From the Spring 2017 issue of Ukulele | BY STEVEN KANAHE ESPANIOLA
I first met Taimane Gardner when we performed together at a series of intimate shows in downtown San Francisco sponsored by the Hawaii Visitors Bureau in February 2009. At that time, she was just breaking into the public consciousness as an up-and-coming ukulele artist. She has since blossomed into a bona fide ukulele star, sharing her talent and prowess all over the world. Her name, which reflects her Samoan heritage, translates to “Diamond” in English, and indeed there are many facets to this budding young player. Recently we caught up with her between her work on a few different projects and traveling.
How did you get started?
I started playing when I was five years old and won my first contest at six. I also started playing on the streets of Waikiki until a performer from Don Ho’s show saw me and introduced me to the man himself. Don gave me my first job when I was 13, and by 15, I was playing in luau shows in Waikiki.
Since you got your start as a street performer, how much did that shape you as a musician?
Starting as a street performer shaped me into the artist I am today. I learned how to read my audience, how to keep focus even with external distractions, and how to play with other musicians. It is a wonderful way to hone your skills and bounce around new ideas to see what sticks.
What is your source of inspiration?
I draw inspiration from nature, dreams, other artists, and Greek mythology. I really enjoy painting a picture with my original music. Almost like a music score.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve been working on a new EP, The Elements, however, I traveled so much this summer that it’s been on the shelf for a couple months. I’ll get back into it. I’m just relaxing before I jump back in.
What sorts of opportunities do you see for the ukulele moving forward? Where do you see it going?
Ukulele is such a versatile instrument that it’s up to the person how they express themselves through it. It’s been on America’s Got Talent, all over YouTube, and it’s a blessing to see where this little instrument goes. It’s so nice to see it coming into its own light.
How much of your routine is dedicated to rehearsal?
“Rehearsing”—this word is not something I particularly enjoy. It’s necessary, but I’ve had experiences of over-rehearsing and under-rehearsing. I like the raw energy of playing something new onstage, so performing is really my rehearsing.
You play with both a band and solo—do you have a preference?
They’re both great in different ways. I like playing with a band, but not for every song. Sometimes a band’s sound can start to get repetitive, so it’s nice to do something solo to bring a different dynamic. A band can bring the power of sound and create a more complex story musically, while solo I can fly wherever I decide.
I hear a lot of world music influences in your writing. Can you expand on that?
I love it when people celebrate culture and bring it forward through fashion, music, food, etc. Being able to celebrate my own culture and other people’s culture is a passion of mine—it keeps me grounded. I love traveling and seeing the world and being able to absorb that wisdom and power of tradition, and seeing it come alive in a way that makes sense to me and my time is fascinating and humbling. I love hearing chanting, scales, and rhythms inside a modern song, it makes me appreciate the old while understanding it in a new way.
Who are your influences outside of music?
My parents. They work so hard and the work ethic they instilled in me has helped me to accomplish a life I love living. Playing music for a living is a wonderful blessing and I’m so thankful that they taught me that if I work at it, I can accomplish the life I want.
You play a custom 5-string ukulele. Can you tell us why you prefer the double G-string and who the maker of the ukulele is?
It is a 5-string tenor Kamaka. I like the warmth and low-end of an instrument so I added an extra low G-string to accentuate it. It really balances my ukulele’s sound.
I love high-tension Savarez wound classical guitar strings. I love how mellow and sustaining they are. My playing is so aggressive that they balance the tone from completely melting your face off. [Laughs]
Taimane’s Tips for Players Young and Old
- Learn your scales so you can improvise with other musicians—it’s one of the best things about playing music.
- Learn from other performers—not necessarily other ukulele players—and observe why you like them. This will help your performance.
- Learn to work with what you have.
- No one can be you, so celebrate who you are and be the best you can be!