The story of Cindy Combs begins in San Diego, meanders around the globe to places as far away as the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, pauses on O’ahu, and rests finally on the Garden Isle of Kaua’i, the setting for SUNNY RAIN.
In the retelling of her journey, Cindy often related the story of her open-mouthed astonishment when listening to a radio broadcast in the Canary Isles where she and her family lived in 1962. Her mother suddenly began singing along, “Ha’ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana…” Cindy marveled, “How do you know the words to that song? It’s beautiful!!”
Her mother laughed. “Darling, your dad and I lived for many years in Hawai’i before you were born! Would you like to go there?” “Do they wear leis everyday?” Cindy asked. “They sure do,” her mom replied, and Cindy said, “OK! Let’s go.”
Cindy muses, “I wonder where I might have ended up if that song hadn’t played on that day at that moment. It triggered something in my mom, a real longing to return to Hawai’i. She actually kissed the ground at Aloha Tower when we landed on O’ahu!”
Born in San Diego on April 20, 1953 and a seasoned world traveler by the time she reached Hawai’i ten years later, she already knew how to read a bit of music, having had formal lessons on, of all things, the accordion. “Ours was a very musical family,” she remembers. “My parents and my sister and I played the piano. My dad played the clarinet and the harmonica. I was listening to their records of Johnnie Mathis, Connie Francis, even Doris Day! I loved them! My mom had was always telling me, ‘Now, Cindy, don’t sing at the dinner table!” She laughs “But in a really kind way because I was always singing. I couldn’t stop.”
Soon after arriving in Hawai’i, Cindy entered 5th grade at Royal School where every student was issued an ‘ukulele. “It was my first stringed instrument. I learned my first Hawaiian song, Koni Au, which is kind of funny because I realized years later that we had been taught a drinking song!!. By Christmas, my parents had gotten me my own Martin ‘ukulele.”
At 12 Cindy traded her bicycle for her first guitar. “Through my mom’s record club I ordered Joan Baez’s first record. That really got me into folk musicsinging and accompanying myself on the guitar.” Then at 16 “I heard Joni Mitchell and she rocked my world. Her tunings, lyrics, and vocal style touched my heart and inspired me to such a degree that later on in my career I stopped playing her songs. People said I sounded just like her, and I wanted to have my own sound.”
In the mid to late 60s the first stirrings of what would become the “Hawaiian Renaissance” began to be felt. With the British Invasion and the revolution in American pop music, island musicians began fusing new structures and rhythms into traditional Hawaiian music. “Young lions” like Peter Moon, the Cazimeiro Brothers, Palani Vaughn, and others transformed the Hawaiian sound and brought a new generation from rock-and-roll back to their Hawaiian roots.
1971, and the Hawaiian Renaissance was in full bloom. It proved to be a pivotal year in Cindy’s life.
That summer she saw an ad for Slack Key guitar lessons. “The teacher was Keola Beamer. The six weeks of six lessons I got from him changed my life! It was very synchronistic in the way it all came together.” Those six songs remain in her repertoire, and the G6th (D-G-D-G-B-E from the lowest pitched string to the highest) and the C Wahine (C-G-D-G-B-E) tunings are the two she plays the most in ‘til this day.
Later that year she was introduced to Jerry Santos who was playing at Chuck’s Steakhouse in Hawai’i Kai. “My friend Ginger Johnson introduced me to him. I immediately felt at ease with him as he had, and still has, a definite charm! I was immediately impressed by the many facets of his unique musical style. His voice sounded so clear and expressive. I loved the way he used different genres, playing folk, blues, original compositions, as well as Hawaiian music. I started spending time with him; getting to know him and jamming with him. We became good friends. He inspired me to go deeper into Hawaiian music. I started learning more Hawaiian songs and that, coupled with my learning Slack Key, opened up a new avenue of self expression that I might not have ventured into as far as I have if it wasn’t for Jerry. I just can’t say enough good things about Jerry. He has definitely had a subtle yet unmistakable influence on me. I am a huge fan of his and consider myself very fortunate to have him as a friend.”
At Jerry’s request, Cindy introduced him to a friend of hers, Robert Beaumont. The two went on to form Olomana, and in 1976 their first vinyl, Like A Seabird In The Wind, marked Cindy’s recording debut. “I played Slack Key guitar on ‘O Malia’. It was such an honor. They credited my playing as ‘a sweet touch from Cindy Combs.’ I was thrilled!” And Seabird marked Cindy’s record debut as a songwriter as well with Jerry and Robert publishing her original composition So Free.
After five years of gigging all over O’ahu, the glow of the big city lights began to fade. A trip to Kaua’i led to her moving to the Rice ranch, which inspired the hauntingly beautiful Kīpū, her first Hawaiian-language composition. She returned to O’ahu, but the pull of Kaua’i was strong, and by 1978 she was back on Garden Isle, making a name for herself with her intricate guitar work in various tunings, into which she wove her expressive voice. “I was playing a blend of favorite covers, original songs, and Hawaiian music. Places like the Casablanca in Līhu’e and the Kōke’e Lodge. As well as playing solo, I formed a duo with Sharon Zugaywe called ourselves the ‘Kōke’e-ettes’; like Coquettes! I never wanted it to end, but Sharon got cancer and passed away early in 1980. Her death marked the end of an era. It was hard to lose her. I decided to move back to O’ahu.”
Cindy married in 1981 and had a son in 1982. Songwriting occupied her for the baby’s early years, but soon she was back on the scene. “I was living in Kane’ohe, playing at Pats At Punalu’u one night then all the way to The Proud Peacock in Waimea another night. So many miles on my car and by this time I was a single parent.” But for sheer craziness she remembers the mid-80s when she was playing 5 weeknights in Honolulu and flying to Kaua’i on weekends to play with friend Alan Gaylor. “It was nuts! We gigged at timeshare parties in Princeville and I was playing keyboard in the band. We did Hawaiian and Tahitian, finishing off with Reggae/dance music.”
The travel was wearing on her. Alan suggested Cindy move to Kaua’i and she said, “I couldn’t possibly!” Then, only a short time later, a flute and saxophone player named Phil Watts, who Cindy had known since the 70’s, filled in for a regular band member and a romance was kindled. She moved back to Kaua’i and married Phil. Their daughter was born in 1988 and the family has been living on Kaua’i ever since.
Kaua’i had embraced her once again. Her 1980 composition I Love Kaua’i
Was recorded by Jerry Santos on his 1989 release, EXPECTING FRIENDS, which became Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards’ “Album of the Year” in 1990. I Love Kaua’i was a finalist for Song of the Year.
In 1991, she began playing at the Waiohai Terrace at Poipu. “It was a very classy place. Of all my gigs up to that point, it was the most meaningful because I was called on to play Hawaiian music. The venue was perfect for instrumental Slack Key with the sun setting and the moon rising right there over the ocean. I started developing my guitar arrangements and exploring jazz chord forms in Slack Key tuning to accompany my vocals. I was singing some classic oldies like Sweet Leilani, Blue Hawaiian Moonlight, and Hanalei Moon. It was a wonderful gig but September 10, 1992 was my last date there. The next day, September 11, 1992, Hurricane ’Iniki literally blew my gig away. The Waiohai Terrace was gone.”
The year following ‘Iniki saw Cindy concentrating on her songwriting. Her efforts were rewarded when her song Ka Nani O Kōke’e won both the Professional and Overall Performer categories in the 1993 Mokihana Festival’s Kaua’i Composers Contest.
Immediately following, she landed her long-running job as DJ for KUAI radio, becoming famous as ‘The Ukulele Lady’. At the same time, Mokihana Festival’s Nathan Kalama asked her to help coordinate a program he co-founded called E Kanikapila Kākou Let’s Play Music!). She did both jobs for the next ten years. As of this writing, E Kanikapila Kākou is still held at Island School, bringing musicians from all over the state to share their Hawaiian music talent.
In 1995, with support from Walter and Marie Bengston and Kenny Wilson, Cindy was able to record demos that would lead to the recording of her first CD called LAND OF THE ENDLESS SUMMER, produced by another good friend, Berry Andelin, who also wrote the title track. With the further help of Jerry Santos and Michael Kelly, the CD was released in 1997 on Better Days Records. ‘Endless Summer’ has since been re-released on Cindy’s label, Moonrise Music.
In 1994 Cindy had begun gigging at the Hanapēpē Café. “I was working on a remote radio broadcast for KUAI at the Café one Sunday and had taken a break. I was standing outside when I looked down the street and saw 3 mysterious figures approaching. It was like a scene from ‘Shootout at the OK Corral’! As they came closer, I recognized my friend Wayne Jacintho. With him were George Winston and his engineer Howard Johnston. That’s how George, Howard, and I met.”
George soon had her in front of the microphone in what Cindy calls “the Stone Church Sessions”, inside the acoustically perfect Waimea Foreign Church in Waimea, Kaua’i. “I simply cannot say enough about George and the impact he has had on me and my playing. It all started at the Stone Church when I discovered that George truly understood where I was coming from as a player and he gave me the inspiration and validation to explore the music further than I had up to that point….a process that continues to this day.” The “Stone Church” sessions, coupled with others over the next six years, led to the release of SLACK KEY LADY, her first Dancing Cat album on September 11, 2001, nine years to the day following Hurricane ‘Iniki.
Today, Cindy continues her gig at the Hanapēpē Café, and she continues composing and arranging. Having toured in 2004 with Cyril Pahinui and Dennis Kamakahi, late 2007 will see her on the road again. Touring with Owana Salazar and Brittni Paiva, the three will be billed as ‘The Ladies of Slack Key’.
2007 also brings SUNNY RAIN, Cindy’s 2nd Dancing Cat release. It is a musical expression of the passage of a day, from when the rising sun lights up the falling rain, to the putting of the children to sleep with a lullaby. The album is a tribute to her unique style, showcasing her great arrangements of several Hawaiian classics and composers, as well as five of her original compositions. It is Cindy at her best: Rich, deep, nuanced and passionate. “A life lived well is a life filled with aloha,” she muses, “and Slack Key is an expression of that aloha. I sincerely hope my music reaches out to the listener and that it touches their heart as it has touched mine…bringing hope, healing, peace, and joy.”
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