Vol 2 Issue 2 | July-Sept 2022
The Legend of Tau Moe
Story by Naresh Fernandes and Annie Sen Gupta | Art by Avik Kumar Maitra
Music in Hawaiian culture
To quote from the GoHawaii Website linked out below: “The roots of Hawaiian music go back a thousand years and you can still hear echoes in today’s rhythms, percussion instruments, chants, and vocal styles. Traditional music is generally simple in its structure and both reverent and haunting in the way that it’s presented. Some of these qualities stem from the influence of early missionaries’ hymns, which significantly influenced the direction of traditional Hawaiian music in the 19th century. But today, it’s also possible to hear variations of Hawaiian music that are as diverse as the islands’ mix of cultures – everything from rock ‘n’ roll and rap to jazz and a Hawaiian form of reggae known as Jawaiian.”
The Hawaiian guitar
When most people think of guitar players, the image that comes to their minds is of a rocker strutting on stage. But on the islands of Hawaii, musicians play the guitar in another way – with the instrument on their laps. The Hawaiian guitar even sounds different because it is played by gliding a steel bar across the neck: fans believe it’s like a human voice crying.
Here’s a whiff of what it sounds like:
Here’s a tutorial on another beautiful variation on how the Hawaiian guitar is played:
How did the Hawaiians come to play the guitar in this unconventional way? Curiously, many believe they were taught to do so by an Indian. In 1884, a young Indian man named Gabriel Davon was spotted in Hawaii playing the guitar with a knife. He is said to have landed in Hawaii after being kidnapped by a Portuguese sea captain.
In the 1930s, a Hawaiian guitar player would land up in India and change the way Indians played classical music on the instrument. His name was Tau Moe. You have learnt of a part of “Papa” Tau’s life from this comic. There’s more here:
And you can listen to music by the Tau Moe Trio here:
In the 1940s, when he was here for longer, Tau Moe was joined by two of his cousins: Pulu and Tauivi Moe. Tauivi Moe began to perform at the 300 Club in Calcutta, where he met a young Anglo-Indian singer named Bridget Ensell, whom he later married. In 1944, they were introduced to the African-American pianist Teddy Weatherford. Weatherford’s band at the Grand Hotel was receiving mixed reviews at the time, mainly because his singer wasn’t up to scratch. Tauivi Moe told the pianist to “try out his wife” because she had “a lovely voice”. It was a fit and she ended up making a couple of records with the Weatherford band, in addition to singing with them at the Grand.
Influence in India
During Tau Moe’s stay in India between 1941 and 1947, he taught several Indians how to play the steel guitar, most notably an Anglo-Indian musician named Garney Nyss. Nyss would later form a band called the Aloha Boys and would go on to cut more than 60 records. In the 1950s, the Hawaiian guitar became a familiar sound in Hindi film tunes. In addition, the slide techniques used by Hawaiian guitar players gave Indian musicians new ideas about how Hindustani classical music could be played on the guitar.
The Indian sitar maestro Debashish Bhattacharya brought out an album titled ‘Hawaii to Calcutta: A Tribute to Tau Moe’ that melded his sitar playing with Hawaiian guitar sounds. You can hear the entire album here:
Here’s a rendition on electric Hawaiian guitar of the song “Ek pyar ka nagma hai” from the 1972 Bollywood film ‘Shor’:
Here’s a video of a young Bengali boy not unlike the one you see on the opening page of this comic, with a tutorial on how to start playing the Hawaiian guitar.
Garney Nyss was a man of varied talents. He played first division cricket in Bengal for many years, and was also a whiz at hockey. The hockey legend Dhyan Chand was so in awe of his prowess with the stick, he once exclaimed, “What kind of player are you, Nyss? Have you dropped from heaven?” He was such an insightful ornithologist, Dr Salim Ali wanted to co-author a book with him. He was an excellent photographer, and his book Memories is a well-observed record of the India of the 1940s. Between representing his state in hockey for 18 years and making documentary films on Himalayan birds and Mother Teresa, Nyss and his band, the Aloha Boys, also made approximately 60 sides of Hawaiian music for HMV in the 1940s.
Despite his competing passions, Nyss always found the time to teach music (he was an instructor at the Calcutta School of Music until shortly before he passed away in 1998). His students began to use the Hawaiian guitar to perform Rabindra Sangeet.