From DRUM! Magazine’s January 2018 Issue | By Bob Doerschuk | Photography By Eric Morgensen
You can thank a childhood knee injury for the rise of Mona Tavakoli and the percussion revolution she helped to ignite. “I used to play a lot of basketball when I was a kid,” the fiery cajonist explains. “Mind you, I’m five-two, so I didn’t get too far in my dream of being the first woman to play in the NBA.”
And here she laughs, the first of many times in our conversation. Chalk it up to the delight she finds in life and channels into her performances with Jason Mraz; her own all-female band, Raining Jane; and other musicians who have fed from the energy she unleashes on what was a novelty instrument not too long ago.
“Anyway,” she continues. “After I enrolled at UCLA, I saw that there was a flamenco dance class on the curriculum. I thought that it would be super cool because the arms and the hands move in a way that was very similar to the Persian dancing I did as a kid. Plus I would be drumming with my feet. It was dancing and drumming, the perfect marriage of my interests.”
Soon, though, that knee she had hurt years ago on the court began to ache again. “All that stomping began to flare it up,” Tavakoli says. “So I told my teacher, Liliana Deleon-Torsiello, ‘I’m having a lot of knee pain but I want to finish the class. I’m a drummer. Is there anything I can do?’”
She smiles as she remembers her teacher’s reply: “I’ll bring you the box.”
From that day, everything in Tavakoli’s life changed — and for the better. Music has benefited, too, as she parlayed her experiences with that box — better known to its adherents as a cajon — into a lifetime passion.
She’s toted it along to duo gigs with Mraz for nearly a decade. Together they’ve delivered high-precision, sizzling sets on countless stages, including the Kennedy Center and venues in Antarctica, to help raise awareness of global warming. They’ve entertained national audiences on The Today Show, The Late Show With David Letterman, Ellen, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and Dancing With The Stars. She has delivered a solo recital and partnered with Pat Benatar and her husband Spyder Giraldo on A&E’s Private Sessions. And she, Chaska Potter, and Natalia Zukerman appeared in concerts and conducted workshops throughout Africa as cultural diplomats for the US State Department.
Perhaps her most enduring contribution will be to shine a spotlight as few others have on what was once considered a novelty instrument, and ensure its place in the percussive pantheon. None of this might have happened had she finished that childhood basketball game unscathed. In retrospect, that could be the best thing that ever happened to her — and to those whom she continues to inspire.
The Kit Years
Tavakoli’s path to that day at UCLA began some 20 years earlier in San Jose. Her parents had moved to the States from Iran to pursue their master’s degrees. When the Khomeini regime seized power back home, they settled permanently in the Bay Area, where they raised their son and three daughters in a bilingual household. “The music they played on our record player was all from Iran,” Tavakoli remembers. “They didn’t listen to Western music at all.”
At the same time, they worked to ensure that their children would integrate fully into American society. “One of the things they did was to join this ranch in Red Bluff, California, called Our Ranch,” she says. “They were like, ‘American people ride horses. Let’s learn about that.’ They put my brother into Little League. They were trying to assimilate. It was so sweet.”
They had an especially novel idea for ushering Mona into mainstream culture. “They were like, ‘Americans put their daughters into beauty pageants!’ So that’s what they did,” she says, with another laugh. “My mom thought I was a good dancer, so she got me these little belly-dancing cymbals. That was my talent; I was doing Persian dances. In fact, that was my first percussive performance, at seven years old, competing against other little girls. I never won for beauty but I always won for talent. So I was like, ‘I may not be pretty — but I sure am good at something!’”
Thanks to her brother, Tavakoli’s horizons soon widened beyond her family’s heritage. “When I was in fifth grade, he bought me a cassette of Madonna’s True Blue,” she says. “Soon, at 11 years old, I was drawing fake Madonna moles onto my face and dancing to ‘Like A Virgin.’ Then he turned me on to Rush and Public Enemy and NWA and Megadeth and Metallica. I got into Neil Peart, even though I didn’t know his name until I was in high school. But as an 11-year-old girl I was like, ‘Whoa, what is that drummer doing? This is crazy!’”
Just as important were the discoveries Tavakoli made on her own. “My brother wasn’t listening to . . . thoughtful music,” she says, smiling. “So when I first saw Tori Amos play live, that changed my whole mindset. I saw a really powerful woman in control of two pianos at once, straddling the bench. She was such an expressive being. Whether they’re playing the drums or something else, I’m attracted to artists who express from fully in their body. I mean, people like Neil Peart made me hear drums in a very different way. Is that the kind of musician I became? No. It did inspire me so much, like, ‘That’s one way to do it.’ But with Madonna and Tori Amos, it was about ferocity and confidence. They showed us what we could become in the world.”
Determined to start playing drums herself, Tavakoli enrolled in band classes throughout elementary, junior high, and high school. She credits Mr. Tyler, her teacher from sixth through eighth grades, for encouraging her ambitions. Because trumpet was his instrument, he wasn’t able to give her specifics on drumming technique. Instead, he imparted something more significant.
“In eighth grade we played a concert where I had a big drum solo. Right before we began, Mr. Tyler introduced me as ‘the aggressive Mona Tavakoli.’ I remember at 13 wondering what that meant, so I asked him after the concert. And he said, ‘Mona, you’re so good. If you stay aggressive, you will always succeed.’ That was life advice, not just musical. From that moment, I was like, ‘Okay! If I’m gonna play drums, I’m gonna play with my whole body, with my whole heart.’”
“It’s Your Fault!”
Her parents were at that concert. Apparently, they sensed the electricity that Mona felt in the spotlight and in her resolve to chase her dreams without compromise. “Before that, they had been like, ‘You’ve got to play violin or flute because girls do not play the drums!’ But I convinced them to let me try because it was only a six-dollar investment — they just had to buy sticks, right? But then after that show, my dad was like, ‘Oh, my God! We’ve got to buy you a drum set!’”
She savors the memory before adding, with affection, “To this day my mom blames my dad for my lifestyle — ‘She’s a musician! It’s your fault!’ But that was so open-minded for them both, especially being Iranian parents.”
Tavakoli never did take lessons. Instead, she taught herself to play “on the job” with her high school jazz band, pep band, marching band, and orchestra. She started doing gigs on weekends too, beginning with a guitar/drum duo called Periwinkle. Her drive to perform found outlets as well through acting in school plays and even participating in debates.
After heading south to UCLA to work on her double major in economics and communications, Tavakoli stayed musically active. She spent one year in the marching band, playing cymbals. “That was interesting because I’d been playing tenors in high school. But then you realize that some of the baddest, most awesome players you’ve ever heard are in the drum line. That was such a humbling experience that I began thinking about whether I wanted to keep playing drums or not.”
Characteristically, Tavakoli found an unorthodox way to answer that question. “I auditioned to be the band mascot!” she says, sounding more than a little proud. “I put on the bear suit, set up my drum set, did a dance in the costume, and then ripped a three-minute drum solo — with my four-fingered furry gloves. I mean, come on! They had to give it to me!”
They did, and for two more years that was Tavakoli in Bruin togs, cavorting with the band during half-times and getting her fair share of drumming in as well. She also developed an ability to hear the music more perceptively as it was going on around her, a skill that she counts as essential to what she does today.
“That’s proved so important to me time and again,” she insists. “The drums are so loud, so I taught myself to step back and take the role of listener and contributor very seriously. Instead of trying to drive every moment in a performance, I find what to add to those moments. That’s where my instinct for working with singer/songwriters got sharpened.”
The Magic Box
Important as it was to learn how to play snare in a bear costume, that first encounter with a cajon would have a more lasting impact. Tavakoli knew it the instant her teacher brought it out at that flamenco dance class.
“I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, what is this?’” she recalls. “And Liliana says, ‘They use this in flamenco music in Spain. I want you to take the rhythms you learned in this class — bulerias, alegrías, soleares — from your feet and put them in your hand. I was like, ‘No problem!’
“It was love at first sight, a complete romance,” Tavakoli continues. “I had no rules to follow because I’d never seen anybody play the cajon before. Liliana didn’t know how to play it either, so I felt fully free to be creative. I found where there was a high tone and a low tone. Then it was like, how do I use my fingers? Can I use a brush? Can I use my feet? It was a wide open landscape.”
Starting from scratch, Tavakoli began building a technique based on providing a rhythm bed for the class. She knew nothing about performance practice, and had never seen anyone play the instrument before. It wasn’t clear whether her role would be to replicate, complement, or answer the rhythms articulated by the dancers — or do something completely different.
“My learning came from the flamenco rhythm,” she explains. “But I didn’t have a teacher. I didn’t have any guidance, other than to accompany the dancers, which was again all about listening. Still, after just my first or second time Liliana was like, ‘You really know what you’re doing with this cajon. I would love you to become a part of my dance company.’ The connection was immediate. So Liliana really introduced me to my whole career.”
With little awareness of her new instrument’s tradition, Tavakoli shaped her approach to it on her experience as a traps drummer — specifically, the aesthetic of blending high and low tones, equivalent to snare and kick, into a stream of rhythm. “I didn’t have any string cajons at the time,” she notes. “These were just Peruvian-style empty boxes, so I was just doing a kick-and-snare. That’s where my ear took me. At the same time, I knew that with flamenco music there are lots of palmas, the hand claps. So I began looking into how I could complement those rhythms with bass and snare tones.”
Soon Tavakoli pushed ahead, looking for ways to apply what she was learning to other styles of music. When her bandmates in Raining Jane heard her deliver a recital, they bought her a new cajon for her birthday in 2000 and encouraged her to work it further into their music. Shortly after that, when they started booking their own shows throughout the U.S., they began featuring Tavakoli on three or four cajon numbers each night. Audiences reacted with curiosity, even leaving their seats and pressing closer to the stage to see what was going on.
“The cajon is so accessible. Anybody who’s interested in playing can just sit on it and create a sound. It’s a means of expression. It improves everybody’s feelings about themselves and each other.” — Mona Tavakoli
Gradually, Tavakoli shifted her primary focus from drum set to cajon. By 2012, when she began working with Jason Mraz, she had more or less set the kit aside. Asked to explain why, she thought carefully before making it clear that her trajectory shouldn’t be in any way seen as a rejection of what the traditional drum set has to offer.
“As we all know, the drum set is just such a commitment,” she begins. “I mean, I love the kit. But the footprint of the cajon is so much smaller, yet still I can get so much out of this tiny box. I can scale everything down. And with the right cajon you can get so many of the sounds that a drum set can provide too.”
This became clearer soon. “I realized that if I used a metal brush in my left hand and played traditional, I could get a nice eighth-note shaker or hi-hat vibe. I’d brush my hand across it, like sandpaper, to create different tones. If I turn it around, especially my signature cajon (LP’s ‘MT Box’), it gives me a woody, hands-on tone, like a bongo. Eventually I found these ghungroos, which are Indian dancing bells that I strap onto my left foot. That adds another bright texture because I like a big bass sound on my cajon. I set up a tambourine for my right foot. That’s pretty much my setup, unless there’s room for cymbal stands so I can bring my tiny DW 6000s and my Sabian El Sabor percussion.”
Crickets And Toms
Maybe her most innovative move came from her attempt to conjure a tom sound, somewhere between the kick and snare ranges. “I started pushing my heel up and down the cajon, which is a move I called the ‘cricket,’” she says. “It looks like the wood on the front of the cajon is dense but it’s actually just a couple of plies, so I’ll dig my heel into it and roll it up and down. A lot of people do it now but I started doing it 20 years ago. And now I feel like I can cricket in my sleep!”
(To hear what two decades of cricketing leads to, check out various YouTube videos of Tavakoli doing “Browntown” as a duo with her Raining Jane colleague Becky Gebhardt on sitar. Toward the end of the track, she emulates a drummer’s run through a sequence of toms with an uncanny panache, using just hands and her “cricket” foot.)
Most recently, Tavakoli credits her association with Jason Mraz for expanding her technical and conceptual horizons on cajon. “I’ve learned so much from him in terms of being really authentic in the moment,” she says. “He truly has no pretense. To be on his left side onstage and pay attention, that gives me permission to really be myself in the moment. It becomes my duty to bring everything I can to the moment. He has made me a better person and a better musician.”
With technique now a secondary concern, Tavakoli gives priority to this notion of playing from the heart. In fact, it is essential to her technically as well as expressively. “Some drummers have a problem with cajon because it’s such a different body language. When you’re behind a kit, you have toms and cymbals and all these things covering you. You use your hips to move up and down as you play. I have good posture. I open my chest really wide. A lot of people are like, ‘How can you sit like that and face an audience?’ But it’s part of my spiritual practice of giving or receiving in concert.”
She pauses and then remembers an incident from a NAMM show several years ago. “A guy came up to me and said, ‘You know, I bought a cajon but it’s hard for me to just go for it.’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, because you have to open up your heart and your face. It’s a vulnerable position. So, try it alone. Just play songs you really enjoy. Once you feel good about the sounds you’re getting, you won’t have as much of a problem playing to an audience because you’ll have found how to feel good.”
Tavakoli worked with Mraz to design an array of percussion that presents her fully and openly to the audience. Now, when they take to the stage with Raining Jane, or when she gigs with exiled Iranian pop vocal legend Ebi, her arsenal includes djembe, bongos, cymbal, chimes, a Roland SPD-SX, and a Marxophone, a fretless zither that sounds somewhat like a mandolin or hammered dulcimer. “They’re spread apart because I want to connect with the audience and my bandmates,” she explains.
Still, the cajon is and will remain the center of Tavakoli’s universe. She even credits it for her most important project outside of performance — the Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls Los Angeles. “What we do there is completely in line with my dreams for the cajon,” she says. “The cajon is so accessible. Anybody who’s interested in playing can just sit on it and create a sound. It’s a means of expression. It improves everybody’s feelings about themselves and each other. It’s the same with the Rock n’ Roll Camp: You create a space where people can express themselves.”
As for her own journey, Tavakoli sums it up this way: “Whether I’m playing with orchestras, Japanese koto artists, Jason, or whoever, I begin with this perspective I’ve developed over 20 years and try to figure out how to apply it to something that’s being done by someone else. It’s no longer about just playing a 2 and a 4. It’s about what I can contribute.”