interview by Julia Steele
color photos by Linny Morris Cunningham
Music defines place, defines time. If you were in London in the ’70s, you listened to The Clash. In Kingston, to Bob Marley and the Wailers. In Los Angeles, to The Eagles. And if you were in Hawaii, you listened to C&K.
C&K at Aloha Tower, 2003
Cecilio and Kapono. Cecilio Rodriguez, a Mexican of Yaqui Indian descent raised in Santa Barbara, California. Henry Kapono, pure Hawaiian, from Honolulu’s Kapahulu district. Together they created the Island soundtrack for the 1970s, a smooth, sweet harmony of good times. Forget funk and Foghat. Never mind disco and The Doobies: If you fell in love in Hawaii during the decade, chances are C&K was on somewhere in the background. If you had a barbecue, drove to the beach, went to a prom, stopped at the supermarket, checked out a friend’s party, met someone for a drink after work, dropped off your car at the mechanic’s—chances are C&K was on somewhere in the background.
Cecilio and Kapono were Hawaii’s Lennon and McCartney. The first time they played together, they astonished their small living-room audience; within a year, they had a three-record deal with a national label. The duo’s string of hits reads like a compendium of Island favorites: About You, Night Music, Sunflower, Railway Station, Friends, Here With You, Highway in the Sun and on and on. In the ’80s they went their separate ways, but the lure of the music pulled them back together time and again; the longest they’ve ever gone without playing with each other is four years. This year makes it thirty since they first picked up guitars together, and in June they launched a reunion tour with three sold-out shows at Kapono’s, Henry’s bar in Aloha Tower Marketplace. To mark the occasion, we sat down at the bar to talk story with the two of them.
Your music was the music of a whole generation in Hawaii. What do you think made it so popular?
Cecilio: There were some blank spaces in music in those days that needed to be filled and we just happened to come along at the right time. We sing songs that have to do with hope and love, feel-good songs. People were ready for that kind of thing. The fact that it became the music of a generation, we couldn’t have foretold that, it just happened. We were writing about what everybody was living. Parties, getting away, travels, love. It was a more innocent time—nobody was in a hurry to grow up. C&K personified kicking back and listening to good music. We were very distinct in the sound that we had, and it became the C&K sound.
How long did it take to create that sound?
Kapono: It was there the first time we played.
Cecilio: I’m not sure that we had the conscious thought that we were meant to be together but our reaction to the first song we ever sang together was laughter because it sounded so good. We just laughed out loud. A group of people had gathered around, and they went, ‘My God.’ We never consciously said, ‘Well, shall we be a group now and what shall we pursue?’ We just continued.
Kapono: It was more or less, ‘What are you doing tomorrow? Let’s get together.’ We played and then we got a manager.
Cecilio: We had a gig down at the Rainbow Villa at the corner of Kalakaua and ‘Ena Road. And one night we were hired to open for Frank Zappa at the Old Civic Auditorium here in town. [At the show] we said, ‘We’re playing every night at the Rainbow Villa.’ When we returned to our job, there was a line of people outside, and we thought they had hired somebody else in our place. We both thought, ‘How rude.’ And as we got close to the door, people started whispering, ‘It’s them, it’s them, hey, check it out, here they come.’ We did the cartoon thing—looking around, then thinking, ‘Hey, they mean us!’ After that night, every night it was lines around the block, standing room only. That was the turning point. Two months before that, there was nobody in the place: the bartender, a couple of guys shooting pool in the back, a couple waitresses and us.
For me, it was about the party. Party and girls. I was a young guy. We had a couple of caring people who said, ‘You’re going to have to decide: Is it a party or is it business?’ I said, ‘Oh well, let’s do the business’ and off we went. But I remember thinking, ‘This is so cool, man, let’s make the party the business,’ and that’s exactly what we did, that’s what songs like Lifetime Party came from. Unfortunately, along the way, we were partying so much that we forgot to take care of the business and we got taken advantage of but, you know, that happens. No regrets. There are lessons in life and those were some of them. And here we are thirty years later, still selling out concerts.
How exactly did you meet?
Cecilio: We met in January 1973. I had just finished doing the road thing with Little Anthony and the Imperials. I’d had it. I went to Santa Barbara to figure out what I was going to do next. Then I got the call to come out to Hawaii. I said, ‘I need a roundtrip ticket.’ Of course, I got a one-way ticket. So I said, ‘I’ll work my way back to the Mainland.’ But there was never any question of returning.