle based on the planets and what she calls their “unique personalities.”
The album takes its name from a Serbian proverb that resonated with Gardner: “Be humble, for you are made of Earth. Be noble, for you are made of stars.” “That saying is grounding, yet at the same time it reminds us that we come from the cosmos and above,” she explains. By turns forceful, ethereal, and hauntingly poetic, the songs on We Are Made of Stars range from full-blooded Gypsy jazz to gossamer tone poems, and they incorporate spoken-word poetry, taiko drums, and ringing crystal bowls.
“I’m known for playing medleys and covers,” Gardner says. “I still enjoy doing those, but I needed to see what I was made of as an artist. This album is what I’m about. It’s putting my soul out there.”
Most surprising to longtime fans is the fact that Gardner, who has long spoken through her ukulele, is now singing—in English as well as Japanese, Maori, and Hawaiian. “Sometimes people need that vocal connection,” Gardner says of her decision. “There’s only so much that an instrument can say.
“I’m still finding that sound that I identify with,” she adds. “It’s hard when you play an instrument for 21 years, and then you start singing. I haven’t been singing long so I’m trying to get that up to par with my playing.”
Gardner will continue to communicate with ukulele, and she hasn’t forsaken the show-stopping medleys and mash-ups that catapulted her to fame. She intends to play a mix of “some covers for everyone to relate to and remember certain times in their life, and then some originals for people who want to see what’s in the future.”
No matter the mix, Gardner will continue to subvert and transcend expectations of what ukulele can—and should—do. “It’s nice to bring the ukulele out of the tiki bar,” and let people hear it beyond the confines of Hawaiian music, Gardner says.
She’s heartened to see the ukulele get picked up by mainland and indie bands, although she does not consider herself a pioneer in mainstreaming the instrument.
“I’m not making a statement about the ukulele,” Gardner says. “I’m just playing it the way I want to play. The ukulele is the instrument that I speak through.”