Watching Ivan Zenovitch play is as exciting as listening to him. His fingers dance across the neck and strings of his guitar in amazingly complex patterns of notes and chords.
It’s all the more amazing since Zenovitch is hard of hearing.
“My parents are deaf-mutes,” Zenovitch explains over coffee at Baked Café, speaking almost as fast as he plays. “My own hearing started to go a little bit, so I was tested at work when I was 20.
“I kept playing guitar. I was just starting out then. It was not until 1990 that I saw an otolaryngologist who took my family history and told me my hearing loss was hereditary.
“It’s been almost the same now for the last 16 years and, by that time, I already had my chops together.
“I said to Ted Arnold at Unitech, while I was playing a new Larrivée, ‘Look how soft it can play,'” he continues, ignoring his coffee and miming in the air. “Ted was surprised, ‘You can hear that?’
“And I could. I was so connected to the instrument when I was playing it.”
Zenovitch credits his mother for giving him his love of music. “We used to watch Benny Goodman movies, musicians, with Gene Kelly. She’s a good dancer, a swing dancer. I definitely inherited my musicality from my Mom. She’s a musical person.
“My Mom and I, and about 89 million other people, saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, live, and I was transfixed. I knew then that I wanted to play guitar. But I just wanted to play; it wasn’t about being a star.”
With his mother’s support, Zenovitch got his first electric guitar – a $15 model from a flier from Simpsons-Sears. “I was always pestering my Mom for it. She’s a deaf-mute and was working in a laundromat.
“Thinking about it now, how much could she have made doing that in 1968? Because she didn’t get the money from my Dad, Mom always supported me. She always came out to see all the bands I was in.”
Zenovitch is known as one of the best guitar players in the Yukon. “Personally, I think Robbie MacKay is a much better player,” he says, modestly, reflecting on how his influences come from people he’s touched, not rock gods.
When asked how he got to be one of the best guitarists in the Yukon (he still insists MacKay is the best), he dismisses the idea at first, then goes on, “I think my playing skills come from a convergence of events.
“When I started playing guitar at eight, we only had three TV stations … no Nintendo. I only had sports, school and music.
“I was watching TV with my mother recently, with the closed captioning on, and I was practising guitar. That’s how it was when I was growing up – because my parents were deaf, I didn’t even have to put my guitar away when we were watching TV. I’d come home, plug it in and try to make the sounds I’d heard.”
He remembers a pivotal moment in 1994 when he was living with a friend in Judas Creek. “I’d get up, in this gorgeous place, and remember something MacKay had showed me and try to do it myself, but I didn’t understand it. I’d do it and just jam along, not understanding it.
“Then one day, I looked at the guitar when – poof – I got it. The neck was the whole universe for me. The neck of the guitar was teaching me about music.”
He laughs a bit and says, “Maybe that was the 10,000 hours of practice it takes to be an expert at something.
“I think it has to do with knowing sign language,” he adds, “and how they both come from the shapes my fingers make. My sister is an excellent typist and she says the same thing. It’s visual. I visualize music as the shapes of my fingers.”
Zenovitch’s skills are well-known in the Yukon, but he’s never ventured far into the Canadian music scene.
“I never dreamed of a bigger stage. Playing with Teri-Lynn Puckett. I thought, Cool, I’d like to do this. But it’s the nature of my character. I didn’t have the survival or coping skills.
“I’ve been working on why I don’t set goals for myself and why I don’t reach my goals. I think it had to do with my son, John. I had to support him. But now that he’s 19, I think I’m ready.
“Playing with Sophisticated Cavemen is great. In a band like this, I don’t have to be buff or look like a rock star,” he says, laughing at himself.
He goes on: “It’s funny, people say I’m supposed to be a good guitar player, but folks of my generation, when they ask me to play with them, they want me to play like somebody else.
Younger musicians don’t. That’s what’s great about playing with Peggy and Cate and with Sophisticated Cavemen … they love me and they love what I want to play.”
The respect is mutual. Peggy Hanifan says of him, “Ivan has been my musical hero for the last 25 years. It’s great that I finally get to play with him.”
“One of the things I like about playing the Whitewater Wednesday Jam,” Zenovitch says, “is I meet so many young musicians who have never heard me play before. And they all tell me how good I am. You can get a big head like that.”
Zenovitch hosts a Thursday-night jam at the Gold Pan Saloon. You can also hear him with the Sophisticated Cavemen Friday nights at Flipper’s Pub.