Taimane returns to the spotlight for a one-night-only theatrical showcase that will bring to life her latest album, Hawaiki.
‘Ukulele virtuoso Taimane Gardner has swept us to the far corners of the solar system (We Are Made of Stars, 2015) and rocked us on a dream-inspired journey through the classical Greek elements (Elemental, 2018).
Now, the award-winning musician is returning to Hawai‘i Theatre for a one-night-only musical and theatrical odyssey inspired by her latest album, Hawaiki.
As the name suggests, her inspiration is closer to home this time, and honors her Polynesian roots. (Her late mother was Samoan, born and raised on the island of Upolu, and Taimane grew up on O‘ahu and, briefly, New Zealand.) But true to style, she’s infusing the performance with an aura of mythology.
“I love the mystical side of things, the fantasy side of things,” she admits. “I think people really enjoy going there … ‘Is it real? Is it not?’ Having that potential and the beauty of it.”
In Polynesian mythology, Hawaiki is where the Polynesian people lived before spreading throughout the Pacific and the place their spirits return to after death.
In Taimane’s artistic interpretation, it is the setting for an epic quest undertaken by a young girl named Maluhia, who must pass through Hawaiki to find her mana, or inner strength.
To help bring the story to life, Taimane has gathered a cast of more than a dozen artists — musicians, dancers, spoken-word poets, aerialists — to transform the stage into a tropical Mount Olympus. Those who experienced her 2016 Elemental show at Hawai‘i Theatre have had a taste of what to expect — an immersive experience, a circus for the senses.
Maluhia is a fictional character and Hawaiki is not, strictly speaking, about Taimane. But the origin story of the ‘ukulele prodigy is no less fantastic because it’s real, and it comes with its own pantheon of characters.
They include her late mother, a vivacious singer and dancer who competed in the 1978 Miss Universe pageant, and her father, a retired teacher and businessman from Arizona.
From her mother, Taimane got not just her beauty and her name — which is Samoan for diamond — but also her ear for music and love of the stage. From her father, she got her first ‘ukulele and the encouragement to take it as far as it would go — the lesson that a diamond earns its sparkle by enduring pressure.
She cut her teeth at age 5 by taking ‘ukulele classes from Mike Vasquez and Roy Sakuma, and by age 7 was busking on Kalākaua Avenue (with Dad standing by for security). She played with fellow street musicians — Waikīkī beachboys — and got a feel for the performing arts.
“It was a great way to hone what songs worked and what songs didn’t work,” she says. “It also kind of shaped me, the type of performer I am, which is very in your face and fiery because of the audience I was playing for — tourists who loved to hear what they recognized (and) drunk people. It was a great way to focus my ‘ukulele skills.”
It all paid off when someone from Don Ho’s show saw her and introduced her to the late, great Tiny Bubbles singer himself. The popular local entertainer included her in his weekly show at the ‘Ohana Waikīkī Beachcomber Hotel.
“Uncle Don” helped 13-year-old Taimane take her skills to the next level.
“Every now and then Uncle Don would put me on the spot and say, ‘Sing this!’” she recalls. “And I would be like, ‘I don’t know this song!’ And he’d say, ‘You’ll learn it, it’s fine.’ Or he’d say, ‘Tell me a joke,’ and I’d always get scared like, ‘Aaah! I don’t know!’”
But she pushed through those fears and emerged on the other side a seasoned pro who could keep an audience entertained while restringing an ‘uke at lightning speed, no sweat, if, say, a cord snapped while she was ripping through a Led Zeppelin song.
Although technically still a child, teenage Taimane was at the top of the ‘ukulele game, with many comparing her to another former teacher of hers, Jake Shimabukuro.
In addition to holding down a paid gig with Don Ho, she was still entering — and, more often than not, winning — ‘ukulele competitions. Soon she would add lūʻau and corporate events to her repertoire, then shows and festivals in Las Vegas, New York and Japan.
Her skills earned her lots of media attention as well. All of this was great — to this day, she makes sure to let people know that she’s a total ham who loves the limelight — but it doesn’t mean every- thing was smooth sailing.
To pursue her dream, she had to forsake traditional coming-of-age milestones like school dances and other ceremonies. And even if she could play Wipe Out blindfolded or with an ‘uke behind her head, too much of the same thing can take a toll.
“I was kind of getting a little burnt out doing the same surf songs over and over,” she says. “I was having a hard time, like, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.’”
At this point in our heroine’s journey, we find her at a crossroads. She was a student at Kapi‘olani Community College and appeared to be in a comfortable place musically — but comfort can stymie creative growth.
Fortunately, this was in the late 2000s and early 2010s, during the initial days of the First Friday art walks, when a new creative energy was sweeping through Honolulu’s Chinatown. The hip, artsy crowd would gather to check out the district’s boutiques, restaurants and live entertainment.
“My friend took me to this place in Chinatown, this old place called Ong King Arts Center,” Taimane says. “It was artsy collaborations with dancers and original (music) only, so that kind of rekindled my fire.”
Ong King Arts Center — which, unfortunately, closed in 2019 — provided a safe space for Taimane, now a young woman, to explore her artistic voice. She remembers playing intimate open mic sessions in front of a supportive audience and meeting like-minded creators and musicians.
“It was truly a perfect place for me to try new things,” she says. “I was able to try new songs and new themes, such as circus, planetary and underwater, which molded my (later) shows.”
Back to Chinatown
Those artistic explorations would lead to original compositions that blended surf songs with flamenco, classical music, rock ’n’ roll and her own vocals — a sound that set her apart from other ‘ukulele masters.
The fusion of artistic vision and charismatic stage presence garnered her even more attention, which led to more gigs at even bigger venues.
Taimane can’t remember off the top of her head all of the places the ‘ukulele has taken her over the years.
“Israel, Hong Kong, Tai- wan, New Zealand, Samoa, Tahiti,” she says. “All over the U.S. (including) Alaska. I haven’t been to much of South America, just Costa Rica. But all over Europe. The most random and farthest place is Reunion Island, which is off of Madagascar, so the complete opposite side (of the world) from Hawai‘i.”
She’s won numerous Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards — this year alone she took home the top prizes for Instrumental Composition, Instrumental Album and Favorite Entertainer — and landed on the Grammy Awards’ list of five emerging Pacific Islander artists to know.
She’s performed before tens of thousands with Michael Franti and Spearhead at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado and became the first musician from Hawai‘i to be featured on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert (her episode has been viewed by millions online).
Yet if you ask her to name the most memorable place she’s ever played, she’ll tell you without hesitation: “It’s Ong King Arts Center. That was just such a very specific, special time for me. It was like, ‘Oh, my God, I think I found what I’ m supposed to be doing.’”
And so the story brings us back to Chinatown, where the real Taimane found her artistic mana, and to Hawaiki, wherein the fictional Maluhia must set out on her own quest across the transformed stage of Hawai‘i Theatre.
This magical melding of stories and music will transpire for only a few hours on one special night.
“Whether you’re an avid fan or just curious to see me, come to this show,” Taimane says. “I’ve even told my mainland and international fans — this is the show, fly in for it. This is the most important show of the year for me. This is the show I’m putting everything into. It’s only going to happen once and it’s very special.”
Hawaiki &emdash; A Musical and Theatrical Odyssey
7:30 p.m., Aug. 25 at Hawai‘i Theatre
7:30 p.m., Aug. 25 livestream
To purchase tickets, visit hawaiitheatre.com
After Hawaiki, Taimane will be hitting the road for her West Coast tour:
Sept. 9: Vashon, Washington
Sept. 11: Portland, Oregon
Sept. 14: San Francisco, California
Sept. 16: Irvine, California
Sept. 19: Los Angeles, California
Sept. 20: Santa Barbara, California
Sept. 22: San Luis Obispo, California
Sept. 24: San Diego, California