Born Charles Philip Pahinui on April 22, 1921, in Honolulu, HI; died on October 13, 1980, in Hawaii; adopted by Philip and Emily Pahinui; married Emily, 1938; children: thirteen.
Hawaiian guitar player Gabby Pahinui is considered to be one of the most influential slack key guitar players in the world, and his artistry and creative playing techniques kept the slack key style alive during a period when it was waning. The artist also expanded slack key guitar playing from a mere accompaniment to vocals to a solo technique that could be used to interpret Hawaiian traditional and modern songs, as well as original work and songs from other cultures. Pahinui influenced generations of slack key players throughout the twentieth century, and his music was a key part of the "Hawaiian Renaissance," a resurgence of interest in traditional Hawaiian culture during the 1970s.
Slack key guitar, a method of playing unique to Hawaii, is known for its open, fingerpicked style, and for the lingering notes that sound behind the melody, giving the music an airy, soulful feeling. In slack key playing, some strings are loosened, or slacked, to create a variety of tunings, many with names such as "Taro Patch," "Wahine," or "Mauna Loa." Bass and rhythm chords are played with the thumb on lower strings, and melodies are played on the upper strings. The melodies often include chiming and sliding sounds that mimic the vocals in traditional Hawaiian music. Many slack key songs are inspired by the traditional Hawaiian reverence for the natural beauty of Hawaii's forests, volcanic mountains, oceans, birds, and animals.
The guitar was not traditionally part of Hawaiian culture, but was brought to Hawaii by European sailors at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and again around 1832, when Mexican and Spanish cowboys were brought to the islands by King Kamehameha III to teach the islanders how to handle cattle. Hawaiians, who had their own strong musical traditions, took the new instrument and incorporated it into their own chants, songs, and rhythms. The instrument soon became an integral part of Hawaiian musical culture, usually as a backup to vocals.
Pahinui was born on April 22, 1921, in Honolulu, Hawaii. His family was large and very poor, so when he was very young, his father allowed Pahinui, his brother, and one of his sisters to be adopted by Philip and Emily Pahinui, who lived in the downtown Honolulu district of Kaka'ako. The Pahinuis were also poor, and as a boy Pahinui worked by shining shoes and selling newspapers in order to help support the family. Because he had to work, he dropped out of school after completing the fifth grade.
Pahiniu began playing the bass at age ten, but soon shifted to the guitar. He never learned to read music, and played purely by ear and from memory. As a writer noted on the website for the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame and Museum, "Because feeling was such an overwhelming quality to his music, his impressive skills seemed natural, rather than earned. What was inborn--his perfect sense of pitch and tempo and the truly Hawaiian quality of his singing voice--tended to be taken for granted." Although Pahinui was initially influenced by jazz, he filled his music with traditionally Hawaiian feeling and style.
In the 1930s Pahinui began playing backup guitar for musician Charley "Tiny" Brown. During this period he learned to play the steel guitar, and because the band only played in bars, he also began drinking; problems with alcohol would plague him for the rest of his life.
Pahinui learned to play slack key guitar from a man known only as "Herman"; this man may have been Herman Kane, the father of slack key guitar player Ray Kane. In 1938, when he was 17, Gabby met and married his wife, Emily, and the couple had 13 children.
Pahinui began the modern era of slack key guitar in 1947, when he recorded a 78-rpm disc of slack key songs for Aloha Records. The record proved to be influential, and aroused interest in the traditional sound. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Pahinui recorded several 78 rpms with Bell Records, most notably Hi'ilawe, Key Khoalu, Hula Medley, and Wai O Keaniani. These records inspired other players, who were amazed by the skill of Pahinui's playing.
Over time, Pahinui's reputation as a skilled musician grew, and he was invited to play with all of the well-known musicians of the time, including Andy Cummings, Lena Machado, Alvin Isaacs, Barney Isaacs, Ray Kinney, and George Kainapau. He played throughout the Hawaiian islands, as well as on the mainland United States.
During the 1950s Pahinui made three recordings for the Waikiki label: Hawaiian Slack Key, Volume 1, Hawaiian Slack Key, Volume 2, and The Best of Hawaiian Slack Key. Also in the 1950s, Pahinui and his family moved to a new home in Waimanalo, where they hosted a continuous flow of musicians who came to play with Pahinui. To support his family, Pahinui worked on the Honolulu City and County road crew, doing pick and shovel work until an accident forced him to retire.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Pahinui played on the radio show Hawaii Calls. He was also an original member of Eddie Kamae's band Sons of Hawaii, and as part of that band he influenced a whole generation of musicians to play Hawaiian music.
The 1970s were marked by the "Hawaiian Renaissance," a revived interest on the part of younger Hawaiians in their heritage and culture. As a result, Pahinui's music received renewed attention, and he recorded four albums with Panini Records, Brown Gabby, Rabbit Island Music Festival, Gabby Pahinui, and Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band Volume 2. Pahinui played with the Gabby Pahinui Band, which featured slack key players Leland "Atta" Isaacs Sr. and Sonny Chillingworth, as well as Pahinui's sons Cyril and Bla Pahinui. On the recordings, each player often played in a different C tuning, layering their sounds to provide a rich musical texture.
In the late 1970s Pahinui's health began to fail, partly because of his lifelong habit of heavy drinking, and also due to the longstanding disability resulting from his work accident. Pahinui died of a heart attack on October 13, 1980, at the age of 59. His sons, Cyril and Bla Pahinui, have continued playing slack key guitar, keeping the tradition alive.
Slack key guitarist Keola Beamer wrote on his website, "In the old days, there was an almost mystical reverence for those who understood [slack key guitar], and the ability to play it was regarded as a special gift.... Tunings were often closely guarded family secrets." He noted that now, however, guitarists have begun to teach their tunings and techniques outside the family circle, thus "helping to ensure that traditional slack key guitar will endure and be shared."
The Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame website called Pahinui "an important force in contemporary Hawaiian instrumental music. His legacy is not only the consummate skill of his playing, but also the special spirit evident in his musical performance."
by Kelly Winters
Gabby Pahinui's Career
Began playing guitar with Charley "Tiny" Brown, 1930s; began recording a series of influential 78-rpm records with Aloha Records, 1947; recorded several albums with Waikiki Records, 1950s; worked on Honolulu road crew, 1950s; played on the radio show Hawaii Calls and was an original member of Eddie Kamae's band Sons of Hawaii, 1950s-60s; received renewed attention during Hawaiian cultural renaissance, 1970s; recorded several albums with Panini Records, 1970s.
Gabby Pahinui's Awards
Inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame, 2002.
- Selected discography
- Best of Hawaiian Slack Key Waikiki, 1960.
- Music of Old Hawaii Hula, 1962.
- Gabby Pahinui With the Sons of Hawaii Hula, 1962.
- Gabby (aka Brown Gabby ), Panini, 1972.
- Rabbit Island Music Festival Panini, 1973.
- The Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band, Volume 1 Panini, 1975.
- The Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band, Volume 2 Panini, 1977.
- Pure Gabby: I Just Play the Way I Feel Hula, 1978.
- Best of the Gabby Band (1972-1977) Panini, 1980.
- King of Slack Key (The Best of Gabby Pahinui, Volume 1) Hula, 1981; reissued, 1996.
- The Best of Gabby, Volume 2 Hula, 1989.
- Hawaiian Slack Key, Volume 2 Waikiki, 1995.
- Best of Hawaiian Slack Key Waikiki, 1996.
- Two Slack Key Guitars--A-Livin'-On-A-Easy Tradewinds, 1996.
- Austin American Statesman (Austin, TX), September 4, 1997.
- News Journal (Wilmington, DE), February 7, 1999.
- "A Brief History of Slack Key Guitar," Keola Beamer, http://www.kbeamer.com/sk_history.html (December 10, 2003).
- "Gabby (Charles Philip) Pahinui," Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame and Museum, http://www.hawaiimusicmuseum.org/honorees/gabby.html (December 9, 2003).