If there is a genre in Honolulu called ‘island rock,’ it’s been redefined by Tavana McMoore. Quick to smile, humble and dead serious about his work, Tavana twists at his long black curls as he ponders how long he’s been making a living playing music in Honolulu. ‘Well,’ he says from beneath a stylish felt hat, ‘My last day job was back in 2000.’
That adds up to well over a thousand gigs, most of which have seen him alone onstage with his acoustic guitar and a mike stand. Playing five to seven nights a week at places like Tsunami’s, Holokai Grill and Sparky’s, Tavana has become a solo fixture in Waikiki. He’s recently made inroads into the thriving Chinatown scene, attracting a faithful gaggle on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at O’Toole’s Irish Pub. With a sound that’s part Sublime, part Ben Harper and a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Tavana has forged a musical identity that attracts, all at once, the ladies, the braddahs and the military.
His new and self-released full-length album Only for the Light Hearted captures that essence, a journeyman’s humility and an artist’s peculiar devotion to his art. He picked up the guitar at 13, learning the pop songs that would be expected of a Kaiser ’97 grad. ‘I was into Bob Marley early on,’ Tavana recalls. ‘But I moved to Clapton and Stevie Ray pretty quickly.’
The way he plays belies the fact that he comes from a family with a rich Polynesian musical heritage. His grandfather was the force behind Tavana’s ‘Polynesian Spectacular,’ for many years a Waikiki staple that astonished tourists and locals alike. Both parents are musicians. His sister Tepairu McMoore performed with the Polynesian revue ‘Tihati’ for a decade and his brother Malala was part of Hawai’i’s first genuine hip-hop outfit Ho’omanakaz.
Probably because he was destined to, Tavana ended up studying music, completing first the guitar performance and then the recording arts programs at the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles. He played coffee shop gigs to make ends meet while he was there, and that’s where his love for songwriting and performance began to blossom. ‘I was into shredding at first,’ he says, mimicking an eyes-closed math rocker with an air guitar. ‘But after I started playing those solo gigs, I started backing away from the scholastics of music and started writing.’
It’s never been easy for anyone to make it as a working musician in Honolulu. Tavana knows it. ‘I lived in the mountains over Hawai’i Kai for months when things got lean for a while,’ he confesses. He’s kept gigs with the roots reggae outfit Melodious Solutions, and performs regularly in Waikiki with the bar rock group BTR. But he recoils at the notion that he’s a band slut. ‘I play as much as I can more out of a loyalty to making music than to a paycheck.’
His many gigs over the years brought him working relationships with some of our most respected local musicians. That helped when he was recruiting talent for his album. Only for the Light Hearted features Justin James on drums, John Hawes on bass and percussion genius Lopaka Colon. Freesound guitarist Keith Batlin also sat in. The record’s tracks were well chosen, and reflect the broad range of influences that have shaped Tavana’s sound. Recorded here and mixed and mastered at Prairie Sun in the Bay Area, Only for the Light Hearted is a lucid aural demonstration of what’s going on in Tavana’s head. The songs are all his, and they’re all him.
And while selling records is generally the point of making them, Tavana remains committed to the gigs that have given him the resources to record. He plays like a savage, attacking his battered six-string with a focused abandon that is as fascinating to watch as it is to hear. Even when he’s covering a lilting Ben Harper favorite, it’s intense. He has recently enlisted the sing-along services of his girlfriend Kona Surento, a velvety counterpoint to his powerful lead vocals. There’s usually a guest on the djembe or the harmonica. Few seem willing to pick up a guitar next to him.
He is one of few local troubadours who have a real following. That is to say, there are a lot of people who show up whenever and wherever he’s playing. They know all of the material, and they request his original songs nine times out of 10. It’s the new ones who request Sublime, Ben Harper and Dave Matthews. Not that Tavana minds. ‘I love those songs, man.’
Having completed his solo debut, Tavana is now focused on the future, with plans for what he calls a Polynesian-fusion-rock revue. It seems that he is rediscovering his musical heritage. ‘I’m working on putting together rock with a Polynesian focus,’ he explains. ‘I want to incorporate Tahitian drums and dancers with a rock show.’ It’s an ambitious endeavor, but one to which he is most certainly suited. The guava doesn’t fall far from the tree.