Taimane Gardner wearing a dress from Noa Noa, photographed at Hoi in Kahaluʻu, on Oʻahu's windward coast.

Taimane Gardner's atmospheric rise from street performer to pop star

Date
Text Gordy Grundy
Thread music

Shortly after moving to Hawai‘i in 2014 and branching out into the local arts scene, I found myself at a recital for Samadhi Hawaii, an internationally recognized academy for aerialists, dancers who fly high above our heads. During the second act, amid the flurry of color and movement, an elegant, sprightly woman appeared on stage, gently strumming a strange guitar.

Her balletic movements were fluid, polished and professional; she commanded the stage. As the avant-garde composition began to build, this guitarist suddenly exploded in a fury of sound and motion as she picked, plucked and wailed on her instrument. Her strumming arm lost definition, blurring with flamenco speed.

I scrambled for the program notes. The artist was Taimane Gardner, and she was playing the ‘ukulele. Clearly, there must have been a misprint: I had never heard an ‘ukulele played like that.

“Taimane is inspiring. She is original, versatile and a great stage performer,” says Andrea Torres, Founder and Director of Samadhi Hawaii. “She can take something very simple and create a majestic sound from it.”

Gardner first picked up an ‘ukulele when she was 5 years old. With pop stars in her eyes, she played in front of the mirror with such ardor that she managed to break a string. At the age of 6, she won an ‘ukulele contest sponsored by a local radio station.

“It was crystal clear at a very young age that Taimane had a passion for music,” says her father, Jack Gardner. “I encouraged music lessons from a variety of teachers so she would learn that there are many different genres, many styles and many different techniques to use.”

On stage with Samadhi Hawaii, it was immediately apparent that Gardner had impressive stage presence and showmanship. By the time she was 12, Gardner began to play with a group of street performers, the Waikīkī Beach Boys, on Kalākaua Avenue. Soon, the group became known as Taimane Gardner and the Waikīkī Beach Boys.

“As street performers, we were competing for attention with the tourists, traffic and the drunks,” she says with a laugh, “To get noticed, I began to experiment with a crazy style of wild, attention-getting riffs with fast picks and strumming. The crowds were egging me on.”

Gardner’s showmanship on the Waikīkī strip was spotted by Haumea Ho, the wife and business manager for superstar entertainer Don Ho. After passing an audition, Gardner began to perform twice a week in Don’s show at the Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel. Her education continued under the experienced eyes and ears of the legendary entertainer, who helped her overcome some minor stage fright. “He was the best mentor she ever could have asked for,” agrees her father.

At 15, Gardner cut her first album of pop covers, Loco Princess, with Sony BMG and set off on an extensive tour of Japan. She quickly became a hit in the country. “The tour was a rock-star experience with press interviews and screaming fans who knew all the songs,” says Gardner.

After Japan, Gardner was picked up by creative event producer Philip Richardson of Current Affairs. While playing on the lanais of resort hotels, her crowd-pleasing repertoire consisted of pop covers and surf standards. But, Gardner says, “I got bored playing the same songs. My influences began to change.”

Much of this change took place at the Ong King Art Center in Honolulu’s Chinatown district. Director Shain Miller calls it “a space for creative risk-taking and artistic mastery.” Here, Gardner learned to improvise and to collaborate with other musicians, and to challenge herself to expand her set list. “At Ong King: no covers,” says Gardner. “They only let you play originals.” New ideas and new directions began emerging.

“At Ong King, I began to write my own music. I was introduced to this new ‘anything goes’ lifestyle of creatives, hippies and artists. I wanted to present music with a story,” she says, smiling. “My first themed show was a circus. Music, dance and costume.”

“Ong King has been lucky enough to act as a springboard for her to launch her artistic vision and take the ‘ukulele to uncharted heights,” says Miller. Gardner’s new show, We Are Made of Stars, provides “the audience a unique, melodic journey through the universe.”

The show and the accompanying album (of the same name) celebrate the planets. “Currently, I’m working on the next [show], dedicated to the elements of earth, fire and wind. Then I will complete the cycle with a suite about astrology. It’s all related,” she explains. This is not pop music, but work destined for the concert hall.

The debut of We Are Made of Stars was well received at the Ong King Art Center. “Each planet had its own music that coincided with a different performance,” says Miller. “The Moon involved a lyra (an aerial hoop), Jupiter had Taiko drumming, Mars showcased the didgeridoo—all accompanied by Taimane’s ‘ukulele mastery.”

Gardner plays with regularity at the surf bar in the Hyatt Waikiki before a crowd of adoring fans who gather to watch her create a vivacious soundtrack to the Technicolor sunset. But to see the music that truly stirs her soul, keep your eyes and ears open for her next original performance.

Find Gardner’s performance schedule, videos and CDs at www.Taimane.com.

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