Last year on the Big Island, Hawai‘i polychromatic ukulele virtuoso, Taimane, showcased the breadth and magnetism of her artistry selling out her debut concert at the Kahilu Theatre and delivering a stunning theatrical performance of her Elemental show. Today, Taimane proved her appeal extends far beyond Hawaii shores, with the release of her Tiny Desk Concert on NPR’s YouTube music channel.
She is the first Hawaii artist to headline Tiny Desk, dubbed one of music’s biggest stages by Billboard with 7.5 million monthly viewers, over 2 billion YouTube views to date and frequent appearances by megastars including Taylor Swift, Sting with Shaggy, Lizzo, Jonas Brothers, Megan Thee Stallion, Damian Marley, and Sheryl Crow in 2019 alone.
Taimane’s concert features Taimane performing with her quartet and a Polynesian dancer in intimate, stripped-down form and shot in the moment in one-take – both Tiny Desk hallmarks. Her ukulele and voice are completely unadorned, with no effects added, just Taimane in the raw accompanied by acoustic guitar, violin and hand percussion playing both Hawaiian and Latin original songs along with one of her most popular classical covers. She wraps the concert singing a newly written, Hawaiian original which will appear on her next album.
I caught up with Taimane to ask what it was like for the 2019 Nā Hōkū Hanohano winner to play at the famed desk of NPR radio with Tiny Desk host, Bob Boilen. We also delve into the broader picture – Taimane’s recent successes around the world.
After publishing over 800 concerts, Tiny Desk presented you, its first-ever Hawaii artist. What were you feeling when host Bob Boilen introduced you, and the cameras started rolling?
It was pretty cool. When you first see the actual place where these amazing musicians have recorded their Tiny Desk shows, when you’re actually right in front of it, it’s a lot bigger than you would expect. It’s not too tiny, but it was a great experience to actually see it right in front of me. I felt support from the people there, from Bob, from my musicians. Everyone was wanting to have a good time and want a positive experience. And so, having that support, it felt like it flowed very smoothly.
How did this come about? How did an Oahu ukulele player make it to NPR Headquarters in Washington D.C. and be at Bob Boilen’s famous desk?
Long story short, Bob was at my South by Southwest showcase last year, and he saw me play, loved it, and then invited us to play at the Tiny Desk concert. But, long story, it’s been many years of doing what I love. Mark, my manager, and I are finally putting the pieces together and it’s been a long time coming.
How did you go about selecting the songs for your Tiny Desk Concert?
That is a very good question. It took a while to figure out what to play. You know, you really only have fifteen minutes of what to select for the show. We came up with the perfect setlist, but when we got there, they were like, ‘Oh, it needs to be acoustic.’ So that changed the setlist for me, because I wanted to do like a song called ‘Neptune’s Storm,’ which uses a lot of effects pedals, and they wanted it to be straight acoustic. So, I had 10 minutes to change the original setlist. But it was a cool experience, you know, and I had to really dive deep and figure out what would work best.
Let’s switch continents. I understand you visited Germany in the first week of January and received a wonderful welcome with a sold-out show in Hamburg, performing at a billion-dollar venue, Elbphilharmonie, and playing on Germany’s #1 TV show, MorgenMagazin. What is it about your music that connects with and inspires people so far away?
Number one, people love Polynesian culture. They always want to learn about and hear Hawaiian music. But even if people aren’t so much interested in Polynesian music, I think they just love to see it played live by a girl who is crazy shredding an instrument. Later on, they find out it’s done on a ukulele and that I’m from Hawaii. I think that inspires people all over the world. People love Hawaii and what it represents.
Do you find that experiencing all these different cultures affects you as an artist? If so, in what way?
Whenever I travel internationally, and if I had the time, I try to learn a song from that country, so I’ll know like a Chinese song or a Samoan song. I try and incorporate their culture or a song from there and then perform it there. And they love that connection because it’s something from their culture but interpreted in my own way. And when we share that connection, that bond, they really love that. I would say that’s how those different cultures affect my art.
Do you ever have fans outside the islands come up after a show and want to talk about Hawaii and the music here?
Normally those fans like to share their stories about why they decided to come, how far they traveled to see me, and what inspired them about my music, which is what I love most about my shows, getting to hear the stories after.
Before we go, is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m going to Glastonbury, which will be fun. Lots of Europe. And I’m working on a new album that is completely inspired by my Polynesian roots. So, I’m going back into my Samoan and Hawaiian side. I’m taking my inspiration for the next album back to the roots. You know how I like to do my big shows, like the Elemental show at the Kahilu Theatre. Well, I’d like to have a new show ready by the end of the year or early next year, but the songs and music might take me a couple of years.
We hope you can make it back to the Big Island real soon.
Yes, me too. Thank you!
Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and a Big Island filmmaker. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
Tiny Desk photos: John Sacks
Tiny Desk Concert Performers
Taimane – ukulele, vocals
Jonathan Heraux – percussion
Ramiro Marziani – classical guitar
Melissa Baethoven – violin, background vocals
Liʻo – Polynesian dance