Taimane Gardner can make the ukulele speak musical dialects some wouldn’t have thought possible.
With stunning strumming speeds, Gardner can (convincingly) cover rockers AC/DC and, with a flourish, switch to fingerpicking some of Mozart’s most beloved compositions.
In a flash, she can make her way from flamenco to Broadway show tunes.
Not exactly what one might imagine when they think of the ukulele.
Growing up on Oahu, Hawaii, Gardner started playing the instrument at a young age.
“It was always lying around [the house], but [my dad] gave me my very first one when I was 5 years old, and then I played in front of the mirror pretending to be a rock star until I broke a string,” Gardner said.
By the age of 10, she was busking around Waikiki, accompanied by her father. There, she was discovered by a member of Hawaiian musician Don Ho’s long-running show in Waikiki.
“I learned how a show is put together backstage and onstage. It was really important to see all of the moving pieces, all of the people involved. I really learned how to connect with an audience when I was with uncle Don,” Gardner said.
She stayed with the show for three years, performing just about every week until Ho died in 2007. At the same time, she was taking lessons from several teachers in Hawaii.
“I’m biased, but I feel like the best ukulele teachers are from Hawaii because there’s so many people who play and so many different types of backgrounds, not just Hawaiian. So I was able to learn many genres at a young age,” Gardner said.
One such teacher was Jake Shimabukuro, a famous classical ukulele player. He introduced her to both classical and flamenco-style music, and from that foundation she was able to branch out and experiment with everything from pop to hard rock.
“I listen to many types of music and so to me, it makes sense to put classical with pop because that’s what I listen to,” Gardner said.
Some of her favorite songs to cover include “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak and “Toccata” by Johann Sebastian Bach, though she’s also covered everything from Led Zeppelin to songs from “Phantom of the Opera.”
When she’s writing original music, Gardner envisions people or themes first, often taking inspiration from Greek mythology.
“I like to personify what I am writing. My last, last album [‘We are Made of Stars’] was about the planets, so I’ve written a song for each planet. I personify them so they have a personality,” Gardner said.
She did something similar with her album “Elemental” by giving all the earth’s elements personalities and setting music to them.
“I like to create moods with my music, with a certain concept or theme attached to it,” Gardner said.
However, she’s taken a different approach to write her next album.
“I’m currently working on a new album, which is going back to my roots. I played all these different types of music, classical and classic rock, and I never really felt connected with my Polynesian roots until recently,” Gardner said.
She’s of hapa Samoan descent and is learning Polynesian drumming, and writing music with that instrument in mind.
In the meantime, she’s on a monthlong tour of Europe and the United States. People are often surprised to hear what styles of music she’s able to draw out of the ukulele, and for Gardner, that’s a good thing.
“When you do something amazing with the instrument, it’s 10 times as potent or as amazing, because you would never expect something [like that] to come out of this instrument. I am happy that I can show people that it has a lot to offer. That’s why I like to show people what I do, [their surprise] works in my favor in a way,” Gardner said.
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