Remembering A Legendary Hawaiian Musician

Jan 1, 2018
Originally published on January 2, 2018 2:48 pm

The great Hawaiian guitarist, singer and patriarch Gabby Pahinui died in 1980 but his influence is still felt. His music was featured in the George Clooney movie The Descendants and his sons have been carrying on the tradition. But Martin Pahinui just died and his brothers Cyril and Bla are getting old.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Gabby Pahinui was a legend of Hawaiian music. He was known as the father of modern slack-key guitar, a style of playing unique to the islands. He was a driving force behind the Hawaiian cultural renaissance in the 1970s. After his death his sons kept the tradition alive, but Gabby's youngest son, Martin, died last year in May. Now the responsibility falls to Gabby's grandchildren. Heidi Chang reports.

HEIDI CHANG, BYLINE: A bronze statue now stands in Waikiki to honor Gabby Pahinui. To celebrate its unveiling this spring, his grandchildren performed his signature tune, "Hi'ilawe."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Hawaiian).

CHANG: Their grandfather recorded the song in 1947, the first time slack-key, which refers to the guitar's open tunings, had been featured on disc.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HI'ILAWE")

GABBY PAHINUI: (Singing in Hawaiian).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RY COODER: He's sort of like the Louis Armstrong of Hawaiian music, you might say. He was right up on top of the whole sound pyramid here.

CHANG: That's world-renowned guitarist Ry Cooder from a 1979 KHON TV special. He ended up recording two albums with The Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band and helped it reach an international audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COODER: He's certainly the greatest guitar I've ever met in my life. Just hanging around with the guy I learned more about music and guitar in general than from anybody else I've ever met.

(SOUNDBITE OF GABBY PAHINUI SONG, "PU'UANAHULU")

KEOLA BEAMER: Even today when you listen to his music it seems fresh. How do you do that? That's genius.

CHANG: Keola Beamer is an acclaimed guitarist himself and comes from one of Hawaii's most respected musical families. He and his brother, Kapono, were also at the forefront of the Hawaiian cultural renaissance. But he says Gabby Pahinui led the way.

BEAMER: We all looked up to him, you know, 'cause he was Pops. I mean, he was the man. He had the stuff (laughter). And I really regarded him as a cultural folk hero because he had the courage to be authentically who he was in the world, and an incredible musician on top of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KA MAKANI KA'ILI ALOHA")

G. PAHINUI: (Singing in Hawaiian).

CHANG: Gabby Pahinui passed on his unique style of playing and his tunings to his sons. But he didn't teach them, as he said in a 1979 interview recorded for his label, Panini Records.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

G. PAHINUI: They've got to teach themselves. Like, how my sons learned and I how learned - they can watch us. That doesn't mean we'll teach them. Any time of the day, any time of the night, any place - we'd be in the kitchen, down the beach. That doesn't mean they're going to learn. But they can watch, and they'll pick it up from there.

CHANG: Gabby recorded his first album with his sons, Bla, Cyril and Martin, in 1972.

BLA PAHINUI: The rhythm. The rhythm is so important to my dad. Without the rhythm there's nothing.

CHANG: That's Bla.

B. PAHINUI: So that's why with my left hand and my dad's right hand rhythms, I'm going one way, he's going the other way. That's what makes the Pahinui sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAHI")

G. PAHINUI: (Singing in Hawaiian).

CHANG: Bla Pahinui is now in his 70s. His brother, Cyril, is in his 60s, and has tried to keep his father's legacy alive by teaching younger musicians.

CYRIL PAHINUI: My father did pave the road in music, so anything he did help out a lot of musicians today.

CHANG: For years, Gabby's youngest son, Martin Pahinui, also backed up his father on guitar, bass and vocals. In 2011, he told me that his father always said, play from the heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MARTIN PAHINUI: And that's what he told me - when you do things, enjoy yourself because it comes out like magic. But if you're reading from a book it's going to come out like the book (laughter). But if you do it from here, then whatever is in here, it'll come out from here.

CHANG: Martin Pahinui is also being remembered for his contributions to Hawaiian music. He died in May at the age of 65. Now it's up to the next generation.

KUNIA GALDEIRA: I know where I come from. It's going to be hard to find the same sound. My grandfather, as well as my uncles, they're all unique in their own way.

CHANG: That's Gabby Pahinui's grandson, Kunia Galdeira, who performs on the big island of Hawaii. He's also keeping his family's heritage alive by passing its traditions on to his own children.

GALDEIRA: The responsibility is to teach them to be humble, to have an open mind about music, and most importantly just continue to perpetuate the culture that comes around with that, the music.

BEAMER: That's a part of our identity as Hawaiians.

CHANG: Again, Keola Beamer.

BEAMER: So in a sense, by keeping our traditions alive we're really preserving the heritage of our own families.

CHANG: A heritage that, with any luck and a little practice, will continue even though the islands and their musical landscape are changing. For NPR News, I'm Heidi Chang in Honolulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF GABBY PAHINUI'S "HOW D'YA DO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.