Happy Birthday, Bridget Moe

                                    Bridget Moe and Penina Partsch

 Today, Bridget Moe turns 85 in Houston, Texas. Her granddaughter, Penina Partsch, who is pictured alongside her, has spent the last few days waking up early to start cooking, making decorations and editing a slide show about her Nani’s life. And what an eventful life it’s been. Bridget Moe, born Bridget Althea Ensell to an Anglo-Indian family in Calcutta, is the last living link in an unlikely cultural loop that connects India to the South Pacific islands, a connection that has enriched Indian music immensely.

The Tau Moe family

This loop was strengthened immeasurably in 1929, when a Samoan guitar player named Tau Moe, who had grown up in Hawaii, stopped by in Calcutta for the first time. He would return a decade later, and stay much longer. Moe was a master of the Hawaiian guitar, which is placed horizontally, often across the musician’s lap. The strings are plucked with one hand, as with conventional guitars. But instead of picking out chords with the other hand, Hawaiian guitar players change pitch by sliding metal or glass bars across the strings, giving the instruments its distinctive sound. The slides are sometimes called “steels”, which is why Hawaiian guitars are also called steel guitars.

Tau Moe – or Papa Tau, as he was known – started his musical career as a schoolboy, playing at a stage show in Honolulu for passengers who had stepped off their cruise ships. In 1927, when he was 19, he met his future wife, Rose, at a steel guitar class. Later that year, they joined a music troupe that had been hired to do a South Pacific musical show in the Philippines, setting off on a voyage that would keep them away from Hawaii for 60 years.

A young Bridget Moe

Over the next few years, they played Hawaiian music in Japan and China. They even did a stint at the Taj in Bombay in the 1930s before heading to Berlin, where they met Hitler at a fundraiser for orphans. The 1940s found them back in India and they spent almost all of the Second World War in Calcutta, playing at the Grand Hotel. “We played Glenn Miller arrangements (or my own) but always included Hawaiian music,” Moe told one interviewer. “We would do a session of jazz band music, then some classical music, then a Hawaiian session with me on steel guitar.”

The couple’s son, Lani, who had been born in Kyoto, choreographed the shows, in addition to singing and dancing with the band. Their daughter, Dorian, was born in Calcutta in 1946 during a burst of intense Hindu-Muslim rioting. The Moe family would later start performing as the Aloha Four.

At some point during his stay in India, Moe met Mahatma Gandhi. “He was a very highly educated man and I enjoyed the 35 minutes were spent talking to him,” Moe told one interviewer. The musician thought that Gandhi’s dhoti was similar to the lava-lava worn by Pacific Islanders, but told the political leader that it was unusual to see the garment tucked between the legs. “He laughed and said, ‘Well, I am better off than you Polynesian people who walk about without shirts,’” recalled Moe.

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. Tau Moe died only in 2004 and continued to perform until late in his life. Here’s a record he made in Calcutta in 1943 with the African-American pianist Frank Shriver, who went by the stage name Dr Jazz. Lani Moe is among the vocalists.

Paducah by naresh.fernandes

Though Tau Moe was the most influential steel guitar player in India, he wasn’t the first to bring Hawaiian music to India. In 1922, a seven-member group named Ernest Ka’ai and his Royal Hawaiian Troubadours presented a show called A Night in Honolulu at the Excelsior Theatre, performing hula hula dances wearing yellow wreaths. They came several times over the next few years. By the time they returned in 1928, The Times reported, “Bombay has many lovers of Hawaiian music and there is for these, and indeed for anyone who loves good music and singing and dancing, a treat in store when Mr Ka’ai’s Troubadours open in Bombay on November 30.”

Everyone seems to need someone to exoticise. Somehow 1930s India, the country others saw as a place of snake charmers and opulent maharajas, chose to be captivated by women in grass skirts swaying under fake palm trees. In 1930, a group called the Royal Samoans visited Bombay. The correspondent of The Times of India was bowled over by the spectacle they put on at the Empire Theatre. “The dress (what there is of it) of both men and women reminded one of the pictures of the ancient Egyptians,” the paper wrote. “They are unlike anything India has seen before.”

Bombay seemed to be fascinated by the South Seas. The next year, one Mrs Hayes of Jasmine House on Convent Street in the Fort was offering Hawaiian guitar lessons at Rs 30 for four classes a month. Furtado’s music store, meanwhile, was offering Hawaiian guitars – “sweet toned and good finish”, their ad promised – for Rs 28. The price included a canvas case. In 1932, at a fundraiser at Bandra’s St Andrew’s School, right down the street from where I live, the repertoire included “an excellent replica of Honolulu’s coy maidens dancing the hula hula, enlivened by song”, said the Times.

Tauivi Moe and friends

Back in Calcutta, Tau Moe had by the 1940s been joined by two of his cousins: Pulu and Tauivi Moe. Tauivi Moe began to perform at the 300 Club, where he met a young Anglo-Indian singer named Bridget Ensell. They were married when she was still in her early teens, though, her granddaughter Penina said that they didn’t start living together until she was 18. In 1944, Tauivi Moe’s  husband introduced her to the African-American pianist Teddy Weatherford. Evidently, Weatherford’s band at the Grand Hotel was receiving mixed reviews at the time, mainly because his singer wasn’t up to scratch. Tuivi 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.

Bridget and Tauivi Moe with a friend

Tauivi and Bridget Moe headed for Samoa in 1949 and moved to Hawaii in 1956. Neither of them sang professionally after that. Tuivi Moe became a masseur at the YMCA, while his wife became a manager at a shop called India Imports. When their daughter, who was living in Houston, was expecting her first child in 1977, the couple moved to Texas and ended up staying.  Tauivi Moe died in 1980, but his wife is still agile and sharp, reports her grand-daughter.

Though I’d read a little about their famous cousin, I discovered the story of Tauivi and Bridget Moe only three weeks ago, when their granddaughter Penina Partsch wrote to my friend Suresh Chandvankar of the Society of Indian Record Collectors wanting to know if he had any of the records he grandmother had cut with Teddy Weatherford. If Bridget Moe had actually put any copies of the records in her baggage when she left Calcutta, they’d long been lost.

Chandvankar passed the message on to me – and as it turns out, I did have one track. I mailed Partsch Ice Cold Katie. The next morning, I had a message in my inbox. “You can imagine my excitement when I receive emails about the Ice Cold Kate track!” Partsch wrote. “I am still reeling from the shock. I played it for my sister living in Hawaii (who is incredibly homesick as it is) and she cried and cried. You have really given my family such a great gift.”

It’s a nice feeling to help a family far away to recover forgotten memories. But it isn’t as dramatic as the reconnection established by my friend Susheel Kurien, director of the excellent jazz documentary Finding Carlton. During the course of his research, he reunited long-lost step-sisters. Read about that here.

Ice cold katie by naresh fernandes

Bridget Moe's greatgrandchildren teach her how to "rep" the Westside gangsta style.

 

 

 

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11 Responses
  1. Iva Partsch says:

    AWESOME ARTICLE…enjoyed reading it!

  2. peta says:

    how beautiful and I’m lso pleased for you to get such gem! Well done Penina much alofaz

  3. Brian Ensell says:

    Hi aunty Bridget,

    I’m the eldest son of Vera and Claude Ensell of Park Circus in Calcutta
    Mum and Dad had 3 children, a dughter named Shirley and 2 sons Michael and Brian
    Though we have never met, Mum and Dad did relay a lot of great stories about Uncle Tau and yourself and the good times that you all had in Lower Circular Road Calcutta
    I live with my family in Perth Western Australia and I live a few minutes away from Grace and Iris (Mum’s Sisters) I shall be catching up with them on the weekend and I shall give them the good news of my mystery find on the internet
    Plaese feel free to contact me by email should you wish (ensellfamily@wn.com.au)
    Love to yourself and the family that I have not had the pleasure of meeting
    Your long lost relation
    Brian Ensell

  4. Tau Talalotu Savea Aupiu Moe says:

    HAppy Birthday aunti u mite not no me but Tau Moe is my uncle
    N uncle Tauivi ..My Dad n Mom Talalotu n Tafelala name me after uncle Tau Moe I m the 2nd oldest on my Dad side….I really love reading the life story of the family it’s amazing I no our family’s had lots of Musician talents I grew up hearing them play n form a family band ,
    They playl for all occations..!!I we go along with them n set up all there equipment n from that we have pic up some of there talents playing different instruments.. But yes I love reading about our family legacy…From uncle Tau Moe uncle Tauivi all the bros n cousins in there time…uncle Tau was exciting to me cause he did lots of traveling I’n entertainment..yes he was the greatest Hawaiian steel Guitar player ever..!’n all the family traveling show performance they have done,,,I really love this story u have written on fb about our family it’s
    Magnificent I love it alot.Thank u so much…I wish u many more Beautiful years to come I love u very much ,,,n all my family there with u..ps..Thank u Penina..
    Tau Moe….

  5. Bridget Moe says:

    Hi, my name is Bridget Violina Moe. I was born to Faiumu Moe and Janet Gay Cessna on October 12, 1969. My father was born on the Samoan islands, and his birthday was March 21, and year is in question. Passed away in 2005 and was 72 years old. I did have email and phone number of relatives I met at his funeral, but due to divorce/move all is lost. I believe my mother mentioned many times my Uncle Tuaivi, and due to losing her in 1998, im unable to ask her anymore. If anyone could give me anymore information regarding possible connection, please email me. My son has musical talent and it is unknown where it came from…this would make sense. Looking forward to hearing from anyone and all who may be able to help me on my quest to further my education and family history. Sincerely, Bridget v. MOE

  6. Derek Deefholts says:

    I happened across your article by accident, and am so glad I did, as to my surprise the mention of Tau and Tauivi Moe brought back some memories of my Dad’s relationship with these Great gentlemen. My father, Foster Deefholts, an Anglo Indian born in Calcutta, India, played spanish guitar, sang & recorded Hawaiian music with Garney Nyss & the Aloha Boys, for many years. My Dad spoke fondly of Tau & Tauivi. Surprising too, is that a photgraph of Bridgit & Tauivi with a friend, is actually Bridget, Tauivi, and Enid Deefholts, My Mother. Another photograph of Tauivi & friends, is of my Dad’s brother Denzil Deefholts standing to the left of Tauivi. Sadly, my Dear Parents have passed, as has my Uncle Denzil, but, I am sure, they still continue to sing those beautiful love songs of the Islands, together somewhere in another place.
    I would love to hear from anybody who like me, miss this wonderful music, and the people that sang so beautifully, such songs as ” I Wish they didn’t mean goodbye.” & “To You Sweetheart, Aloha”

  7. valu says:

    I remembered uncle Tauivi when I was about 9 years old. He came to American Samoa and brought kayak that we enjoyed riding out to sea in Fagasa. He even took me to stay with him and family at government housing in down town Fagatogo in early 1970’s. Uncle tells a lot of stories about his brothers and always carries a ukulele where ever he goes. Anyways, uncle Tauivi was my grandfather Lo’i Moe Tago’s youngest brother. My mother Violina was her niece. Great article of a great uncles Tau Moe Tauivi Moe families. You both are truly a Heart of a Giant!

    R.I.P. Uncles

  8. Tony palman says:

    I had forebears whose surname was Ensell. They were notabley from Madras and married into Anglo Indian Families. Does Bridget have any idea of where her forebears are from?
    Tony

    • Jenny says:

      Hi please contact me regarding the family tree, my great grandmother was Mabel Ensell and so therefore we are related.. Perhaps we can see what info we both have.
      Jenny

  9. Don Boasley says:

    Hi Brian,
    My Name is Don Boasley I have just come across Aunty Briget’s Birthday photograph and a response from a Brian Ensell. Well I have been trying to make contact with you for sometime now. You may remember Brian I am Aunty Izzie’s son (Uncle Claude’s sister) We did in fact got to St Vincent’s boarding school together with Micky.
    Its been a while!! It would be good to hear from you and catch up with all the family news.
    look forward to hearing from you.
    your cousin
    Don

  10. Jenny says:

    Hi, my great grandmnother was Mabel Ensell, and I am researching the family tree and was really surprised to find the info I have on the Ensell family, with copies of a few photos of the family. Its really exciting to have some history with the tree, so this is really good.
    distant cousin, Jenny

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