Remembering A Legendary Hawaiian Musician

Gabby Pahninui with family and friends | Courtesy Panini Records

Gabby Pahinui playing music in his backyard with his sons and friends. Bla Pahinui, Gabby Pahinui, Leland “Atta” Isaacs, Phillip, Cyril and Martin Pahinui, and “Joe Gang” Kupahu. Photo © Panini Records. Used with permission.

Remembering A Legendary Hawaiian Musician
Heard on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” January 1, 2018
By Heidi Chang

Gabby Pahinui is a legend in Hawaiian music and is 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 of the 1970s that began with the music, and helped revive interest in Hawaiian dance, language and other traditions.  Since Gabby died in 1980, three of his sons have been carrying on his musical legacy.  But one of them, Martin Pahinui, passed away last year, and now it’s up to the next generation to carry on the tradition.

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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.

Gabby's grandchildren play Hi'ilawe at the dedication of his statue. Gabby Pahinui, Kunia Galdeira, Anita Nakamura and Kale Pahinui

Gabby’s grandchildren play Hi’ilawe at the dedication of his statue. Gabby Pahinui, Kunia Galdeira, Anita Nakamura and Kale Pahinui. | Photo © Heidi 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.

“He’s sort of like the Louis Armstrong of Hawaiian music you might say. He just had that – he was right on top of the whole sound pyramid here,” said world-reknowned guitarist Ry Cooder, in a 1979 KHON TV special.  He ended up recording two albums with “The Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band” and helped it reach an international audience. “Certainly the greatest guitar player 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.”

The Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band

The Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band – Panini Records. Used with permission.


“Even today, when you listen to his music, it seems fresh. How do you do that?  That’s genius…” says Keola Beamer, who’s 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. “We all looked up to him. You know, ‘cause he was “Pops,” he was the man. He had the stuff,” says Beamer. ” 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.”

Gabby Pahinui | Courtesy Cyril Pahinui


Gabby Pahinui passed on his unique style of playing guitar and his tunings to his sons, but he didn’t teach them. “They can watch us. That doesn’t mean we teach them. Any time of the day, any time of the night, any place–would be in the kitchen, down the beach. That doesn’t mean they gonna learn. But they can watch and they’ll pick it up from there,” he said in a 1979 interview recorded for his label, Panini Records.

The Pahinui Brothers, Martin, Bla and Cyril Pahinui. 1992© Panini Records. Used with permission.


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

“The rhythm, the rhythm is so important to my Dad, without the rhythm, there’s nothing,” according to Bla. “So that’s why with my left hand and my Dad’s right hand’s rhythms, I’m going one way, he’s going the other way. And that’s what makes the “Pahinui” sound.”

Bla Pahinui is now in his 70s.  His brother Cyril is in his 60’s and has tried to keep his father’s legacy alive by teaching younger musicians. “My father did pave the road in music, so anything he did help out a lot of musicians today,” says Cyril Pahinui.

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. “Because it comes out like magic. But if you’re reading from a book, it’s going to come out like the book,” he laughed. “But if you do it from here (points to his heart), then whatever’s in here… you know the song, it will come out from here. And that’s what I’ll always remember.”

Now Martin is being remembered for his contributions to Hawaiian music.  He died in May at the age of 65.  And now it’s up to the next generation.

“It’s going to be hard to find the same sound, my grandfather, as well as my uncles,” say 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. “The responsibility is to teach them to be humble, to have an open mind about music.  And most importantly, is to continue to perpetuate the culture that comes along with that, the music,” says Galdeira.

“And that’s a part of our identity as Hawaiians,” says Keola Beamer.  “So in a sense, by keeping our traditions alive, we’re really preserving the heritage of our own families.”

A heritage that with any luck and a little practice will continue, even though the islands and their musical landscape are changing.

Winner of a First Place 2018 Excellence in Journalism Award for Radio Feature Reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists Hawaii Chapter. 

Judge’s Comment: “This was a lovely story about a beloved musician, and the struggle to preserve his legacy. Beautiful music and strong interviews made this story a pleasure to listen to.”

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