Kona’s Kenny Tagavilla talks music, life, what’s next
Kona native Kenny Tagavilla, known as Kenny T. to his fans, recently released his first music video called “Kona Grown,” a tribute to his hometown that he says is changing all too fast.
“We’re changing, but we have so much talent, so much to be proud of,” he said. “Our music, restaurants, entrepreneurs, family businesses, ranches, it’s all just who we are and the way we were raised. We are hard working and humble, and hopefully the music video highlighted that.”
“Kona Grown,” a country ode to West Hawai’i, was created by AMP video production and highlights the culture of the rural area. From fishing down in Miloli’i, clips of himself bonding with his son Koali‘i while fixing his classic 36 Ford car, his daughter, Tianny, picking coffee, the King Kamehameha Day parade down Ali’i Drive and more, Tagavilla said he wanted to showcase to the world the essence of his home.
“We need to keep what makes us special,” he said. “People feel like they need to change and be like the mainland, but if that was the case then why does everyone want to come here?”
The 43-year-old musician who plays ‘ukulele and guitar has deep roots to West Hawai’i. Being born and raised near Hōnaunau-Nāpōʻopoʻo, and Ke’ei Beach area, he speaks about the sentimental memories of his grandmother Rose, and growing up on her land.
“All my cousins know this one,” he said. “Grandmother was diabetic but loved candy. She would hide candy in her house and our parents would tell her she couldn’t have candy and go in the house get all the candy out. At the time we lived next to the old Ege’s store, now ʻOhana Warehouse, and she would sneak over there or send one of us to go get lemon drips, or ricola, and hide them in her nightstand.”
His grandmother, a mother of 12 and wife of a preacher, was his first musical influence.
“My grandmother was always playing,” he said. “If she wasn’t working, she would be strumming. She would tell me to come sit down and play. But it wasn’t until I got older and my cousins were playing that I started to pick it up.”
She would always play Gospel music, a genre that Tagavilla is just now exploring as he enters midlife.
A member of the Kona Baptist Church, he plays in the church’s choir and as a result has seen a transition in his performances.
“Up until then, it was about being loud and out there, trying to shock people,” he said. “Now it’s become playing for a higher calling, and not necessarily getting a reaction out of people, and I’ve incorporated that into what I do now.”
When Tagavilla was coming up in the music scene on Hawai’i Island, he said he was performing just about everywhere, at weddings, birthdays, bars and restaurants. A few years ago he decided to “take a break” and redirect his focus on music writing and his craft — and to not just play to play, but to play for connection.
“I can play every song under the sun that people love hearing, but if I walk away, and we had the best sound and everything, but there was no connection, then what’s the point?” he said. “I realize now that I want to connect to everyone. I don’t want to just show up and play noise, I want to relate to people. I want people to see this is a guy that’s real.”
What makes Tagavilla “real” is his story – one of growing up on the Big Island and having to find his own way.
His wife and high school sweetheart Tia said when they first met at her junior prom it was “love at first sight.” At the time Tagavilla had moved from his hometown of Kona to Hilo, where he wrote his first song called “Kona on my mind.”
Tia Tagavilla said they would write letters to each other to stay in touch. She recalled him , breaking out of his shell during that time to play music.
“I remember we would have conversations on the phone, the one that’s plugged into the wall,” she joked. “And he would bring out his ‘ukulele and sing and I would say you have an amazing voice! Do you know that?”
But Tagavilla said he didn’t really know his talent level at that time and was just playing to play. A struggling teen, he always used music as an outlet, playing different songs he would hear on the radio, learning from different old-timers who took the time to influence him.
“I came from humble beginnings so I didn’t have money to buy CD’s or cassette tapes at the time,” he said. “So since I couldn’t buy them, I would just learn how to play the song.”
He recalls a defining moment in high school when he was pushed out of his comfort zone.
“I hated essays. I hated book reports. I did everything I could in school to not have to write,” he said. “My teacher was John Burnett at the Hawai’i Tribune-Herald at that time. And we all gave him a hard time. We were the tough guys.
“I told him I’m not writing a book report. Fail me. I would grab my ‘ukulele and just start playing. And he said, ‘If you’re just going to play that thing then sing us a song.’ I got nervous and put it away.”
Tagavilla didn’t write a report, so Burnett mandated he write a song and sing it or else he would fail him. So Tagavilla did.
Hhe recently reached out to his old teacher to thank him for that moment, and today uses his lessons as motivation.
“I look back at all these things I’ve been through like getting in trouble, it’s all just pieces of the puzzle. And everyone’s been through something,” he said. “My guitar, these nice clothes or whatever you see me as because I’m on the stage, it’s nothing. We’re all the same. We all struggle.”
Another turning point in his music was when he was playing a concert for a group of bikers with his friend Curtis who started talking about “The Word.”
“I remember looking at him and thinking we’re here to play music and it’s turning into a sermon,” he joked. “He started talking about how we’ve all been there, we’ve all struggled with addictions, drugs, abuse, and I’m thinking, ‘Be Quiet! This is turning into church.’ But everything changed and the crowd was into it a thousand times more.
“That was a turning point for me. I wanted to relate more with people.”
When Tagavilla realized it was about sharing, he started rolling his life into the creation of his songs.
“He transitioned into becoming a songwriter because he’s coming into his own because all these things in life that have happened to him, built him to who he is today,” his wife said. “So now he’s in a position to share his story.”
With his homemade songs like “Kona Grown” and “Cruisin’,” and the touching “Jo’tham’s Song” that he wrote for his late 17-year-old hanai son that recently passed from Ewing Sarcoma cancer, a close family friend whose short life inspired the song’s creation.
This year he was nominated for Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards, including Favorite Entertainer of the Year and Most Promising Artist of the Year for his song “Cruisin’.” Tagavilla said he didn’t even know he was nominated until he and his wife were getting text messages by fans that he made the list.
“I’m still wrapping my head around it because I’m just OK with hearing my music on the radio,” he said.
But again, he says it has a lot to do with creating relatable music.
“A lot of people said they needed it so bad,” he said. “I never realized that in my writing until recently, until people started to share that with me. Even though the theme is cruisin’ and about going to have fun, and going for a cruise, it’s woven in there that message of needing relief.”
And now he hopes his new music video for “Kona Grown” sends the message that he’s proud of where he comes from, and Kona should be proud, too.
“It’s giving respect to the community that supports him,” Tia said. “Without our core community and our ‘ohana here, we can’t spring off to bigger things so it was such an appropriate song to choose to be the first music video for the world to see where we’re from.”
Tagavilla says he plans to play more intimate shows in the future, like the one he has coming up on Aug. 26 at The View in Kona, and expand performances in the mainland while continuing to write and produce music that leaves behind a legacy.
“The ultimate goal is for my music to live on beyond me — to stay behind,” he said.
For more information visit Tagavilla’s website at www.kennytagavilla.com.