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ʻUkulele virtuoso Taimane's new album is steeped in her Polynesian roots

Taimane performing in Berlin, Germany.
Henry Schulz
Taimane Gardner
Taimane performing in Berlin, Germany.

ʻUkulele virtuoso Taimane Gardner picked up her first ʻukulele at age 5, started performing at age 7, and was discovered by Don Ho at 13.

Now in her 30s, she has recorded five records since 2005 and graced stages all over the world. She was also the first Hawaiʻi artist featured on NPR Music's Tiny Desk Concerts.

Her newest album, "HAWAIKI," is autobiographical and steeped in her Polynesian ancestry. Taimane recently sat down with The Conversation to talk about the album, performing at Glastonbury, and honoring her Samoan mother who died in 2018.


On the meaning and significance of Hawaiki

TAIMANE GARDNER: Hawaiki is very well known in all of Polynesia. It's where Polynesians originated from spiritually and also where we come from. I really connect with mythology, whether it's Greek mythology or any type of mythologies. So this one I really focused on Polynesian mythology, things that I enjoy about that, but also like, where do I come from? My mom, you know, she passed 2018. So where do I come from, my spiritual side?

It's about a girl named Maluhia. So this one actually has a full story which I plan on creating on the stage — who is she and it's finding her inner strength and finding her own mana as she goes through Hawaiki, this special island where the gods and goddesses live, and talking with them and trying to find herself. So that's kind of what this album is about. But it's a spiritual place where Polynesians come from and go after they pass.

On how her mother inspired the album, which took four years to complete

She was a singer and she was in the Miss Universe pageant. She's so beautiful. She was a dancer, born and raised in Apia, Western Samoa. So my Samoan site is very musical. You know, they had a whole band there that would tour actually in Samoa called The Miller Band, so she was the singer. And so it was really more of like, how do I connect with my Polynesian side, my Samoan side? And so I found what connected with me. So you're gonna hear some Tahitian 'ukulele, you're gonna hear some Samoan lyrics, you're gonna hear some Hawaiian lyrics, some Tahitian, some Samoan fire knife dancing. So I just really put in the things that I connected with and wrote on top of that — or I added those instruments later.

Taimane at Hawaiʻi Public Radio

On performing around the world as COVID restrictions ended

A lot has happened for touring this year. I started off with Glastonbury in the UK. It was just so funny. It's like COVID, nothing for two years, and then like, "Hey, do you want to play at Glastonbury?" I'm like, "Okay, let's just do it. Start off with a bang." So that was really fun, a great experience. Nice to be back in the UK and see what's going on over there. That was the first tour. It was about two weeks. I did a little mini tour in England, came home and then I did a month-long tour in California, West Coast, had a little break and then I did East Coast. I came back Aug. 22, and then right after that we had the release a month later of the new album.

On performing an NPR Tiny Desk Concert in early March 2020

That was a huge deal too, just because first Hawaiʻi artist on NPR's Tiny Desk, you know, so I really wanted to make Hawaiʻi proud and show what the ʻukulele can do. It was fun, that was also in Washington, D.C. and just fresh off of the South by Southwest meeting Bob Boilen and knowing all about the Tiny Desk — it really was just an honor to be there and I had a Hawaiian dancer come up during my set too, so just wanted to really share the culture as much as I could. That was actually, I think, the last tour before COVID.

Her new album "HAWAIKI" is out now. See her live at Hallowbaloo in Chinatown on Oct. 29.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Oct. 11, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Lillian Tsang is the senior producer of The Conversation. She has been part of the talk show team since it first aired in 2011. Contact her at ltsang@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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