What Tavana Wants For Christmas
The musician who puts on a one-man band show like few others can has a lot to be thankful for, and a lot to hope for this season.
It was exactly 17 Christmases ago when the guy sporting a rugged tuft on his chin and long ringlets of hair that dangle freely under a fashionable Panama hat, officially unwrapped himself and crashed the local music scene.
Tavana, who’s one of those first name-only entertainers, was just 21 at the time and newly graduated from the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles when he was handed his first professional gift: a weekly gig at Chili’s Grill & Bar in Kāhala Mall.
Already a hard-working waiter at the Tex-Mex-style eatery, he apparently impressed his manager so much during a brief performance at the company Christmas party that he was invited to play two-hour sets for Chili’s customers every Friday night. The guitarist-vocalist was definitely down with the offer, but his setlist was lacking.
“I only knew five songs back then,” recalls Tavana, shaking his head and chuckling at the memory. “That meant I had like six days to learn 25 more songs.”
A quick study, he digested the additional material and easily covered the entire 120-minute time slot. Maybe more importantly, “I got $250 for the gig,” he says proudly. Then, after a dramatic pause, he adds jokingly, “Of course, it was the most I’d take home from a gig for a very long time afterward!”
Truth be told, both his income and setlists are far more robust these days — thanks in large part to his growth as an artist and his evolution into one of the hottest acts around. Fans come from the four corners of the earth to Crossroads at Hawaiian Brian’s and Hyatt Centric Waikīkī Beach each week to experience his electrifying and soulful blend of island-inspired rock and blues, as Tavana puts on a one-man band show like few others.
Even Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder is an admirer of the multi-instrumentalist and his live wall of sound.
“I was playing at Kelley O’Neil’s in Waikīkī back in 2008, and this guy approached me and identified himself as ‘Eddie,'” remembers Tavana. “I was like, ‘I know who you are — you’re Eddie Vedder. What are you doing here?’ And he goes, ‘My buddy told me to come down and watch your set.'”
The following year, Vedder recruited Tavana to perform the anthem Hawai‘i ’78 with him. Their version, recorded at Hawai‘i Theatre in 2009, was later released on a limited vinyl record to Pearl Jam fans.
“Right before our show, I had an idea for the song,” Tavana recalls. “Eddie was planning on playing the traditional three-chord, mellow version of Hawai‘i ’78, but my idea was to double-time the song after a couple of verses, and then start driving it and ripping.
“Eddie loved the idea, and I was so grateful that he gave me that kind of input. And then to have that version released by Eddie afterward, with my name next to his, well, that was super cool.”
Of course, when Tavana hasn’t been performing with stars like Vedder, he’s been a supporting artist for major acts such as Alabama Shakes, Shakey Graves and Julian Marley, to name a few. Currently, he’s anticipating taking his Tavana Tuesdays show at Crossroads in a new direction beginning in January. He’s also preparing for Wanderlust Tour 2018, which kicks off next spring at Turtle Bay Resort.
For Tavana, music isn’t a job — it’s an ongoing opportunity to share his gift with others. “To do what I do isn’t easy, for sure. But since it’s what I like to do, it doesn’t take much out of me,” explains the musician, who released his fourth album, Aloha Spirit, this summer and is planning to unveil his fifth in 2018.
“It’s why I like to tell people that I don’t work for a living, I play for a living.”
In keeping with the spirit of the season, MidWeek asked Tavana to discuss some of the best gifts he’s received over his music career, as well as reveal what he most desires this Christmas.
THE GIFT OF E PLURIBUS UNUM
What audiences find particularly impressive about Tavana is his ability to take a string instrument — namely his acoustic, electric or lap steel guitar, but also his ‘ukulele or banjo — and seamlessly pair it with his rich baritone voice during a show, all the while using his feet to tap out
rhythms on a kick drum and tambourine, or on a self-built pedal board consisting of six electronic triggers.
Musical multitasking can be mind-boggling to mere mortals, but Tavana downplays this seemingly superhuman capacity of his “to bring all the personalities of my brain together” in complete harmony.
“It’s like anything else: It’s only difficult until it isn’t any longer,” he states modestly. “A guitarist might find it initially difficult to sing and play at the same time, but then learns how to do both simultaneously while, say, watching TV.”
Thus, to borrow the Latin words from the American motto, out of the pluribus of instruments he carries with him on stage each night, he’s able to produce a singular sound — his unum — which is always melodic and perfectly timed.
Or, as he says of his rare talent: “Eventually, the instruments all stopped being many things to me and just became one.”
To better appreciate the genesis of his instrumentally diverse act, it’s important to recognize how organic the process was. For example, a severe injury to Tavana’s left thumb five years ago, and the resulting anxiety that he would never be able to properly hold a guitar neck again, led him to experiment with a makeshift lap steel guitar, which doesn’t rely on the thumb.
Since then, his prized Weissen-born lap steel guitar has been a staple and highlight of his performances.
The same can be said of his banjo, which was bequeathed to him by a fan. “I didn’t know how to play it when this random guy handed it to me,” admits Tavana, who was raised on the trinity of Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton, and who still considers the guitar his instrument of choice. “But then I went home, slapped some strings on it and figured it out.”
And although he has an innate sense for rhythm and timing, he would never refer to himself as a drummer. Still, when he misplaced the loop pedal that provided a foundation for his guitar solos, he didn’t panic — he improvised. First, he brought a big kick drum on stage and started banging away on it. Later, he incorporated the pedal board into his act to lay down an even greater array of grooves.
As for what else his future lineup of instruments might include, only time will tell.
“Right now, I’m nerding out on a few different guitar pedals, including a sub-octave pedal that will give me bass lines,” he says as a glimmer of geekiness appears in his eyes. “So the next frontier may be not only playing the drums with my feet, but using pedals that produce bass lines and string tones.”
Ultimately, the most important instrument in Tavana’s live sets is himself. It is, after all, the one thing he can depend on the most.
“Eddie Vedder once told me to pack my chute in this business. What he meant was that there was no way I could always count on others when it comes to my livelihood,” explains Tavana.
“I’ve been in many bands before, but now when I’m playing Tavana Tuesdays with other musicians, whether it’s Lopaka Colon, Tai-mane Gardner or John Cruz, it’s because I want to — it’s for fun,” he continues. “We’re not forced to play with each other, and I’m not having to rely on them because I’m self-sustaining. I just need to pack my own chute with my pedal board and a few guitars, and I’m good to go.”
THE GIFT OF SOBRIETY
Tavana’s backstory is no different than the sad tales of many a musician who, after experiencing a modicum of success, get drunk on the accompanying fame, stumble and lose their way.
In his case, his descent into alcoholism began just a couple of years after his gig ended at Chili’s. That addiction would wind up consuming the next decade of his life.
“The bars just ate me up,” he says matter-of-factly about that dark period when binge drinking ruled his nights. “I was making my money and spending it right back in the bars. It was so bad that I’d forget what I did the night before. And the people who were coming to my shows were more interested in partying with me than in listening to my music.
“Then, when I had decided to stop drinking, my audience was suddenly gone.”
Yet the empty rooms wouldn’t last forever. Soon, people started coming back because they recognized and appreciated his talent. “What was cool about it was that it was a brand-new audience, and they weren’t there to be my drinking buddies — they were there to see me play.”
He continues: “You know, even if I couldn’t walk, I could still play. I mean, I can always play. But with as much fire and intensity I could get from alcohol during my performances, I eventually realized that I could get that while being sober — and I could do everything better.”
Tavana credits his girlfriend, Jacquelyn Otto, who he began dating in 2011, and her then-3-year-old son Max, with convincing him to kick his habit for the hard stuff.
“With Jacquelyn, everything about the (drinking) scene was too intense, and I really wanted our relationship to last,” reveals Tavana, whose union with Otto has produced another son, Mavrik. “And then with Max, he was a catalyst for me in realizing what it’s like to be a dad, and realizing that sleeping in until noon wasn’t going to fly anymore.
“So I found myself waking up earlier just because I wanted to hang out with him. Things were so much better when I was fully there and aware.”
WHAT’S ON HIS WISH LIST
The guy born Tavana Salmon Numero-Hoe Peili McMoore and named after his adoptive grandfather, who launched the popular entertainment show Tavana’s Polynesian Spectacular in the early 1970s, actually has two wishes for Christmas — the second of which is aimed at today’s youth.
“I hope they don’t settle for some job they don’t want to do, but realize they’re better off doing the things they love,” says Tavana, who once dreamed of becoming a lawyer, but changed his mind after receiving an Ibanez electric guitar for his 13th birthday. “The happier they are inside, the better people they are to be around, and that kind of attitude is both infectious and inspirational.”
Then, taking a page out of his book of mistakes, Tavana warns this generation of musicians about the dangers of drugs and alcohol:
“If you think that partying goes hand in hand with being a rock star, you’re wrong,” says the 1997 graduate of Kaiser High School. “I tell you what — it’s fun if you actually don’t want to make it. Go play eight years in bars and clubs, rock out, do drugs and alcohol, and then quit, because you won’t make it. And even if you do, you’ll only be a part of a very small percentage. But then again, you’ll likely die early from a drug overdose.
“I lived that cycle for a long time … it was a big waste of time. It took me five years to break out of that cycle, and I’ve accomplished three times more in the last five years than in the previous 10 years by just having my head in the game.
“So if you want to make great music, then start right now — make great music — and stop thinking that you have to alter your mind state in order to do so.”
As for his first wish, which is “to see my family prosper, stay together and always be grateful for what we have,” such a response might seem trite, but behind those words is a yearning for stability and search for contentment.
Growing up in a single-parent household where money was always tight and being uprooted was the norm — “I used to joke that we lived in 17 different places by the time I was 17,” he says — Tavana naturally longs for more security for his family. He demonstrates this by how hard he works at his craft and how much he’s willing to sacrifice, like giving up his onetime dependency on the juice, in order to enjoy what he calls “the better life.”
And while he still thirsts for greater professional success, especially when it comes to sharing his music with larger audiences, he also finds himself no longer chasing that elusive carrot on a stick.
“In my own mind, I’m already living the dream,” Tavana shares. “I get to hang out with my kids during the day, play my music at nights and make enough money to sustain my family.”
And in the end, what more could anyone ask for at Christmas?