Issue 16.5: October/November 2013

Sugar & Spice

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.”


Brittni Paiva

Now 24, Paiva says
that her Hoku awards validate her efforts to apply the ‘ukulele to as many different genres as possible, displaying the little instrument’s versatility and surprising emotional power. “I want to show people that the ‘ukulele can be as sad and melancholy as a violin or as peppy and exciting as a trumpet,” she says. “More importantly, I want people to experience the joy that I feel when I play.” If Shimabukuro is the ‘ukulele’s Jimi Hendrix, then Paiva may be its Joni Mitchell.


Born and raised in Hilo, Paiva started playing the piano at four years old when her parents noticed that she would dance whenever she heard music. She took up the ‘ukulele at eleven, when her grandfather let her play his mother’s vintage Kamaka. She picked at it, fiddled with it and fell in love with the instrument’s simple, joyful tones. Paiva took lessons from her grandfather and his friends, learning many of the traditional Hawaiian songs of that generation. She recalls one day asking a group of older neighborhood boys if she could join their jam session. They told her that girls shouldn’t be playing the ‘ukulele and sent her on her way. But that might have been just the thing young Paiva needed to hear.


“I’m the type of person who when someone tells me that I can’t do something, I want to do it that much more,” says Paiva. “That rejection made me practice very hard.” Paiva says those guys still live in the neighborhood and still play ‘ukulele. She never did jam with them, but they’ve offered to play backup at one of her concerts. “I told them that I’d let them know,” she grins. “They’re actually really nice guys and good friends.”


Eventually, Paiva outgrew her teachers and decided to teach herself, spending hours by the radio trying to replicate a wide variety of songs with her ‘ukulele. At 13 an effort to produce a sample track of her music turned into a CD project that culminated in her first Hoku, one for Most Promising Artist in 2005. A performing career soon followed.


Paiva has no regular gig in Hilo, but her busy performance schedule takes her to concerts and festivals throughout the state as well as to the Mainland, Asia and Europe. The pace has picked up lately, thanks to the new album and the Hoku wins. A road veteran, Paiva’s used to the rigors of touring, which can be brutal. Several years ago she broke her right elbow while on tour in Nevada and California. Instead of returning home, she had the doctor set her arm at a ninety-degree angle so she could still hold her instrument and play. He released her from the hospital with a temporary cast and a prescription for Vicodin. “I had a gig a couple of days later. It was two half-hour sets, followed by a two-hour one,” says Paiva. “I’m not very good on painkillers, so I avoided taking them for the first two sets, but the pain got bad, so I took some for the last set. I honestly can’t remember a thing about that set, but people tell me things went well.”


Humble and devoted to her music, Paiva has no American Idol-like ambitions of stardom. “When I was younger, I used to think that it was all about the show,” she says. “Now I realize it’s more about perfecting the craft.” Her goal now is to become a successful songwriter and help produce other people’s work and develop their careers. Paiva’s already working on a new composition she hopes to finish by year’s end, and next year she’ll continue her experimentation on a new album. She doesn’t know where she’ll take the ‘ukulele next, but she’s pretty sure it will be someplace new.


Taimane Gardner

On Friday nights
Taimane has two back-to-back gigs in Waikiki. The first is an hour-long set at sundown at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki’s Swim, a poolside bar and restaurant where she plays nonstop and at nearly light speed. Most of her numbers are compilations of the works of wildly different genres and styles. Bach meets Led Zeppelin crossed with Bizet with a touch of Bond (James Bond), which she plays with such verve and power that she nearly blows the Crocs off the nearby sunbathers.


After the set she lingers near the stage to sell a few CDs, pose for a couple of photos with fans and sign some autographs. Then she jumps into a waiting car and races across Waikiki to the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Along the way she manages a costume change before leaping onstage near the resort’s pool and playing just one song, a medley of surf tunes —“Hawai‘i Five-0,” “Wipeout,” etc.—performed at Mach three. The short, intense performance ends with a bang, literally: Just as Taimane finishes her final, furious flourish, the sky above the Hilton lights up as the resort’s weekly fireworks show begins.


Taimane’s scorching, passionate playing is a tough act to follow, even for a fireworks display. And she takes a little wry pleasure in the irony of an attractive young woman going onstage with a tiny ‘uke and proceeding to rip it to shreds. “I think people react to seeing a woman being strong and taking control. They’re expecting something sweet and lovely, and then, surprise!” says Taimane.


Taimane’s career began in typical meteoric Taimane fashion. “I’ve always loved performing,” she says. “I took ballet when I was young, but I was too much of a ham, so my dad gave me an ‘ukulele when I was five and I haven’t put it down since.” Within months of learning to play, she was performing at her grandmother’s church and at family gatherings. A year later she won her first competition, a talent show at Ala Moana Center’s Centerstage. A year after that, she and her father were walking along Kalakaua Avenue when they happened upon a group of beach boys jamming with their ‘ukulele. Her father asked the group if his daughter could join in. They agreed and Taimane had her first gig. After a few years she started performing alone and then with her younger sister in front of the Pacific Beach Hotel and the Hyatt Regency Waikiki. A few years after that, a performer at the Don Ho Show at the nearby Waikiki Beachcomber spotted her and asked if she might be interested in performing with the legendary singer.


“Suddenly there I was, a professional musician making several hundred dollars. That was pretty awesome, especially for a 13-year-old,” says Taimane. “I’ve had plenty of ‘ukulele teachers, but Don was my first real mentor. I learned how to connect with the audience, playing for him. … I ended up playing with him for five years until he passed away when I was 18.”


Taimane’s father, Jack, doesn’t play ‘ukulele (or any musical instrument for that matter), but he helped develop his daughter’s fiery chops. “He would play a Jake Shimabukuro song really loud and then blindfold me and have me practice,” says Taimane. “He wanted me to get used to playing without looking down at my hands. It really worked.”


Today Taimane plays mostly corporate gigs—conferences, conventions and smaller private gatherings—many of which are on the neighbor islands and require frequent traveling. This in addition to visits to Mainland and international concerts and music festivals keeps her more than busy. Because she performs largely for tourists, she doesn’t have the wider name recognition of other local artists — for now. And while a Hoku win would have been nice, she says, the nomination and the positive response to her second album,‘Ukulele Dance, has brought her music to a wider local audience.


Taimane is only 25, but like Paiva she is a veteran who has no illusions about what it takes to make it in the music business in Hawai‘i or anywhere else. Depending on one’s definition, she may have already “made it.” Her corporate work pays the bills and then some. She’s bought a house, she picks her gigs and she travels the world. Then again, there’s always YouTube, where you’re one viral video away from becoming the next music sensation.


“There is so much more, and I’m right at the brink,” says Taimane. “But at the same time, I’m trying to figure out what that means. I could move to Los Angeles and take this ‘ukulele thing as far as I can, but I don’t know if I want that. I’m young, and I want to see the world. I love living in Hawai‘i and I love playing music. The ‘ukulele has made that all possible.”