JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Taimane Gardner, above, acknowledges the applause of the crowd after performing a song on her custom 8-string tenor ukulele. Taimane, 16, has played for six years at the corner of Kalakaua and Liliuokalani avenues, often accompanied by her younger sister, Teuila.
Ukulele wiz Taimane Gardner -- her name means "diamond" -- has been shining on Kalakaua Avenue since she was 10 years old
IF the city truly wants to be rid of the most obnoxious of Waikiki's street performers, all our government officials need to do is put them on a trolley and drop them off in front of the Pacific Beach Hotel after 9 p.m. on a Friday night.
There, at the corner of Kalakaua and Liliuokalani avenues, the sounds emanating from Taimane Gardner's electric ukulele and her voice should send all the not-ready-for-street-corner players running home in shame, or at least for more practice.
At sweet 16, Taimane's got them beat. It is not unusual to see those who have walked briskly past dozens of wannabe entertainers suddenly stop to join a crowd of 75 or more gathered around the teenager as she sings "Brown-Eyed Girl," wields her ukulele à la Jake Shimabukuro while catching the groove of "Wipeout," or plays it behind her head à la Jimi Hendrix.
She is young enough not to take issue with such comparisons: "I don't mind; I'm very honored to be called the female Jake because he's not only a great uke player, but an awesome guy. He was one of my teachers, and he has a really good heart. So I'm fine with that."
It is not difficult to imagine a day when even younger uke players start striving to be like Taimane, whose name means "diamond" in the Samoan language, reflecting her mother Pelepa's heritage.
Roy Sakuma, director of Roy Sakuma Productions, where Taimane studied ukulele, said: "I'm really impressed by her showmanship and her drive to learn all the different styles of music. She's really on the right track. She's got personality and stage presence; she could be the next Jake."
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Taimane's performances always draw a crowd -- and lots of tips. Her showmanship and musical skill have prompted many to call her a successor to Jake Shimabukuro.
ACCORDING TO Taimane's father, Jack Gardner, genetics had nothing to do with it.
"I have zero musical talent," said the retired Punahou teacher. "I told myself if I ever have children, I would get them started in music early because it's such a special gift, and I found the ukulele is perfect for a child because it's so small."
Gardner had a hard time finding any teacher who would take a 5-year-old, but found a supportive and patient teacher in Mike Vasquez. When Taimane showed aptitude and a passion for music, she doubled her schedule with lessons at Sakuma's school as well.
"The funny part of it was that I tried to start when she did, but to be honest, I was holding her back," Gardner said. "She would catch on instantly and I was just the opposite. One time, Mike asked us to close our eyes, and he would pluck his uke and ask if a second note was higher or lower than the first, and Taimane, at 5 1/2, would whisper to me, 'Dad, it's higher.' ...
"I learned my place is just to carry the equipment and restring the ukulele."
Because of the experience Taimane has gained from Waikiki's audience interaction and support, Gardner is a proponent of allowing Waikiki's street performers to continue.
"After a while, practicing at home gets boring," he said. "We started using the street experience as practice. It worked the way I was thinking it might, allowing her to develop to a whole other level, playing in front of people who were standing so close. She had to be focused because people would be watching.
"It was a unique opportunity to have an instant audience that's very complimentary, very supportive. Thousands of people from all parts of the world walk down Kalakaua. She was discovered by a person from New Jersey who flew her to New York and Florida to record."
Another offer from BMG Japan led to the release of Taimane's disc, "Loco Princess," last summer, and a supporting tour of Japan. A local disc of original material is in the works.
Stage fright was never an issue, Taimane said: "I always liked attention, so it was like a little game, getting people to stop and watch me."
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Taimane Gardner, left, and her sister, Teuila, 8, draw a crowd every Friday when they perform in front on the Pacific Beach Hotel on Kalakaua Avenue. Gardner, 16, has enthralled passers-by at this spot since she was 10 years old.
Gardner remembers that when she first started, she was prepared to perform in a first-grade program but forgot her uke at home. "I felt so bad for her, but she just went up and sang a song a cappella."
While many professional performers tend to stick to a rigid set list, six years of performing on the streets of Waikiki have taught the teenager how to read a crowd and gear her song choices accordingly.
"I make it up as I go along," she said. "Most audiences are different. If they're younger, I'll play faster songs. The older people are more into slower songs and oldies."
"Wipeout," one of the first songs she learned, continues to be one of the most popular. "Everyone loves it, and they get into it because it's so upbeat," she said.
Carlos Santana's "Europa" is another big draw, and after playing some songs for 10 years -- a career for some -- she experiments by embellishing and adding her own twists. She has written songs on the piano and transposed them to the uke since she was 8, when her first song was "I'm a Duckie, Duckie, Duckie."
On the street, Taimane displays all the fierceness of a rock 'n' roller attacking her instrument, or the sweet optimism of a balladeer, whatever a song calls for. She credits Shimabukuro for opening her eyes to music as a performance art.
"I definitely learned showmanship from watching Jake in concert a lot," Taimane said. "He'd jump around and get into it. That inspired me to get into my music more.
"Jake taught with a lot of energy and passion. He was always into his music. I thought that was funny," she said. "His brother Bruce is more of a teacher. He was more disciplined and stayed on track more. He's a great guy and just as good as his brother. He just doesn't jump around."
More recently, she has been enthralled by other "oldies" acts, including the Beatles and Led Zeppelin: "I'm really getting into Billy Idol, AC/DC and Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd has a lot of weird things in their music, and that's what I like about them."
Don Ho is another of her local heroes. He invited her to join his show, as well as perform during his appearances in Las Vegas, Palm Springs, New York and New Jersey.
"Don's a great person and knows every aspect of entertaining," Taimane said. "From him I learned to play with aloha. He told me never give up, keep going, and I would always have a home with him at the Don Ho show."
She looks forward to joining him onstage again three times a week beginning Jan. 15, when he is expected to resume his schedule at the Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel after recuperating from heart treatment.
Taimane is a junior at Waldorf School, where, she says, "I do have some problems with time management for school, but I've been doing this for so long I can balance school and music. I've learned to treat both as equals."
Her visits to Japan and the mainland have shown her a vast world to conquer. If all goes according to plan, she wants to tour the world after graduating in 2007 and before tackling college -- a must to appease her educator dad.
"Next year, if my music rockets off, I'll definitely travel the world," Taimane said. "I'd love to share my music, and I'd like to get more people to look at the ukulele not just as an old, traditional instrument for Hawaiian music, but as a serious instrument for every kind of music."
A plus for her parents is that Taimane's focus on music leaves little time for dating, and when the subject comes up, she says, "I'm not even interested."
ON THE STREET, Taimane looks like she is backed by family, and while she is sometimes joined by younger sister Teuila, the others represent her adopted musical family, three of whom she met while sharing the same street corner when she was 10.
Although the adult musicians befriended the cute little girl from the start, they quickly learned that she was a big attraction and that tips piled up whenever Taimane was playing. It is clear that she has since become the leader, calling the shots.
"To me, that's as Hawaiian as you can get, seeing strangers come together to make music in the open air," Gardner said. "I'd hate to see that sort of thing disappear. To me, it adds a whole dimension to Waikiki."