By Cameron Murray
THE first time I heard the Ka‘au Crater Boys’ On Fire, I nearly fell off my chair. Who were these guys? And, more importantly, who was their ukulele player? In more than a decade of being associated with the uke, I’d never heard anything quite like it. The technique, the precision, the sheer joy of it! To this day, On Fire is one of my all-time favourite instrumentals.
I later found out the talented musician behind the ukulele was Troy Fernandez. In the early 1990s, Troy and his surfing buddy Ernie Cruz Jr (who sadly passed away recently) became the voice of a new generation of Hawaiian performers as the Ka‘au Crater Boys. The duo recorded four popular albums and won three Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards – the Hawaiian equivalent of Grammys.
“I started playing when I was nine years old because in Hawaii every school has a fourth grade ukulele class,” Troy tells me. “When I got to middle school, I started watching Peter Moon and Eddie Kamae, so they were my heroes when I was young, mainly Peter Moon.”
Troy started his first band when he was 13 and quickly landed a high-profile gig opening for Australian pop queen Helen Reddy at the Sheraton Hotel in Waikiki. “I was actually playing upright bass in the group because my friend was way better than me on ukulele and guitar,” says Troy. “They thought we were just kids running around. Our name was Us and we had tight three-part harmonies, good vocals, good music.”
Troy and Ernie had been playing together for about a decade before the Ka‘au Crater Boys came into existence.
“We were known as ET – Ernie and Troy,” explains the 53-year-old. “We started playing in clubs and I said to Ernie, ‘If we keep doing what we’re doing, one day someone’s going to come through the door and they’re gonna want to record us.’
“That happened and then I told Ernie, ‘I don’t think we should use the name ET because if we get really big we might get sued by the movie guys!’ So Ernie said, ‘I know a name – Ka‘au Crater Boys!’ We’re from Palolo and deep in the valley, there’s a crater called the Ka‘au Crater. I thought, ‘It doesn’t matter what our name is, it’s not going to change the way we play.’”
Soon enough, the Ka‘au Crater Boys were making waves on the music scene and Troy’s exciting playing style was causing a ukulele resurgence in the islands, particularly among young people.
“We would go surfing at Hanalei Bay in Kauai and there would be some kids under a tree playing our songs!” says Troy with a grin. “Then we’d go surfing in Hilo on the Big Island and we’d be passing kids and they’d be playing our songs, too. So we found out that everywhere we go in Hawaii, there are kids trying to learn our songs.”
So what does Troy think of the Third Wave Of Uke, a movement he helped kick-start with his astonishing skill on four strings?
“There are so many good players, it’s amazing!” he replies. “So many ukulele makers. Everyone is playing the ukulele now, everyone around the world is picking up the ukulele.”
As our chat comes to an end, I ask Troy if he has any advice for aspiring performers. “Never give up!” he beams. “If I can do it, anybody can do it.”
This article first appeared in Issue 10 of KAMUKE, which is available in the Store