story by Catharine Lo
photos by Kyle Rothenborg
Subway stations, anonymous dives and backyard lu‘au; sold-out auditoriums, Central Park and the New Orleans Jazzfest: John Cruz has played them all. Now we're sitting in front of the empty stage at rRed Elephant, a recent addition to downtown Honolulu's growing list of hip and intimate performance spaces. John played here last night, but for the past hour he's been recalling his time on the East Coast, where he spent twelve years before returning home to the Islands. A theatrical storyteller, he's constantly moving—waving his arms, punctuating his tales with frequent exclamations of "Wow!" as he recalls playing such venerable rock joints as CBGB's in New York and The Rat in Boston. But of all those shows, the one that stands out in his memory is Hawai‘i Night at Carnegie Hall.
"Not that my performance was amazing," he quickly disclaims. Instead, the highlight came when he joined the audience to watch multi-octave vocalist Genoa Keawe. "Aunty Genoa comes onto the stage. Standing ovation. People are crying out, ‘We love you, we love you.' And Aunty Genoa, she's so sweet; she's like ..."—he raises the pitch of his voice and throws out his hands—"‘no, no, no. I love you, I love you. I love you guys so much.' And they wouldn't stop. Finally, she's like, ‘Okay, enough already! Gotta sing now.' They were so craving that Hawaiian music."
Caught up in the retelling, he's risen out of his chair; now he sits back down, visibly moved by the memory.
Growing up in public housing in Honolulu's Palolo Valley, John Cruz did what most town kids do: Skate down to the beach, go surfing in Waikiki, get into trouble at school and, when he was older, hang out in University of Hawai‘i parking lots, drinking beer with his friends and listening to the campus radio station, KTUH. John's father is renowned country singer Ernie Cruz Sr., and, along with elder brother Ernie, John was raised to be a performer. In 1991, Ernie Jr. released the first of five albums as part of the wildly popular Ka‘au Crater Boys, which he founded with neighborhood friend Troy Fernandez and named after Palolo Valley's most famous landmark.
But long before brother Ernie had risen to prominence on the local scene, John had taken off: In 1983, he moved to Boston to attend the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Berklee College of Music. He began playing gigs around Boston and Martha's Vineyard, eventually arriving in the place he had wanted to go all along—New York City. "People used to find out that I was from Hawai‘i and they'd say, ‘That place is so nice—what are you doing here?' If you're looking for nice weather, if you're a surfer and looking for waves, then of course, Hawai‘i is where you want to be. But if you want to play music in a little jazz club on Wednesday night and then on Thursday night have a coffee shop gig and then on Friday night play with a hard rock band, then it's not so nice."
But the Islands were hard to shake. "I hate shoes," he says with a laugh. "You want people in New York City to look at you in fear? Walk barefoot: They run to the other side of the street. First good day of spring, I used to roll up my jeans so everyone could see I'm barefoot and just go walking around. People would freak out! When they see you coming up the sidewalk, they're like, ‘Wow, is this guy gonna ... is he dangerous?'" When people ask John whether he plays Hawaiian music, his standard response is, "Well, I'm Hawaiian, and I play music."