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 movingwaving 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 alongNew York City. "People used to find out that I was from Hawai‘i and they'd say, ‘That place is so nicewhat 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."
"Contemporary Hawaiian music is just Hawaiian music that has been influenced by the West," he explains. "The stuff in the '20sthat was contemporary back then." Instead, he calls what he plays acoustic soul: It's a warm, thoroughly Island sound, shot through with elements of the music he grew up listening toMotown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Al Greene and, later, Bob Marley.
In 1995, brother Ernie asked John to come home and help record a Ka‘au Crater Boys album. John became the band's bass player and also began laying down tracks for his own debut album, which was released the following year. The result, Acoustic Soul, stood in stark contrast to its peers: While contemporary Hawaiian music often celebrates a familiar triumviratethe land, the ocean, the foodthe characters in John's ballads are poignant and deeply human; his spare and economical lyrics capture the many intangibles of life in modern Hawai‘i. Take, for instance, one verse of "Island Style," a song that to an outsider would seem simplistic, but is so rife with Island meaning that it has become a local anthem: We go grandma's house on the weekend clean yard / If we no go, grandma gotta work hard. / You know my grandma, she like the poi real sour. / I love my grandma every minute, every hour.
Acoustic Soul went on to win John a Na Hoku Hanohano award (Hawai‘i's equivalent of a Grammy) for Contemporary Album of the Year. He also won a Hoku that year for Most Promising Artist. The sudden local success after years away from home wasn't an altogether good thing for him: Instead, it sent him spiraling into a lifestyle of drugs and alcohol, during which he alienated himself from friends and family and lost custody of his three children.
John was fortunate to make it back, and his music, which has always been a reflection of his identity, now shares glimpses of the emotional wastelands he visited. At the time of this writing, he was putting the finishing touches on his as-yet-untitled second album.
"Music has always been a warm friend that I have been able to turn to," he says. "A lot of people have said that Acoustic Soul was a healing album for them. I think this new albumthere's a lot of healing for me." This is not to say that the new album is altogether dire. The sound also reflects John's travels, and in particular pays homage to his time spent in New Orleans. "I had thought New York was where the funk was," he says, laughing. "After going to New Orleans, I realizedafter the factthat that was what I was looking for. That funk, that jambalaya sort of sound, is what's coming through on this record: An island undercurrent, bossa nova-type rhythms, rumbas mixed with the heavy R&B funk. Of course, get some Casey Kasem Top Forty thrown in just to be honest. But New Orleans! That's where it is, man."
Ask about future ambitions, and it's clear that John's view of success has been tempered by the roller coaster decade he's just lived through. "I look at it like, ‘Okay, are my strings going to break or not during the gig? Can I get this vocal take right? Can I succeed at this musical moment? Can I be effective with my music?' Being effective is what it's really about, because it's communicating. That's how I look at it."
And though his lyrics might communicate most strongly with local audiences, John continues to seek something of the universal in his live performancesboth for his fans and for himself. "Onstage, I've got the best seat in the house: I can see everybody. Sometimes you see a particular person who has a particular need. When they get that thing through the music, they become part of the whole. Even if you just find one other person who says, ‘Yeah, that's how it should be,' then you're not alone." HH