Story by Shannon Wianecki
Photos by Dana Edmunds
Ku‘au, on Maui’s north shore, is today little more than an apostrophe on the winding road to Hana. But in the early 1900s it sustained a vibrant community of Portuguese immigrants, and the nearby Pa‘ia sugar mill supported a surrounding population of ten thousand. To that number Antone Tavares contributed a dozen children. Antone had emigrated from the Azores in 1881 as a boy; his ship landed at Maliko, a few miles east of Ku‘au. By the time he was a man, Antone had proved himself worthy of marrying Julia Akana, the Hawaiian- Tahitian-Chinese-English daughter of a wealthy merchant and a member of the Kamehameha School for Girls’ first graduating class in 1897.
Antone and Julia settled their family on a grassy bluff overlooking one of Ku‘au’s prettiest coves. Antone built a two-story house replete with a water pump and a windmill to generate electricity. Besides a horse and buggy, he possessed an automobile (christened “Babylon”) and a chauffer —quite a triumph for an immigrant with just three years of formal schooling.
The Tavares home was full of noisy activity. Cyrus, one of the older boys, showed his younger brother Freddie the way around a guitar, while the other kids banged away on the piano in the parlor. Ernest, the seventh child, was a proficient pianist by age nine and busied himself next with clarinet. One day, shrieks of excitement came from Ernest’s room upstairs. “I got New York!” he crowed, hunched over his ham radio. The enterprising 15- year-old had built a transceiver out of lead pipes and antennas stretching the length of the house. It was 1926; radio was still in its infancy. But Ernest already had a class A ham radio operator’s license, the highest level available.
On another occasion, Freddie joined Ernest—the most kolohe (mischievous) of the clan—in sneaking some dynamite from a nearby construction site and blowing up the giant underwater boulders in the cove that fronted their house: The teens were intent on perfecting their home surf break. All was working according to plan —until Antone came home for lunch unexpectedly. The self-appointed engineering corps caught quite a licking.
If his boys’ precociousness surprised Antone, it shouldn’t have. He had, after all, named each of them after warriors: Cyrus the Great, Frederick the Great, William the Conqueror. Ernest’s middle name was Arriaga, after Portugal’s first president. Cyrus brought honor to the family by becoming a federal judge; Bill spent twenty-two years as the stern and beloved principal of Makawao Elementary School. Freddie and Ernest … Well, they followed the beat of a different, distinctly Hawaiian drum. Engineers, musicians and performers, they became pioneers of the new age of electric music. Both inventive geniuses, they were constantly finding things to perfect, and they had the tenacity to follow through with their brainstorms. They performed with the top stars of their day, popularized the sound of Hawai‘i across the globe and built instruments that changed the course of music history.