The Music Men: The Ohana Pahinui

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The Music Men: The Ohana Pahinui

Like bulls in the musical china shop, the Pahinuis have, in turn, defined, thrilled and confounded the Hawaiian music scene with their raw talent, blue-collar approach, and legendary antics. Headed by patriarch Charles Phillip Kunia "Gabby" Pahinui, this family's knowledge and practice of music was fostered in classic "kanikapila" (freeform, backyard jam) environment. Gabby himself began his career as a self-taught guitarist sitting in with other bands in the rough environs of 1920s Kaka'ako. This was Hawaii music finding itself, fusing decades of backyard luau rifs and South Sea classics with the new Big Band sounds of Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey.

Able to master any stringed instrument, Gabby joined numerous other bands on the street and in bars, all the while learning to sing. His lovely falsetto voice could traverse to thick and raspy; indeed, after decades of hard living, his voice became ever more distinctive. His first paying gig was in 1933 in the Red Skelton Club. From there, he met Andy Cummmings and joined his Hawaiian Serenaders. Soon after, he perfected his skills on slack key guitar under the tutelage of the great Herman Keawe.

At age 16, Gabby married. He and his wife, Emily, began a family right away and eventually had 13 hungry mouths to feed, so times "stay tough." An occasional guitar had to be sold to put food on the table. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s Gabby stayed busy playing at bars, loungers, and luau. In 1946, he recorded his first song, "Hi'ilawe," about a sacred waterfall on the Big Island of Hawaii. It is thought to be the first Hawaiian recording featuring slack key guitar--certainly one of the most beautiful--and remains on Hawaiian radio play lists to this day. Many recordings followed.

Gabby's family revolved around music at their house in Waimanalo. In keeping with the societal norms of the Islands, this abode became a popular second home to many musicians and friends--the Pahinui ohana shared food, music, "plenty beer" and lots of love and company. To help make ends meet, Gabby took a job for the city working pick and shovel. He'd later drive a garbage truck during the day, but evenings and weekends would always belong to his family, friends and music.

Late in his life, fame found Gabby amidst the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s. His mastery of Hawaiian music made him the teacher of a new generation, a vessel of precious knowledge, and it was then he got a new nickname: "Pops." Pops was retained by the Department of Parks and Recreation to teach youngsters to play Hawaiian slack key. His album, "Gabby," was his re-introduction into a short limelight. His health, failing in part due to living a performer's life, and injuries from an old accident, led to his death in 1980 at the age of 59. This Hawaiian icon, this original voice, left a legacy.

Sons Martin, James and Cyril are just three of the ten children in whose hands, voices and hearts his gift echoes. The youngest Pahinui, Martin, is perhaps one of Hawaii's most skilled vocalists. He, who strummed his first ukulele at the tender age of three, has helped grow the Hawaiian music scene ever since. In the mid 1980s, he joined up with brother Cyril and the Peter Moon Band, and, as lead vocalist, belted out the smash hit "Cane Fire." Soon after came the long-awaited album of The Pahinui Brothers, which reunited Martin, Cyril and James, along with famed guitarist Ry Cooder. Still recording regularly, Martin also performs at a number of venues in Waikiki.

James "Bla" Pahinui took up ukulele at the age of ten, learning to play from watching his dad, who he'd later join on stage at the height of Hawaiian music's emergence, the 1970s. His outside influences were the Doo-Wop bands of the 1950s. His sinuous voice is more suited to ballads, but he has been known to break the rules with freestyle abandon on occasion.

It is Cyril who is the keeper of the kihoalu (slack key) music flame for the Pahinui ohana. He tours regularly, and has twice entertained patrons of Carnegie Hall with his brand of Hawaiian melody. A consummate teacher, he conducts workshops at the University of Hawaii, as well as the Bishop Museum. Awarded two Grammys and several Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, he exemplifies a modest demeanor while honoring those who taught him. "Daddy, [slack key heroes] Atta Isaacs, and Sonny Chillingworth were the greatest guitarists in my life, and I was so happy to learn from them. When I play music, I always think of my Dad, Atta and Sonny. I'm so thankful for what I learned from them in my younger days. When I play music or teach, I am just sharing with others what I learned from them."

Under his trademark hat, Cyril's presence is broad, with wide Hawaiian features and a calm demeanor. Much like his father, his voice varies from suprisingly gentle to raspy growl. In his version of "Hi`ilawe" Cyril claims at last to see what his father saw of the beautiful Waipio Valley and its people. Once can sense his father's energy, his mana, speaking through him, and even sense the old bull in the china shop beneath.


Cyril takes the stage every Wednesday from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at Kani Ka Pila Grille, located at the Outrigger Reef on the Beach in Waikiki, occasionally joined by other artists, including his brothers.

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