BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE WINTER 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
In the seven years since Taimane Gardner graced the Fall 2015 cover of Ukulele magazine, her career has grown steadily and, in the last few, skyrocketed to the point where she is now unquestionably the most popular female ukulele player in the world. It’s an impressive stat line: more that 500,000 social media followers around the globe, over 50 million video views (including a whopping 1.3 million for her NPR Tiny Desk Concert), and several successful world tours that have capitalized on her high video profile.
It’s easy to see why. She’s a thoroughly magnetic performer—swaying and dancing rhythmically, often sensuously, as she unspools one mind-boggling riff or run after another, or digs deep into an achingly beautiful melody or thoughtful musical meditation. She first gained widespread attention for her clever, expertly crafted instrumental mashups, such as the pairing of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” and the main themes from Mission Impossible and the James Bond films, along with diverse and intriguing covers of everything from Chris Isaak’s moody “Wicked Game” to a fiery take on melodies from the Bizet opera Carmen. Add to that her absolute mastery of classic surf-rock tunes (“Miserlou,” “Wipeout,” Walk Don’t Run,” etc.), her unrivaled flamenco ukulele excursions—where her strumming hand becomes a hypnotic blur—and you have an artist with tremendously broad appeal.
She has also developed into a formidable composer/songwriter, deftly penning a fascinating array of (mostly) instrumental tunes that span many different styles and genres, sometimes within the same piece. Her latest album, her sixth since her 2005 debut at age 15 (Loco Princess), is called HAWAIKI, after “the spirit land Polynesians come from… where gods and goddesses live,” she solemnly intones on the moving title track. It’s a “concept” album (remember those?) inspired by her own heritage and upbringing: Her mother, who died in 2018, was Samoan, her father is Caucasian, and Taimane (her name means “diamond” in Samoan) was born and raised in Honolulu.
It’s a wonderful and characteristically eclectic record, with nods both obvious and subtle to surf music (“Pipeline’s Daughter,” “North Shore Party”), samba and bossa nova (‘Ladybird”), reggae (“North Shore Party”), exotica (“Bora Bora Sunset”), and much more. Besides Taimane’s incredibly varied uke parts, the spare and always tasteful instrumentation includes, at various times, electric or acoustic guitar, upright bass, cello, and percussion ranging from conventional traps to cajon to Polynesian drums. It’s a spellbinding journey.
All in all it’s been quite a year for the Honolulu-based Taimane. She completed the album, toured in England (where she appeared at the famous Glastonbury Festival, among other places), gigged on the East Coast and California, aided in the development of her new Enya signature ukulele, and even scored a forthcoming Hawaiian film called Growing Up Local.
I interviewed her over Zoom in mid-September 2022. She was in her Honolulu apartment, with her collection of ukuleles nearby, and we chatted about some of those ukes, the new album, her own ukulele education, and social media.
You’ve come out with a couple of “concept” albums in the last several years—We Are Made of Stars  was dominated by musical evocations of the planets, and Elemental  had tunes devoted to “Air,” “Fire,” Water,” and “Mother Earth,” among other themes. Now, this new one, HAWAIKI, also has a concept running through it about your family roots in Samoa. Can you talk about how you formulate the songs for these albums and how they attach themselves to a certain project?
When I start a new project, a new album, the first step is the concept. I know I’m going to spend a certain amount of time—usually it takes about two years to make a CD—so it really needs to be a special concept. I want it to be intentional, because it is going to be my life, right? So the first thing is the concept, and then, from there, I create the songs. I have this topic in mind and I’ll try to write to that topic and see what happens. It’s kind of like mood music.
I play the songs, I practice them, I go in [to the studio] with a set thing in my head. Everything has to be very methodical, which is sort of weird for musicians, I guess. I actually try and not allow myself to write [new material] until I’m done with an album and can move on to the next two years of my life. And then, after I have the concept, I sit down and I kind of write it all at once, in a focused way.
This one [HAWAIKI] was a little bit different regarding the concept because it was more of a storyline—it had more of a beginning to an end.
A narrative arc?
Yes. The other concept albums didn’t have that. This one was also very different from how I usually record. With this one, I was like, “You know what? I kind of have an idea and I’m just going to go into the recording studio. I’m not even sure exactly what I really want and I’m just going to make it up as I go.” I didn’t really practice with the musicians. It was, “This is the idea. Let’s see what happens.” Plus, the engineer that I work with, Pierre Grill from Rendez-Vous Recording [in Honolulu] and I have worked together for so long. He actually recorded me when I was seven. We’ve known each other so long that we can kind of do it on the fly. And his input also affects my music.
How pre-planned were the arrangements? I assume they all start with the ukulele, but when the time comes for you to go into the studio to work with Pierre, do you know that this song is going to have guitar and this other one is going to have cello and a certain kind of percussion? Or is there some experimentation looking for the right combination of instruments?
The way that I usually work is I sit at home, I have my iPhone recording [app] on and then I’ll just play ukulele, like a melody. I’ll listen to that and then maybe add another ukulele or guitar on top of that. “OK, that’s all I need. I’m going to go into the studio.” So I’ll just go in, do the ukulele part first, maybe add some guitar, and then I’ll be like, “Oh, cello would sound good.” And then I’ll say to my cellist [Jacob Staron], “Here’s the song; take a listen to it. And then, when you’re ready, let’s go into the studio and add your part.” So it really just builds up in that way. Nothing was ever set like, “I’m going to have four instruments and we’re going to practice this.”
So you’re not telling him what to play?
No, for the most part it’s like, “Here’s the song, do whatever you want.” [Laughs] And then he comes up with a part and it’s amazing. To the bass player [Alex Morrison]: “Here’s the song. These are the chords. Do whatever you want.” And then we’ll practice, and I might say something like, “I’m not a fan of this beat. Let’s try a different beat.” That’s kind of how I am with all of my musicians. I want them to be able to add their own unique taste to it.
Do you tend to do a lot of takes?
Yes. I like to say my favorite quote in the studio is, “One more time.” [Laughs] Pierre keeps me in line a little bit, because I usually want to do it over and over, and he has more of a Frankenstein approach: “I can take from this one and I can take from this other one so we don’t have to redo it, or I can loop it.”
You mentioned in an interview that before you made this album you went back to Samoa to see cousins and hang out there for a while. How much time through the years have you spent there and how attached to Samoa do you feel? Do you feel more Hawaiian than Samoan, since you grew up in Hawaii, though you’re ethnically Samoan, or hapa-Samoan [half-Samoan] as you call it?
My mom was Samoan, and ever since I was five, she would take me every two years down to Samoa. So I’ve been going since I was a young child and spending a couple weeks down there, getting to know all my cousins. My mother was one of 11 children. Samoan families are huge, so there are a lot of cousins! After my mom passed in 2018 I felt like, “I need to be able to go down there without her and find my own connection and my roots.” So, that’s why this album was very much inspired by my Polynesian roots and trying to find my connection on my own.
I think a lot of people tend to lump Hawaii and all South Pacific Island cultures together musically, even though some of the instruments are different, the melodies are different, the rhythms are different. Can you draw a contrast between Samoan music and traditional Hawaiian music and how that’s reflected on the new album?
I really do think this album has a lot of different Polynesian aspects to it. With Samoan music, I think what a lot of people would probably be able to recognize is the fire knife dancing. They also have a lot of percussive drumming; the tin [can] drumming, and other drums. A lot of Samoan music is really fast, upbeat. But also, the missionaries came to Samoa back in the day so there’s this also this very formal, choir-like music and beautiful singing.
They have that in Hawaii, too.
And in Tonga as well. There’s a lot of choral music throughout Polynesia. I think of Hawaiian music as having more of the falsetto. That’s very Hawaiian. Of course, the ukulele is Hawaiian, brought over from Portugal and adopted by Hawaiians. And you can even get into the dancing and how different that is, because Hawaiian is very slow and beautiful and feminine, and a lot of the Tahitian and Samoan is fast; similar to the Samoan drumming. There’s also a Tahitian ukulele [solid-body with no resonant cavity; Taimane owns one]. This album has Tahitian ukulele, Tahitian drums, and Samoan drums.
What instrumentation do you tour with?
I tour with a guitar, for sure, and a cajon. Then, if I have extra money, I’ll have a violinist/singer and then I’ll add dancers, as well, if I want. Or I’ll bring the cellist with me. But definitely the main one is guitar and cajon; I need those two.
How does your music go over with audiences overseas? The ukulele is still an unusual instrument in a lot of cultures. So I’m curious to know what you hear back when you play for an audience in China or even places in Europe where the ukulele has little or no profile. I think of foreign audiences as being fairly open to new things…
A lot of them probably don’t even know it’s an ukulele, to be honest. [Laughs] They just see a girl strumming, they think, a small guitar. They might not even know it’s an ukulele until later, unless it’s an ukulele festival.
But yeah, people are really open to it. I think some places prefer covers—like in America—while in Europe they prefer originals. So that’s a difference I can see as I travel.
You have so much flamenco influence in your playing. Where did that come from?
I think I was introduced by Jake [Shimabukuro]. Jake was one of my teachers. I was very humble and excited to have him as my teacher. So I think he showed me a song with flamenco in it and then I just kind of experimented with it. I love it!
It’s all in the strum.
Yeah. I developed that over the years, and the muting of the strings. Growing up in Hawaii, European and Middle Eastern music was very exotic and rare here, so when I heard those different chords and melodies, I was so drawn to them, because it was something that I had never really heard.
You’ve also dipped a bit into classical, very successfully in my view, with the Bizet and Beethoven and Bach. Is that a form you’ve actually studied?
I’ve tried, but I don’t read music. I’ve tried to learn music theory and learn how to read sheet music and it’s like I hit a wall. I do everything by ear and that’s kind of how I’ve learned. So no, I haven’t really studied in the classical way.
I absolutely love classical music. I love listening to it and I do feel like I am inspired by it. I love playing it. But, oh my God, it’s so difficult compared to pop or whatever.
In January 2021, you did that cool collaboration with the great Hawaiian baritone opera singer Quinn Kelsey—the “Opera Kanikapila” put on by the Hawaii Opera Theatre. How did that come about?
They reached out said, “Look, we’re going to try this new series where we have singers play with different musicians, or collaborate with dancers, or something.” I believe I was the first one and they asked me to play with Quinn, which was definitely stretching me and a good way to grow. I’ve never played with an opera singer, so of course I was scared at first. But he was very sweet and let me do what I wanted to do, and it worked out that way.
I want to ask you about the surf music thread that goes through almost all of your albums in some form, including the new one, and in your live show, of course. It seems like you play more surf music than just about any other uke player. Did that come from your initial experiences back when you were a kid playing with Don Ho in Waikiki, playing “Wipe Out” and other songs?
Yeah, but even before before Don Ho, I played on the streets of Waikiki [which is where Ho discovered her and asked her to join his nightclub show] with a bunch of beach boys so those were kind of the songs we learned and that we would jam out together. Then Don asked me to play and that [surf music] was kind of my thing. I did luau shows as well, and surf music was part of that, too. So that was another part of my life; another part of my path that was earlier.
I love Dick Dale [the surf guitar legend]. I love the California surf guitar era. It’s such a fun, timeless sound that the ukulele can really do well.
And with this new album, which has some of that Tiki vibe, it was so perfect to have that surf guitar vibe, and also have that exotica sound. It meshes so well.
I know you studied ukulele with a number of different people through the years, from Roy Sakuma when you were very young to Jake and others when you were a bit older. How do you take what you learned from all those different types of teachers and then forge your own style?
Oh, that’s a good question. I started as a five-year-old with Roy Sakuma School, and they’re just teaching you the absolute basic foundation you would need. Like chords and melody and how it all works together. So that was kind of where that started. Then, being blessed to have so many different types of ukulele teachers here was great. So, I took a little bit from here, took a little bit from there.
Jake was obviously a huge influence on me, so I took some from him. His younger brother Bruce also teaches, or he taught, so I also took a little bit from him. Jake gave me a good foundation of what the ukulele can do. But once I got into college, I kind of told myself, “Look, you’ve done the teacher thing. You can create your own music now and become a songwriter and use what you’ve taken from all of these teachers and try to find your own sound as an artist.”
Your own voice, in a sense.
There’s a quote from you saying, “Jake is the king,” and Jake definitely is the king, but why do you think he has had so much influence on other players? I mean, there’s the whole generation of hot players like Kalei Gamiao and Brittni Paiva who have come up somewhat in the shadow of Jake. I don’t think it’s just his virtuosity; there’s something else about his style and maybe his presence that’s so appealing.
That’s right. But I think, ultimately, he was the first. Kalei and Brittni, we’re actually all around the same age and Jake is ten years older than us. So he’s the one who laid down the style that we all pretty much play or were inspired by.
He’s the nicest guy ever! No one can even smile like Jake. He’s so giving and open to share everything that he knows, and he is so passionate about it that I think that also goes into his playing, as well.
Do you think the ukulele is finally getting more respect? I feel that way, but maybe that’s because I’m hearing so many really good players. Maybe out in the world at large, they don’t know how far the ukulele has come and how many styles of playing there are.
Yeah, I definitely think people are taking it more seriously and exploring it more—and there are a lot more good players all around the world. I think YouTube has really helped open up the gates for good ukulele players.
You talked about how you love being a performer—that you’re a natural ham. In a sense, though, that makes you a perfect fit for this time because now we’ve got YouTube and all these other social media platforms that allow someone like you to emphasize the performing aspect of music, which you’re so good at. You must feel kind of blessed that you came along when you did.
Definitely! I wish I could stay young forever so I could also take advantage of the TikTok dancers and not feel weird about it! [Laughs]
“Flossing” with Taimane!
Yeah, right? I owe a lot of that to my dad, because he was pretty with-it and he was very adamant about learning YouTube and videoing me at a young age. He was very helpful.
You now have this worldwide following thanks to your videos. Do you have a sense of what countries you’re most popular in outside of the U.S.?
On Instagram, I think I’m really popular in India. [Laughs]
Wow, didn’t see that coming.
It’s really interesting. India, Japan, Argentina, Brazil—those are some hotspots, on my Instagram Insights at least. I think India had to do with a really big website sharing one of my videos and it kind of went viral.
In the U.S., obviously, it’s been YouTube. Germany is really big for YouTube, too. It’s funny how each social platform has a different demographic in that way. It’s just all over the place, it’s global, which is really interesting to watch. And now, how to create content that everyone would enjoy is something that I have to think about, as well.
What Taimane Plays
When talk in our Zoom interview turned to ukuleles, Taimane used the opportunity to show me some of her favorites, which she had on hand, and also talk about her new Enya signature model. —BJ
Can you give me a little bit of your ukulele history in terms of what instruments you’ve played through the years? I know you’ve been a Kamaka user for many, many years. What was the first ukulele that your dad gave you when you were five?
I’m pretty sure it was a Kamaka. I’m not a hundred percent on that, but I remember my first performance ukulele, when I was maybe six, was a Kamaka, which I still have. Kamaka has always been very supportive of me. I actually just got a new baby from them; it took them about five years to make, with COVID and everything.
[She leaves briefly and comes back holding two somewhat similar-looking ukes.] This is my main baby. She’s been with me for a long time. It’s a five-string Kamaka, tenor size, low-G. I call her Tiger Lily because she’s got the nice little tiger stripes on the maple.
[The newer one] is the exact same shape and even the fretboard is the same, because I’ve been playing this one for so long and I wanted something comfortable. But this one has more of the dark vibe. I kind of let [luthier] Casey Kamaka just do whatever he felt like he wanted to do, and he decided he wanted to do purple binding and then stained it.
Let me also show you this other one. [She returns with another uke.] So, before those there was Blackie.
Oh, the famous Blackie [Kamaka] that you played for so long? It looks, um, “well-used.”
[Laughs] Oh, my gosh, yeah, I’ve put this one through so much.
Interesting soundport on that one.
Yes, it was inspired actually from this symbol—a star on my [wrist] tattoo. We wanted to use inspiration from the tattoo on the ukulele. And then, I just got my new baby, my other one—the Enya one.
It looks thinner. It almost looks like a Telecaster.
I love the thin ukuleles. They’re my new favorite thing because they’re way easier to travel with and they project really well.
Really? I would think a fatter body would project better.
I think it’s because the body is so close to the top, it ricochets the sound more quickly than something that has more depth, or more space inside of it. They’re actually really loud. So that’s what I love about it. Plus it was just way easier to go hiking and take this rather than a regular ukulele.
How did the Enya signature model come about?
I found them online. I looked through a bunch of ukulele companies and they really stood out for their artistry. Their inlays were much more elaborate and decorative compared to most of the other ukulele companies, so I really thought they could make something beautiful. So we reached out and decided to make a signature ukulele. I wanted something that would be easy to travel with, and I was inspired by that other ukulele that I showed you, so, I asked Enya, “Would you be able to make something thin?” And they said, “Actually, we’re about to release something like this.” So it worked out great. And it has the Polynesian aspects to it that I love.
This is mahogany. And then the inlays are abalone. It’s got the moon [the striking rosette], and these birds [on the fretboard] are actually a part of my tattoo. I like to call it the night sky, because you have the moon and then the birds at night flying towards the star.
I guess what makes this “me,” besides the inlays, is that I’m a five-stringer—that’s kind of my style and my signature. And they were willing to create a five-string, which is unique and frankly not the most marketable.
Also, what I love about this is that it has these new pickups, I’m sure you’ve seen them, where you don’t even have to plug them in, but a speaker and all the effects are already built in. So they’ve been very open to all of the weird things that I want, and I really do think it represents me as an artist in many ways.
Pardon my ignorant question, but I’m not that familiar with five-strings. Is it possible to play the fourth string without the fifth string? What’s the attraction?
The two strings basically [become] one string for my playing. The two strings give me that extra oomph that I need; that low end to really balance the sound of the ukulele, which can be very trebly. For my type of playing, I really like that low end to come in, which is why I do two low-G strings.
I don’t know, but I don’t think anyone would be able to play this just one string and then the other one. I guess if you wanted to, you could take one off and it’s a four stringer. But I like having the five.