By José Villa
Hawaii Hispanic News
HONOLULU, Hawaii — For 22 years – and in a variety of roles — Ray Cruz has been at the forefront of the Latin music
scene in Hawaii. He: was a percussionist with various local bands; operated a business selling Latin cassettes, CDs,
videos, t-shirts, flags and other Latin-themed accessories; and hosted Sabor Tropical, the premier Salsa music radio show in the islands the entire time.
But who is Ray Cruz and how did he get to Hawaii? He said: “I was born in Brooklyn, near the Williamsburg Bridge. It was predominately a Jewish neighborhood, so – unlike many Puerto Ricans at the time that lived in Puerto Rican neighborhoods – I lived in a very diverse community. Then when I was about eight we moved out to Queens near Shea Stadium.”
He went on: “I was fortunate that my parents enrolled me in a military boarding school in Harriman, New York. The coolest thing was that I learned discipline and staying focus. And that was my first experience with music. I played
the trombone. I learned to read and write music and belonged to the marching band, jazz band, glee club and orchestra. We performed in the Macy’s Parade, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and even the World’s Fair.”
He continued: “That’s where I developed a love for music. When my parents asked me what I wanted to be, I told them about my music dream. But like other Puerto Rican parents that had lived through World War II and were new to the mainland, they wanted doctors, lawyers, etc. They were focused on security. They knew there was no money in the music business, so I was not encouraged at home.
“Today’s generation thinks differently and is more likely to pursue their passion, but it was different time, a different world. But the music passion had already been planted.”
He added: “When I was about 15, my parents decided to move back to Puerto Rico. New York is a city of prejudices. Being a Puerto Rican, I was oftentimes referred to as a ‘Spic.’ Ironically, when I moved to Puerto Rico, the locals called me “Yanqui” or “NuYoRican,” which meant I wasn’t a ‘full-blooded’ Puerto Rican because I was born in New York. So that was an adjustment as well. What made the transition easier was that I spoke, read and could write Spanish. So I didn’t have it quite as hard as other returning NuYoRicans.”
He said: “In 1970 I joined the Air Force and served four years. While in the service, I played with several bands. After I got out, in 1975, I attended the University of New Mexico and kept playing in local bands in the New Mexico area. I was playing in what they called the ‘Burrito Circuit’. It was the quad-state area of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Texas.”
How did he start DJing a radio program? He said: “My radio DJing career started totally by accident. When I was a student at the UNM someone said ‘I heard you play Salsa. Why don’t you start a Salsa music radio show?’ That idea had never occurred to me, but I applied and was granted my own show. So in 1975 I actually wound up having the first two FM Salsa radio programs for UNM and the University of Albuquerque.”
He continued: “I then had a meeting with guy in New York City and we were meeting at the Cheetah Club. While there, I heard Ray Barreto play and I was hooked on Salsa! I had mentioned to someone that I was a radio DJ. They suggested I go to Fania Studios for music. I walked into Fania Records and told the receptionist I was a DJ from New Mexico. The next thing I knew, I was invited in to meet with the Masucci brothers.”
He went on: “Andy and Jerry Masucci were very cordial with me. After talking story for a while, Jerry pressed his intercom and told the receptionist ‘give this kid anything he wants.’ I walked out with a treasure trove of brand-new LP albums. All because I had the courage to ask the biggest team in the business for their help. I went back to the radio station with all that great music just as the disco craze kicked in. It so similar to Salsa, that I was right in the middle of that new wave. Then in 1979, I was hired by United Airlines as a flight attendant.”
In 1990, he started his radio show host career in Hawaii on KTUH, the University of Hawaii station with his Sabor Tropical show, which focused on the Latin genres of Salsa, Merengues and Latin Jazz. Then in 1991, as a volunteer,
he began his long career at Hawaii Public Radio as the host of the Sabor Tropical Latin music show playing Salsa,
classic Salsa, Afro-Cuban Latin Jazz. He also did interviews and community calendars.
From 1991 to the present day, he has entertained as a house DJ at various popular venues, including the: Pearl Harbor Palms; Pearl Harbor Banyan’s; Reni’s; Blue Zebra; Black Orchid; Café Sistina; and Rumours Night Club in the Ala Moana Hotel.
Since 1990, he has also served as MC for various Latin concerts here, including: Tito Puente; Celia Cruz; Eddie Palmieri; Fania Legends; Marc Anthony; and, most recently, the Afro Cuban All Stars. He has also MC’ed various Hispanic festivals and events, including the: Hispanic Heritage Festivals in Kapiolani Park; 1998 Miss Universe
Pageant; Annual Salsathon at McCoy Pavilion.
On the mainstream community side, he is the first Latino in Hawaii to anchor National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” He was the host of the “Foreword” morning show on Hawaii Public Radio. He often leads community outreach classes which provide middle and high school students – as well as adult community members — insights to the radio industry.
Through it all, his commitment to excellence and perfecting his crafts has never wavered. His insistence on providing Hawaii’s Latin music fans the best in both classic and contemporary Latin music has never lost its tenacity. And the dedication he has felt to continue perpetuating the diversity, beauty and passion of our Latin music genres has never lost its drive.
Fifty-two weeks every year – for 22 years – in good times and in bad, the “voice” of Latin music in Hawaii – and now the “voice” of Hawaii Public Radio — has been something our community could count on.
What will Cruz do now?
His son Antonio will be a senior at Punahou this fall. Cruz wants to spend quality family time with him this last
year, before he leaves for a mainland college. After that, he wants to spend a lot more quality time with his beautiful wife Pat.
Cruz has set the Latin music bar in Hawaii very high and it may be years before that mark is ever reached again.