Ukulele virtuoso Taimane Gardner thinking big ahead of Hong Kong gig
26-year-old who’s following in footsteps of another Hawaiian player, Jake Shimabukuro, wants the small stringed instrument to be taken seriously and to inspire more to take it up. PLUS Where in Hong Kong to learn the ukulele
Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso Taimane Gardner will make her Hong Kong debut in early November at a time when the four-stringed instrument is enjoying renewed enthusiasm and new-found respect.
Event consultant Yvonne Siet-Wong says the evening, which is part of the Jazz World Live Series, is intended to be a celebration of Hawaiian culture and the “Aloha spirit” in general. However, it’s a safe bet that many in the audience will be there to watch Gardner’s flying fingers and trying to figure out how she’s able to take on tunes ranging from traditional island songs to flamenco, Bach and even Led Zeppelin.
Hong Kong audiences have previously gone wild over the ukulele playing of another Hawaiian, Jake Shimabukuro, and this local enthusiasm reflects a worldwide trend which has been greatly encouraged by players and their friends posting videos on YouTube.
Perhaps the most famous of these was Shimabukuro’s revelatory demonstration of the instrument’s often underestimated scope on George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps, performed impromptu in New York’s Central Park in a video which went viral.
Shimabukuro and his brother Bruce were among Gardner’s teachers. Aged 26, she has already been playing for 21 years.
“The ukulele is smaller than a guitar and so it’s easier to take to the beach. It has only four strings, which makes playing easier, and it’s very special here in Hawaii,” she says.
“Its sound is very non-assuming and so I think the average person feels like they can pick it up. It’s a good start-up instrument [for] anyone wanting to become a musician.”
As Shimabukuro demonstrated, the capabilities of the ukulele go well beyond the simple strummed accompaniments which most players probably ultimately settle for.
In addition to Shimabukuro and his brother, Bruce, Gardner recommends listening to Kalei Gamiao and Aldrine Guerrero – both easily found on YouTube. “Kalei’s writing is so beautiful and melodic and Aldrine has the fastest strumming hand in the west,” she says.
The last five years have seen huge growth of interest in the ukulele in Hong Kong, according to Sam Cheung, music director of the Hong Kong Ukulele Store in Tsim Sha Tsui, a business he established eight years ago with brother Edmond, who handles sales and marketing. The store is co-promoter of the concert.
“Most of the people who follow our Facebook page live in Hong Kong and play the ukulele. There are about 7,000, but I think there are more players than that here. We have about 200 students learning with us every month - mostly youngsters or adults between 30 and 40,” he says.
Sam Cheung first picked up the instrument about 10 years ago after hearing singer and ukulele player Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, whose 1993 album, Facing Future, included a popular medley of Somewhere Over The Rainbow and What A Wonderful World, and was the first Hawaiian album to go platinum in the United States, with sales exceeding one million.
Cheung was an engineer, but in his spare time taught himself from books and internet resources. He used to get together in the evenings with friends who had also caught the bug, and as the gatherings grew it occurred to him, and to his brother who had also learned to play, that a shop might be viable.
“The economy in Hong Kong at that time was not that stable, but this is an instrument that makes a happy sound. People played it and could forget the pressure. We thought it would be good to promote it in Hong Kong,” he says.
Today the store has the biggest range of ukuleles in Hong Kong, although Tom Lee and other music shops now also have a more serious range of the instruments. Ukulele players hang out there and are encouraged to give informal lessons to newcomers.
Last year, in collaboration with Siet-Wong, who is also from Hawaii, the Hong Kong Ukulele Store organised the first Hong Kong Ukulele Festival, and she is planning another for 2016.
The Hong Kong government has also got in on the act. In October 2014 the Leisure and Cultural Services Department brought out the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain to perform at Sha Tin Town Hall. Many members of the audience brought their own ukuleles to the show, and at the end played along on Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours.
Gardner’s Hong Kong show will include her dazzling unaccompanied solo ukulele performances, but she will also be backed up by flamenco-jazz guitarist Jasmine Skurtu, and percussionist Jonathan Heraux on cajon.
“The show will include medleys of covers such as Led Zeppelin, Beethoven, Bizet, Santana, The Ventures and more. I will also be playing my original music which has to do with the solar system and the universe. Think Holst on ukulele. There will be three local dance companies and a singer/songwriter named Ryan Hui [Sam Hui’s son] whom I will collaborate with - and that makes me very excited,” she says.
She, Skurtu and Heron will also be conducting a workshop on November 8. Details have yet to be finalised, but inquiries can be made at 2418 9355.
“I hope to introduce the ukulele as a more serious instrument to people who see it only as a traditional Hawaiian instrument for only Hawaiian music, and to inspire anyone to pick one up and try their hand at it,” she says.
Taimane Gardner, November 6, 8.15pm, AC Hall, Baptist University, 224 Waterloo Road, Kowloon Tong. Tickets HK280-HK$580, Cityline, Tom Lee. Inquiries 9476 8655
Get plucking! Five places in Hong Kong to learn the ukulele
Hong Kong Ukulele Store
Adult group classes: Monday to Saturday; HK$400-HK$440 per hour
Adult private classes: available on request; HK$150 for 30 minutes, HK$200 for 45 minutes, HK$250 per hour.
Inquiries: 2418 9355, www.ukehk.com
Adult group classes: Monday to Sunday; HK$155 for 30 minutes, HK$220 for 45 minutes, HK$270 per hour class.
Adult private classes: available on request; HK$130 per hour.
Inquiries: 2665 8688, www.parsonsmc.com.hk
Adult group classes: Monday to Sunday, HK$680 for four 30-minute classes, HK$1,360 for four one-hour classes
Adult private classes: available on request; HK$770 for four 30-minute classes, HK$1,540 for four one-hour classes
Inquiries: 2739 1389, www.tlmf.org
Christine Samson Music and Arts Studio
Adult group classes: Monday to Sunday; HK$350 per hour class, HK$860 for four one-hour classes
Adult private classes: available on request; HK$550 per hour, HK$1,930 for four one-hour classes
Inquiries: 2762 0112, 9229 9885, www.singing-in-hongkong.com
Parkland College of Music
Adult group classes: Monday to Sunday; HK$140 per hour
Adult private classes: available on request; HK$145 for 30 minutes, HK$190 for 45 minutes, HK$225 per hour
Inquiries: : 2660 9138, www.parklandmusic.com.hk