Hawaiian Ukulele Player Taimane: ‘Uku’ means flea and ‘Lele’ – jumping

American virtuoso, singer, composer and theater producer Taimane Tauiliili Bobby Gardner is a genre morphing ukulele performer, swinging from classical music to rock, flamenco, and tribal hymns, one minute delicately finger-picking through Bach and radically ripping through Led Zeppelin the next. Since picking the instrument at the age of five, Taimane stretch her instrument far beyond its traditional familiar capacities. In her teens, legendary musician Don Ho discovered her musical talent thus beginning her performing career began. Taimane has long committed to following her passion of creating a sound and style all her own, staging mesmerizing shows with universal appeal that demands viewers’ attention every second, eliciting intense reactions while leading her audiences on a journey through a range of experiences. Today Taimane has established herself as one of the leading ukulele players in the world, known for her fierce and inventive style of play transcending traditional views of the instrument. In the interview she discusses her Hawaiian origins, creativity and her ever-changing relationship with ukulele.

You come from Hawaii and you embrace its musical traditions. What is the most inspiring and
fascinating for you in the musical culture of Hawaii?

I love how Hawaiian music has adopted different string instruments – such as the guitar and the Portuguese Braguinha, in order to create new genres and even new instrument. In such way the Hawaiian slack key guitar and Ukulele itself was born. In Hawaiian, “Uku” means flea and “Lele” – jumping. Such name got attached when the Hawaiians saw the Portuguese playing the Braguinha and their fingers reminded them of jumping fleas. Therefore the ukulele was born as an instrument made of a native Hawaiian koa wood, having a new tuning and a slightly different shape than other instruments from the same family. Another Hawaiian culture tradition that I like is Polynesian drumming. I find to be powerful, meticulous, and polyrhythmic. The drumming during the famous fire knife dance is trancelike and holds an ancient power from traditional drum beats played for generations.

How do you form your identity as a player when you have such a range of interests, styles, forms of expression?

Ukulele allows me to express all the different interests I have. I don’t think this instrument has any limits to regards with the forms of expression. I can perform all types of music on it – I can be the musician that I want to be and play anything, because of the ukulele.

How do you cultivate your everyday creativity?

Music as a career has many different facets and it keeps me freshly creative every day. Right now I’m creating new merchandise which draws on different types of artistic realms. In my everyday life, I also try to keep myself balanced. Sometimes I forget there are other things than ukulele, so for me it’s really important to practice yoga and seeing my friends, I enjoy jamming music with them. Another ways of keeping creative is to be enjoying art in different realms – I like visiting museums and galleries. A lot of every-day activities are creative – such as cooking food or taking photos.

How do you come up with new ideas, new piece’s interpretations, or playing techniques?

I like to watch other guitarists a lot – I go to their concerts and every time I learn something new. Afterwards I try it out on the ukulele, whether it is a new technique, set list, instrumentation. Also in my performances I enjoy creating mashups and medleys of different music styles and genres. For example: music of Beethoven with metal or White Stripes with Camila Cabello. It’s like a puzzle where I try to put together different pieces and from this practice many new ideas were born.  

What is most important for you while creating music?

The most important element in creative process for me is concept. I usually write music to a certain idea. In my previous albums the inspiration for ideas was the planets in the solar system or Nature’s Elements. I wrote different scores for all the planets and elements – like water and Neptune, creating melodies personifying this idea, forming a certain mood. Therefore the right environment is also very important for me.

How your relationship with Ukulele started and how has it developed throughout the years?

I started playing Ukulele when I was 5 years old. I remember then my father gave me my first instrument and I used to be playing in front of the mirror, pretending to be a rock star. From there I started lessons – truly I am blessed to live in Hawaii, where there are many ukulele teachers. Growing up I participated in various music contests and tried busking on the streets of Waikiki. All these experiences taught me a lot about what audiences connected to, how to play with other musicians, and how to perform with all the distractions happening around me. It also really honed my skills. Ukulele has always been my teacher and still is today. I think in one hand, Ukulele is underestimated, but also much loved instrument. I approach it like any other. It’s small enough for a child to learn on, and allows people to feel comfortable learning a new instrument. It also has the ability to play difficult pieces and all different styles of music. Ukulele really is in some ways an underdog.

What was the process of choosing your life path as a Ukulele player?

Playing ukulele was never a conscious life path decision – time passed and it just became that way. I’ve always felt really comfortable on stage, I loved performing and the ukulele was a way for me to be there. It has also helped me to make friends when I moved to New Zealand for a couple years as a young girl. Overall it just became a part of me over the years and has shown me that music can heal people, connect people and bring personal containment. I’m happy for it to be a part of my life.

What are the main challenges and rewards of being a Ukulele player?

Many people underestimate Ukulele and do not consider it as a “real instrument”, especially in the string community. It’s upsetting, but also has its perks as audiences don’t expect much from ukulele. And then it’s a mind blowing experience for them when they are in concert and realize that it’s possible to play Mozart and Led Zeppelin on ukulele. This instrument is an underdog. Another reward is that ukulele is from Hawaii and for me the possibility to share Hawaiian cultural history with people around the world is really special. Polynesian culture is unique, I’m happy to know it represent it and share it. 

Do you have any strong inner experiences while performing, playing music?

It is always special when children come and enjoy the performance, watching me and my band play on stage. I think children especially enjoy when percussionist plays Cajon on stage. The look on their eyes change and it feels so special to me. I also love when fans come up to me after my performance and share how my music has healed them in a special way. That brings the meaning to the music, performing and the ukulele itself!

Thank you for the conversation!

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