Robert Cazimero is must-see concert tradition
Revered kumu hula/musician Robert Cazimero returns to the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater at 7:30 p.m. Saturday for the annual Cazimero Lei Day Concert accompanied by musicians and dancers from his award-winning Halau Na Kamalei. Special guests joining him at the show will include Amy Hanaiali’i and Marlene Sai.
Celebrating Hawaii’s May Day tradition for many years, the Brothers Cazimero would perform special concerts on Oahu and Maui. That came to an end in 2014 when Roland Cazimero collapsed on stage at the Castle Theater. It marked the brothers’ last concert together.
“As much as people were not aware of it, we knew it had been coming for a while,” says Robert about his brother’s illness. “Unfortunately, it happened not even 10 minutes into the show. He went to the hospital, and that’s when it began to go downhill.”
Asked what he misses most about his brother, who died last July, he says: “I miss the music. Because Roland and I were together for many years, there was an unwritten rule that I would not listen to us play music in my house and in my car. I would hear it enough times if I was going to the bathroom at the airport or in people’s homes and that was fine.
“But after Roland’s death I began to listen to it, and I realized more than ever the genius of what we were able to do all those years. So I’m missing the fact that I will never have that opportunity again, in this lifetime, to play that music the way it was, and to hear those particular strums and parts. I’m missing and appreciating it more than I ever thought I would.”
Performing together since helping spearhead the Hawaiian renaissance with group The Sunday Manoa in the early 1970s, Robert and Roland long ago established a reputation as pioneers of Hawaiian music. Creating a legacy unmatched by any other island artists, they released more than 35 albums and received numerous Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, beginning with their self-titled debut in 1975, and most recently with their last studio album “Destiny” in 2008.
The Brothers’ inspired combination of gorgeous vocals, soaring harmonies and deft interplay between stand-up bass and 12-string acoustic guitar was heard on such classic songs as “Pupu A’o Ewa,” “Nani Hanalei,” “Haleakala,” “Pua Hone” and “Home in the Islands.”
Born in Kahili to a family of entertainers, Robert and Roland were destined for musical careers. Their parents ran their own band and Polynesian show, and Roland began playing bass with the family at the age of 9, while Robert pursued a love for piano. Able to memorize complex classical pieces, Robert at one time seemed destined toward a classical career.
Raised in a family of 12 siblings, the two youngest brothers were the ones who found fame playing together.
“I think it was serendipitous,” he says. “It was the right place, the right time, the right lessons. Everything fell into place. Maybe Peter planned it when we were part of Sunday Manoa. Roland and I were on a party trip for most of the years until we realized we were working for something pretty wonderful.”
After graduating from Kamehameha High School, the brothers teamed with Peter Moon (who died in January), forming The Sunday Manoa.
The release of “Guava Jam” in 1972 by the group ushered in what became known as the Hawaiian renaissance. At the time, the musicians were not aware they were recording such groundbreaking music.
“We had no idea we were heading the renaissance,” Robert says. “Several years later people started inteviewing us, and asking what it was like to be at the forefront. The three of us would say, ‘We’re just having a party.’ It was just a lot of fun. Then the questions came with a kind of responsible attitude, and we had to change our answers to what we felt people would want to hear. We thought we were running the show, but actually the whole time the culture was running us and we had an obligation. It really made you think about that kind of stuff.
“We met a lot of the people who are considered today legends in Hawaiian music. Peter had a plan about where we were going and what we were going to do, and that’s how we got to know a lot of those really important people in our music and culture.”
Listening to “Guava Jam” almost 50 years later, it’s quite remarkable how it still sounds so innovative and potent.
“It’s interesting that all three of us lived long enough to hear people do copies of what we had done back in 1969,” Cazimero notes. “It’s interesting to look back in retrospect that so many people wanted us to do a reunion concert, and pretty much we were all against it after we finished Sunday Manoa. Even with Roland and I — and Roland got so ill –we never got a chance to do a kind of exit plan. I always admired the fact that Cecilio and Kapono had a succession of final concerts. I wish we had thought about that a bit more. It would have helped with closure.”
Besides their amazing vocal chemistry, performing with standup bass and acoustic guitar made them unique.
“As we traveled, people wanted to know where’s the ukulele player, and if you’re playing Hawaiian music where’s the steel guitar? Where’s the Samoan knife dancer, and the girls in the coconut bras? We had to fight a lot of different ideas.”
Studying hula under Aunty Maiki Aiu Lake, Robert was encouraged by his teacher to form an all-male halau. Viewed as a hula rebel, he founded Halau Na Kamalei in 1975.
“We had to fight stigmas,” he reveals. ” ‘All guys who dance hula were gay’ — well, no, they weren’t all gay. ‘Why are they moving their hips because that’s very feminine’ — men don’t move their hips. It was a really progressive, experimental and wonderful time.”
Balancing his music career with teaching hula, his halau last competed at Merrie Monarch in 2015 and won the overall title.
“It’s been important to include both in my life and have them work so well together,” he says.
As a solo artist, in recent years he has released the CDs “Hula” and “Hula 2,” featuring favorite traditional and contemporary songs for hula, where he sings and plays piano.
Any chance of “Hula 3”?
“I’m working on it,” says the 69-year-old legend. “I still have some stuff I would like to do, but as much as I am busy, laziness seems such a luxury.”
Looking around at the contemporary Hawaiian music landscape, he singles out Raiatea Helm as an artist he particularly admires.
“I love how Raiatea has progressed and become the singer that she is today. Her talent is so pure and based in a foundation that I appreciate. So I love Raiatea. And I love Keauhou, and I love Keali’i Reichel and Na Hoa.
“I do believe our music, what I think is Hawaii music, is semi-secure, but I still believe that we are in such danger of losing it, and therefore, I still believe that we are at war. We are at war with other influences to try to keep to what we have ours.”
Reflecting on his enduring legacy, Robert is grateful that his music has touched so many and still impacts younger generations today.
“I have a young boy in my halau, Samuel Spencer, 17 years old and a senior at Kamehameha on Oahu,” he says. “His mom brought him to my house one day and he says, ‘Kumu, chasing for the rain.’ I said, ‘What?’ Back on my first solo album (“RUC“) in the late ’70s, I did a song called ‘Chasing for the Rain.’ He knew all the words and could sing every song from that album — it blew my mind. We had a concert in February and we sang the song together, which was written before he was born.”
A bunch of Na Hoku winners and nominees will perform at a free ho’olaule’a from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday on the Great Lawn of the University of Hawaii Maui College in Kahului. Performers include students of the Institute of Hawaiian Music, George Kahumoku Jr., Kanekoa, Pono Murray, Matagi, Ahumanu, Anthony Pfluke, Mondokane, Halemanu Villarimo and Tarvin Makia, Cane Fire, Melinda Carroll with Lehua Simon, Mikaela Bega and Bentley Kalaway, Pat Simmons Jr., Damien Paiva and Goldawn Won.
The event will also feature three workshops, including Keola Donaghy discussing the Grammy and Hoku awards; the benefits of membership in both organizations and how to enter music releases into the awards; and multiple Hoku-winning musician/producer Kenneth Makuakane discussing songwriting, and guiding participants through writing their own song.
There is a $10 fee for each workshop. For workshop reservations, contact Donaghy at email@example.com or call 984-3570.