Bla Pahinui

Bla Pahinui

Bla Pahinui | Photo © Courtesy Mountain Apple Co.

Bla Pahinui
Aired on NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday,” November 2, 1997
By Heidi Chang

Hawaii is home to a legendary musical family — the Pahinui’s. Gabby Pahinui is called the “Father of Modern Slack Key Guitar.” Since his death in 1980, three of his sons have been carrying on his musical legacy. One of them, Bla, has released his mainland solo debut, a CD called “Mana.”

Listen to the Story (9:05)


Gabby Pahinui was already a cult figure in Hawaiian music in the 1950’s, yet he could barely pay the bills to support his wife and ten children. So he worked a day job on the City and County road crew, and at night he played music.


Courtesy of Panini Records Inc. Used by permission.


Gabby’s second oldest son is James Daniel Pahinui, known by his nickname, Bla.

“We grew up around hard times. My mom had to work, my dad, he’s hardly home. We don’t see my dad for a couple of weeks. But when we do, it’s like Christmas, you know. That’s when we eat, good–like chop suey and hot dogs,” recalls Bla Pahinui. “There were a couple times when we had signs on the front door, like lack of payment of rent. But we never got kicked out, my father always came through”.

In spite of the hard times, Bla decided he wanted to be a musician, too. He formed a rock band. Then he explored a fusion of Hawaiian music with pop and folk in the groundbreaking group The Sunday Manoa.

The Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band

Courtesy of Panini Records Inc. Used by permission.


Eventually, Bla joined his father and brothers in the Gabby Band. It was the most influential group in the 1970’s movement to revive interest in island roots that came to be called the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance.

The Gabby Band took the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance to the mainland with a song it recorded with Ry Cooder called Moonlight Lady, featuring Bla singing in English.

The Pahinui Bros

Courtesy of Panini Records Inc. Used by permission.


Despite the important role the Gabby Band played in reawakening interest in traditional Hawaiian culture, Gabby Pahinui was not a strict traditionalist. He liked jazz, and the Beatles.

“My father knew that his sons love all kinds of music just like him,” says Bla. “Like my brother Cyril, now he’s Mr. Slack Key. My brother Martin, is the 60’s. Okay. Like you know Jimmy Hendrix and all that good stuff. But the thing that really hit me, was the oldies but goodies, back then, the 50’s, all those love songs. Like the Shirelles, Elvis, and all that good stuff, The Del Vikings.

Dennis Kamakahi

Dennis Kamakahi | Photo © Dancing Cat Records


Bla’s distinctive voice and blending of styles grab listeners, says composer and musician, Dennis Kamakahi, who’s performed with both father and son.

“Well, Gabby’s the innovator between the old style and today’s generation. He brought the old style of playing–the sweet slack key sounds to us so that we can really play it,” says Kamakahi. “Bla took it one step forward. Bla took it into the modern generation, which is the mixture of rock, folk, and he has his own style, he has his own place in the Pahinui tradition.”

One of Bla Pahinui’s signature tunes is “Waimanolo Blues,” a lament about an old way of life being lost to development. He often sings it in his live performances.


Courtesy Dancing Cat Records. Used by permission


In his concerts and on records, Bla sings in both English and Hawaiian. He blends the traditional slack key he learned from his dad with the rhythm and blues he heard on the radio. He says the music he creates today is a tribute to his father.

“My father was something special, which I didn’t see. I couldn’t feel, I couldn’t see it. I was a real rebel back then, really wild. So from the time he passed away till today, you know, it hurts me. But I remember what he told me. So I’m carrying all the teachings and the learning of my father, of respecting myself besides others, and it helps me a lot in my music today.”

But like his father, Bla Pahinui has to work a day job to pay the bills. He’s a groundskeeper for the City and County of Honolulu. His CD is called “Mana” which means spirit or soul.”

Bla Pahinui won a  Society of Professional Journalists Hawaii Chapter First Place Excellence In Journalism Award for Radio Feature Reporting in 1997. 

Related Topics

Soundtracking “The Descendants” With “Real” Hawaiian Music
Bla Pahinui website
Dancing Cat Records

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