Story by Dave Choo
Photos by Linda Ching
Earlier this summer ‘ukulele players Kalei Gamiao, Taimane Gardner and Brittni Paiva helped open the thirteenth annual Na Hoku Hanohano Awards with a flourish. Dubbed the “‘Ukulele All-Stars” for the evening, the three solo artists, all in their 20s and all nominated for ‘Ukulele Album of the Year, played a compilation of their respective songs, a rousing introduction to the ‘ukulele’s next generation, with Paiva and Taimane matching Gamiao’s aggressive play pluck for pluck (and in high heels and formal gowns, no less).
That performance was a crowd-pleaser, and what happened later also turned some heads: Paiva’s fifth album, Tell U What, a mix of jazz, R&B, Latin, pop, reggae and classical produced by jazz saxophonist Tom Scott, won the Hoku for ‘Ukulele Album of the Year. She also picked up the award for Instrumental Composition of the Year for the album’s title track. That was a surprise because also nominated in both categories was Jake “the Dragon” Shimabukuro. While Hawai‘i has had its share of ‘ukulele virtuosos—Eddie Kamae, Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole and Troy Fernandez, to name just a few—Shimabukuro almost single-handedly elevated the ‘ukulele’s image outside of Hawai‘i from the plaything of beachcombers, crooners and comedians to a “real” instrument worthy of any guitar hero. In 2006 a video of his soulful rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral on You- Tube (twelve million views); a star was born and an instrument was redefined. Shimabukuro is a ten-time Hoku winner as a solo artist and had never gone home from a Hoku ceremony empty-handed.
Certainly Paiva didn’t seem to be expecting the win. “I was backstage talking story when they announced the results of the ‘Ukulele Album of the Year, so I didn’t hear my name called,” says Paiva. “I just saw an image of my CD and heard my music come on. I was shocked. When I returned backstage, people started calling me Dragonslayer.”
Not everyone was surprised, though. “I thought Brittni’s Hokus were well deserved,” says Andrew Kitakis, owner of the North Shore-based ‘ukulele shop Hawaiian Music Supply. “Her album was well produced, and I think it was a great showcase of her smooth, subdued style. What surprised me was that Taimane didn’t win anything. I’ve seen her develop as a musician, smoothing out some of the rough spots. Her album had some great examples of her tremolo picking [a technique of ultra-fast strumming]. At this point she may be the best in the business at that.”
Kitakis says that while the rest of the world may have truly discovered the ‘ukulele over the past decade, the versatile four-string instrument with its soft, understated tone has always been popular in Hawai‘i, especially among girls and women. He estimates that he sells about half of his ‘ukulele to females, many more than buy guitars. That the rising stars of the new ‘uke generation are female shouldn’t surprise anyone, but he’s quick to point out that there isn’t anything necessarily “feminine” about Paiva’s or Taimane’s style, even though the two musicians couldn’t sound more different. One is as mellow as a Hilo Sunday morning, the other as frenetic and flashy as Waikiki on a Saturday night.
Still, the two do share something in common apart from their talent, youth and gender: They’ve both made the ‘ukulele the focus of their music and not mere accompaniment. “Me and Brittni, we’re the only women who are using the ‘ukulele as an instrument. The others use it as a tool for their singing, which is totally cool,” says Taimane, who prefers to be called by her first name, which means “diamond” in Samoan. “We have amazing players like Kalei and Jake, but they’re guys and they have their own type of energy. The female energy is different. It is more sensual, feminine and soft, but we can also rip it when we want to.”