I learned tonight that the guitarist half of the Ka’au Crater Boys passed earlier in the day. He was found unresponsive in the water off of Sandy beach on O’ahu.
In the ‘ukulele world Ernie, no doubt, lived in the shadow of Troy Fernandez. By way of the beast Troy tended to outshine the subtle talent and skill that Ernie brought to the Ka’au Crater Boys: scalpel-precise rhythm and soulful vocals. The “boring” things that, while necessary, don’t ignite the excitement of a flashy solo. All the kind of things that you don’t appreciate until they’re gone. Well, now they’re gone. Hawaiian music, and the world, has lost a truly phenomenal rhythm guitarist and musician.
This one hits close to home because, while the Crater Boys were a bit before my time, they were still the soundtrack to my early years in Hawai’i and as an ‘ukulele player. They were always on the radio and if you were serious about learning ‘ukulele, you listened to the Ka’au Crater Boys and ripped off their songs. It’s just what you did.
There’s an old video somewhere on my mom’s computer of my friend Isaac and I playing Guava Jam, albeit terribly, inspired by Ernie and Troy (we didn’t even know at the time that Peter Moon and the Cazimeros wrote it). ‘Opihi Man was always a favorite at jams and, while I’d never lead the tune, I always loved to echo with “ya gotta run, ya gotta go right now!” At an obscure fundraiser for the Hamakua Youth Center I ended up jamming Maui Girl with Lorna Lim and Ed Yap – only made familiar to me by hearing Ernie chug out its guitar part along with Aue Te Nehe Nehe on the radio. My band in the Institute of Hawaiian Music covered Ernie and Troy’s version of Still The One at our semester closing concert. More recently, Uncle Led Kaapana played All I Have To Offer You Is Me at the George Kahumoku Jr. Slack Key and ‘Ukulele Workshop – again, most of us in the islands only know these songs because Ernie covered them beautifully and brought them onto the local radar.
Many years have gone by since my early days of Ka’au Crater Boys study. After a while the songs weren’t as fresh as they once were so the CDs stopped coming out as much. But the legend of the Ka’au Crater Boys and Ernie Cruz Jr. lives on. We are blessed with the amazing music he leaves behind. I’ll definitely be listening to Ernie tomorrow and hurting to know that one less of my musical heroes is among us. Rest in love, sir.
Here are some favorites: