Led Zeppelin and Don Ho. Gentle Hawaiian music standards stretched out with 10-minute long virtuoso licks on a ukulele. A young Polynesian woman who, at the tender age of 20, has performed before audiences for 15 years.
How hard is it to define Taimane Gardner? Don’t try.
Tai, as she’s known to her growing legion of fans in Hawaii and around the Pacific, can’t be defined by genre or gender. An old pro at a young age, she’d be happy to be called an accomplished performer.
With two albums, Taimane is redefining the possibilities of Hawaiian music and the ukulele. Like local boy Jake Shimabukuro, the breakthrough ukulele sensation who has appeared on national television in the U.S. and Japan, Tai Gardner is re-conceptualizing the ukulele. “The uke is not a souvenir, or a toy to be given to your child. It’s a real instrument, like the guitar or the piano. It just hasn’t been given its chance yet,” says Taimane.
She should know. She’s had a lot of time to get it right. When Jack Gardner first asked his daughter to perform, he was afraid that the big crowd at his mother’s senior citizen club would intimidate the five-year-old who had just started to play the ukukele. To his surprise, however, Taimane walked on stage already strumming a song on her uke, with a smile that barely fit onto her tiny face. Since then, Taimane’s father has never doubted her love of the stage.
“Taimane has always been very comfortable from that day on, very in her element,” he says, “Over the years, I’ve almost come to expect it.” Today, 20-year-old Taimane’s love affair with the stage and the ukulele has only grown more passionate. At one of her shows, you may walk in expecting some sweet Hawaiian tunes. You’ll get them. And you will also get blown away by how great they sound when they’re surging off of the guitar strings Taimane uses on her tenor, electric ukulele. The way Tai’s fingers dance across the strings as she dances across the stage makes you feel proud to be from the islands or lucky to be vacationing in them.
What she loves to play the most is the common tunes that she knows everyone will be familiar with. When you hear Taimane play one of these, however, you should expect much more than just the melody that you know and love. Taimane will always bring up the beat and wow you with her variations and improvisations. This is particularly obvious in her version of “The Moloka’i Slide,” which was on her first album and is one of the most entertaining jams that can be heard around town.
Your Hawaiian uncle can appreciate Taimane’s music, and your skinny jeans clad niece can, too.
Off stage, if her smokey eyes and sculpted part-Samoan features don’t make her memorable enough, just try talking to her. Taimane has a silky demeanor and a unique style. It’s a blend of the Asian sophistication that she’s picked up on her many trips to Japan, and the aloha charm that she’s grown up with.
You may see her wearing a cute floral top, matched with a pair of skinny jeans and fun flats she found in a Japanese boutique. Her sun-kissed, brunette hair is usually worn down. It just reaches her shoulders, loosely framing her high cheek bones, and deep-set feline eyes.
Tai was born and raised on Oahu. As a student, she went in and out of different schools, trying to find her fit. When she was 11, the Gardner family even moved to New Zealand for a year, where she has relatives. When it came time for high school, Tai found her home at the Honolulu Waldorf School, from which she graduated in 2007.
Since she first began playing at age 5, Tai and the ukulele became the most loyal of friends. Early on, it was clear that she had a special talent. After her first formal ukulele class, she came home and played a whole song for the family. She had an itch for the stage.
Tai began performing wherever she could; at church, at birthday parties, even at coffee shops. She knew how to entertain. This was apparent at the end of every performance when she would make sure to give a big curtsey in her tiny, frilly dress.
At 6, she won her first contest, which was held at Ala Moana’s Center Stage. Taimane had learned how to play and sing the song “Yellow Bird.” But she was so young that the MC laughed when she asked for a microphone. She played the song anyway, and left immediately afterwards, a bit upset.
Later, Jack Gardner received a call asking why they hadn’t stayed to receive their prize. Taimane had won first place against boys who were twice her age. As Tai’s father hung up the phone, he realized that his little girl really had what it takes. He passed the reigns of the career over to his daughter, and let her steer it where she wanted.
As she grew, Taimane stuck by the ukulele like a good friend. She studied with multiple teachers, learning to play in all the genres that she could. She had no rigorous practice schedule, no dreams of being some huge star, just a passion for performance. She learnt songs with the crowd’s reaction in mind. Her payoff was the wide eyes and dropped jaws of her audiences.
At 13, she was doing her thing on the streets of Waikiki, occasionally playing with her younger sister, raising money for the homeless. A friend of Don Ho’s walked by and couldn’t believe his eyes and ears. In no time, Taimane was playing Tiny Bubbles on stage with Don Ho. Tai couldn’t get enough of it.
Taimane’s big break came when one of her teachers, Bruce Shimabukuro, set her up to audition for a five girl uke band. The producers loved Taimane and made her the leader. The five girls had a short career together, playing gigs around the islands. When it came time to record an album, the producers only wanted Taimane.
So, at 15, Taimane recorded her first album and flew to Japan to promote it. Taimane loved Japan, and the Japanese couldn’t get enough of her. Since then, she has traveled to Japan every summer to tour.
Taimane says that going to Japan for the first time was an incredible experience, and that she’s only now realizing what a great opportunity it was. She recalls being reluctant to dive into a music career because all she wanted was a normal life. Now, Taimane laughs when she remembers how upset she was about having to skip prom to perform in Japan.
While her custom-made Kamaka ukulele is still an old friend, Taimane is beginning to turn that friend into a business partner as well. She is working on her third album, which will have many of her own songs.
Just because Taimane tours the west coast and Japan promoting the Hawaiian Islands, don’t think she’s all Hilo Hattie. She’s one of the hippest musicians around, drawing everyone to the dance floor at China Town’s Ong King every first Friday of the month. There you can watch her jump around the stage with her good friends in Quadraphonix. Taimane describes her music as being very “in your face.” That’s also her performing style. You’ll never see this girl play less than an awe-inspiring show.
Taimane can be seen playing at Jimmy Buffet’s on Saturday’s, The Royal Hawaiian on Mondays, and Ong King on every first Friday of the month, and most Sunday nights.
Photos by Mark Ramelb
This article was originally written for Hawaii Red Magazine, by Sarah Burke