Soundtracking “The Descendants” With “Real” Hawaiian Music

Gabby Pahinui

Gabby Pahinui (center), playing music in his backyard with Leland “Atta” Isaacs, and his sons – Phillip, Cyril and Martin Pahinui (from left to right).  Photo courtesy of the Pahinui Ohana.

Soundtracking “The Descendants” With “Real” Hawaiian Music
Aired on NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday,” January 8, 2012
By Heidi Chang

As the Oscar race heats up, one contender has already won over fans in Hawaii, where the movie was filmed. And it’s not just for its story of a family grappling with death and infidelity. George Clooney stars in “The Descendants.” And its soundtrack is composed entirely of Hawaiian music.

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When Alexander Payne set out to make “The Descendants,” he decided to do something no other director had done before — score a Hollywood movie entirely with Hawaiian music. In the beginning, Payne didn’t know much about the music. Then, he discovered the legendary Gabby Pahinui.

Alexander Payne

Director Alexander Payne on location in Hawaii | Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

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“And when I started listening to Gabby, I just fell in love,” says Payne. “So much so, that I considered for awhile trying to score the whole film with his music. And I wound up not doing that because there are so many other Hawaiian artists to show and discover. But his remains the anchoring voice in the film.”

Gabby Pahinui - Backyard Kanikapila Waimanolo

Gabby Pahinui with family and friends in Waimanolo | Photo © Panini Records. Used with permission.


Pahinui is known as the “Father of Modern Slack Key Guitar.” In Hawaii, that style is called Ki`ho`alu, which means “loosen the key,” which refers to its open tunings.

Since Pahinui’s death in 1980, his music continues to resonate with listeners like Payne. “He had somehow, in his way of playing the guitar, in his arrangements — certainly in his voice — a way of hooking you in, really of seducing you, of seducing the listener with his unique seemingly carefree soulfulness,” says Payne.

Martin Pahinui

Martin Pahinui | Courtesy Dancing Cat Records


In the 1970s, Pahinui was at the forefront of the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance. Thousands turned out to watch him perform, backed by his four sons. Both Martin and Cyril Pahinui were overwhelmed to hear their father’s music open The Descendants.

“I was blown away,” Martin laughs. “I was so proud of him.”

Cyril Pahinui at Hi`ilawe

Cyril Pahinui at Hi`ilawe | Photo © Chelle Pahinui


“Just to hear the [opening] music track, I tell you, I cried,” says Cyril. “That was amazing — to hear the music that I helped my dad record.”

Steve Siegfried

Steve Siegfried – Panini Records | Photo © Heidi Chang


Among the six Gabby Pahinui songs featured in The Descendants, four were produced by Steve Siegfried of Panini Records. Siegfried says back in the 1970s, Pahinui was the most influential artist in Hawaii. And he’s glad Pahinui’s music will now reach an even wider audience, thanks to the movie.

“He represented a true Hawaiian lifestyle, and a Hawaiian that pursued a musical career,” says Siegfried. “Gabby never made a lot of money in his life. And he never did it for the money. He did it for the love of the music.”

And, Siegfried says, it’s music you don’t hear in Hollywood’s version of Hawaii. “I think this is a great thing for the artists that are on the soundtrack, to be able to get out to this bigger audience of people that are looking for something authentic. This is real authentic — the music, it doesn’t get more real than this.”

Keola Beamer

Keola Beamer | Photo © Guy Sibilla


Slack key guitarist Keola Beamer is also featured prominently in the soundtrack. But at first, Beamer says he was hesitant to contribute to the project.

“Hawaii has really been poorly portrayed in the past,” he says. “It’s been portrayed very stereotypically — a lot of surface stuff. You know, sunlight and pretty girls in bikinis. And kind of comedy-lite kind of stuff. I think this is one of best movies to come out of Hawaii, if not the best. I felt proud, as a Hawaiian human being, and that’s a nice feeling, and that doesn’t happen often with Hawaiians in Hollywood,” he laughs.

Beamer and another slack key guitarist, Jeff Peterson, were the only artists director Alexander Payne asked to record specifically for the soundtrack.

Jeff Peterson

Photo courtesy Jeff Peterson


“At first I was a little nervous,” says Peterson. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, I have to go to the studio, and write two pieces on the spot. How’s this gonna go?’ As soon as I got there, he [Payne] had the warmest most positive outlook. And his support was incredible. But what really moved me was how much he cared about the music. He knew the music. He had really spent time getting it deep into his soul. And so when he explained to me what he wanted, I knew exactly how to express it. I found a tuning that would work, and I just played from the heart.”


Keola Beamer, Alexande Payne, Dondi Bastone

When Keola Beamer was in the recording studio with Alexander Payne (center) and music supervisor Dondi Bastone, Payne gave Beamer a gift, a rare 1913 recording by his great grandmother, Helen Desha Beamer.


The soundtrack showcases a wide variety of Hawaii artists, from the ’30s to today. But because it’s not a full, new score composed for the film, it’s not eligible for an Oscar.

“The Descendants” music supervisor, Dondi Bastone, says he and Payne plan to submit the CD next year for a Grammy — for best soundtrack compilation.

“You know, we had fantasized early on that this film would perhaps do for Hawaiian music what ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou’ did for bluegrass,” Bastone says. “And it’s really gratifying that it’s – the music is resonating in that way now.”

The Descendants Soundtrack

The Descendants Soundtrack | Courtesy Fox Searchlight


That’s good news, especially considering that this year, the Grammys eliminated the stand-alone Hawaiian music category.


Winner of the Asian American Journalists Association 2013 National Award (Watch video)

“The judges felt the piece was beautifully woven with interviews from the movie director, musicians, and the use of music from the film. It was informative as well as entertaining and was a great example of careful editing when it comes to the use of sound bites combined with and music.”

Winner of the 2012 Excellence In Journalism Award for General News/Enterprise Reporting in Radio from the Society of Professional Journalists Hawaii Chapter.

Many thanks to everyone who helped in my research, including Jay Junker, and musicians, Dennis Kamakahi and Makana, who are also featured on The Descendants soundtrack.

Bla Pahinui (NPR Profile)
Keola Beamer – Tales from the Dream Guitar (NPR Profile)
What’s the story behind the music in the movie The Descendants? (Blog post)

6 Responses to “Soundtracking “The Descendants” With “Real” Hawaiian Music”



  2. Heidi I was so moved by this movie which I only recently have seen. When the music came on, I was in tears. And now the greatest part is to hear your report!!! You are the best! Thanks Heidi.

  3. Marco says:

    Great job aloha to the Pahinui Family and Keola Beamer, I know Pop,s smiling from heaven

  4. Liko Puha says:

    Heidi, mahalo nui for such an excellent presentation. The pictures, the music, the sound bytes from the musicians. Beautifully done. It flowed, just like a beautiful Hawaiian mele.

    Me ka ʻoiaʻiʻo,

    –Liko Puha

  5. Frank Parrino says:

    Heidi, Can you stand one more MAHALO from Moloka’i? Listened to your piece for the ‘umpteenth’ time this morning and marvel at how well done it is.
    Frank and Cathy

  6. Margo Melnicove says:

    Aloha, Heidi. This is the first chance I’ve had to listen to your story. It makes me want to add some CDs to my collection of Hawaiian music and see the movie. Just beautiful, and I learned a lot about my favorite music and place.

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