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We Ride!

There’s a new band in town, one featuring some old, familiar faces. Henry Kapono, Brother Noland Conjugacion and John Cruz have branded themselves The Rough Riders after a famous paniolo trio, and these cowboys of music are ready to ride into their first Oahu concert this weekend

It’s high noon when three men step off of steel horses snorting carbon monoxide into the breeze and mosey into a coffee tavern in Kaimuki. Their hair is long and their skin weathered from years spent riding down highways in the sun, and yet their raspy, nasal voices are as clear and strong as ever.

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The Rough Riders Photo by Nathalie Walker

They’ve come to a roundup with this writer holding nothing but drinks in their hands — their six-string shooters left somewhere out on the range. But their minds are armed with tales to tell, particularly about their upcoming trek into the Great Wide Open.

“We’re heading west,” says the elder statesman of the group, his squinting eyes momentarily fixed on towns-folk outside rolling past the establishment like a tumble-weed caught in the wind.

“We ride!” growls another member of this band. “Alive — and wild!”

And with that The Rough Riders — made up of the familiar faces and voices of singer-songwriters Henry Kapono, Brother Noland Conjugacion and John Cruz — are off and running. They’re also firing warning shots in all directions of the music landscape just to let others know this will be no casual alliance of legendary local artists, no poorly tied knot of a supergroup. Despite their decades of experience in the music industry, churning out classic hits as individual artists or as members of other bands, these good ol’ boys have clearly not run out of steam — nor are the sunsets of their long and illustrious careers ready to be painted on canvas. Yes, siree, there still are happy trails ahead.

“Our music has to keep moving forward, otherwise, it just stays in one place,” explains Kapono, the admitted city slicker of this gang of rough-around-the-edges men, but one who also proudly carries his nickname, “The Wild Hawaiian,” on the vanity plate of his steel horse.

“We gotta be stalkers,” says Conjugacion, the spitting image of the white-haired, White Lotus priest Pai Mei of kung fu lore, and someone who’s as much known for his outdoor survival skills as he is for being The Big Daddy of Jawaiian music.

“Exactly,” adds Cruz, the lone wolf of this band of hard-charging characters, who prefers passing his days doing it island style — with a fishing pole in his hands whenever a guitar can’t be held and strummed. “You can fish with bait, throw it out, put the pole in the holder, sit down, drink beer and wait until the fish bite. Or, you can get out there and cast and cast.”

And since kicking up their spurs and letting good things come to them isn’t exactly what these go-get-’em Rough Riders are about, expect a whole lotta casting this summer. That’s when their debut album is scheduled for release. It’s also when the first leg of the band’s much-anticipated tour to the West Coast kicks off, and when the symbolic path of discovery they’re on — this Great Wide Open frontier that welcomes both their unique take on traditional Hawaiian mele as well as the type of contemporary island music with which they’ve made their fame and fortune — finally hits full stride.

“Individually, the three of us are not really known for playing traditional Hawaiian music,” explains Cruz. “So, it’s an honor to combine forces with these guys and bring our brand of Hawaiian music to the masses, while also redefining what Hawaiian music is here in the Islands.”

Kapono continues: “We do play some Hawaiian music in our own way. It’s not real traditional, it’s different, but the arrangements work for us. I think people will appreciate our ideas, our style of singing and how we play, as we search to find the right combination where this all comes together.”

Music fans on Oahu will get their first shot at seeing the band perform live Saturday, when it headlines the “Hawaii for Hawaii” concert, a benefit for the homeless and the social services agency Institute for Human Services, whose mission is to prevent and end homelessness in the Islands. The show begins at 5 p.m. on the Hilton Hawaiian Village’s Great Lawn.

Obviously, Saturday is more than just another gig for this band of rebels — it’s an opportunity for these proud Hawaiian men to show love for those who lack a basic necessity in life.

“We’re not doing this for any other purpose other than this is an issue,” adds Kapono. “We just want people to look at (homelessness) and not turn their heads away.”