Cyril Pahinui, the son of musical legend, Gabby Pahinui, is, in his own right, one of Hawai‘i’s most gifted guitarists and singers. Cyril has twice played at Carnegie Hall, has contributed to three Grammy Award-winning albums, received several Hoku Hanohano Awards, and recorded on more than 35 Hawaiian musical releases. As a slack key guitarist, Cyril’s technical virtuosity, rhythmic adaptations, and instrumental harmonics impart the soul of Hawaiian music, and his beautiful, emotive, and well-recognized voice renders an intimate picture of his Pacific island home.
I was born on April 21, 1950, and grew up in Waimanalo at the foot of the Ko‘olau Mountains on the windward side of Oahu. I started playing music from the time I could hold an ukulele, began learning slack key at age seven, and performed on stage for the first time when I was 12. I grew up with four sisters and five brothers, and we all learned music in the traditional way, by listening and watching my dad and other musicians.
In those days, we didn’t get music lessons, and most of the musicians I knew didn’t read music. Most of the techniques were considered to be secret and were not shared outside the family or music community. We really had to work hard to learn. My dad would slack all of his strings and hide his guitar in the closet at night because he knew we would sneak in to try and figure out his tunings once he was asleep. He could always tell when someone had been in his guitar case. That was the style in the old days; if you really wanted to learn, you had to listen. Once I began to learn, I would get up at 4:00 in the morning and make my dad breakfast so that he would spend time with me before leaving for his job—just me, one-on-one with my dad. When he had shared something new, he would expect me to practice, and the next time I played, I could tell he was listening to see if I had mastered it. Then he would share something else.
Our home in Waimanalo attracted many well-known musicians, including slack key masters Leland “Atta” Isaacs, Sonny Chillingworth, and Ray Kane, along with David “Feet” Rogers, Joe Marshall, Aunty Genoa Keawe, and Eddie Kamae. Weekends at the Pahinui home were a continuous jam session, as we hosted dozens of musicians, both young and old, who came by to jam with “the Master.” With a welcoming pot of beef stew and rice always on the stove, our home became the perfect setting for a rejuvenation of Hawai‘i’s musical traditions. As my dad’s fame grew, attendance at the weekend jam sessions mushroomed—sometimes hosting a hundred or more musicians and fans. The jam sessions would begin early on Friday morning and continue straight through to Monday morning.
My dad and his many musician friends always encouraged me and my brothers to participate and to add something to the music. When I was 15, my dad invited me to join his group, The Gabby Band. One day he just asked me, “Son, would you like to earn a little money?” For me that was like receiving a Grammy—just to know that he recognized my commitment and considered me to be on his level. I also think that was the day that I knew I would continue my music. After that, my dad would ask me every morning, “Son, are all the instruments tuned?” Tuning the instruments became my responsibility and my next level of training. Because my dad had a perfect ear, he could be somewhat impatient, so I had to train myself to be more precise. Now, I am so grateful for his strict discipline. My training taught me to tune and play by ear, and that is what I still do, even today.
Music was my dad’s life, and in many ways he was ahead of his time. He loved classical music, and liked jazz and Mexican music. As his children grew to share his love of music, he always told us, “Play whatever you feel, whatever makes you happy, but always respect Hawaiian music and keep it in your heart.”
I shared my generation’s passion for rock-and-roll, from Fats Domino and Little Richard to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but that was never a roadblock to playing slack key. My father loved the Beatles, too; his favorite Beatles song was Hey Jude. In fact, sometimes my dad would ask me to play familiar Beatles and Stones riffs as introductions to traditional Hawaiian songs. Most people probably don’t realize it, but some of these intros and my arrangements are the distinguishing parts of my dad’s renditions.
I continued to play with my dad throughout my teens, and during this same time, my older brother Bla and I started a rock band, called The Characters. I joined a rock group called Sam and the Samlins. In 1968, I made my first album with the Sunday Manoa, and after returning from two years’ service in Vietnam, I rejoined my dad, brothers, Sonny Chillingworth, Atta Isaacs, and others in the Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band. I arranged songs and played a variety of instruments on all five of my dad’s albums on the Panini Label. During this same period, I worked with Palani Vaughan, on his Ia ‘Oe E Ka La albums, which chronicled the music and times of King David Kalākaua.
In 1975, I formed my own group, The Sandwich Isle Band. From there, I went to The Peter Moon Band, which also included my brother Martin. With The Peter Moon Band, I played and sang on four albums, including Cane Fire, which received seven Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards in 1983, including Album of the Year, Group of the Year, and Song of the Year. Throughout the 1980s, I also played with steel guitarist Greg Sardinha, my brother Bla, and others, and continued to expand my musical horizons.”
In 1988, I recorded Cyril Pahinui, an album of traditional and contemporary songs, which won the Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards for Best Contemporary Hawaiian Album and Best Male Vocalist. In 1992, at the urging of my mother, and accompanied by session heavyweights Ry Cooder, David Lindley, and Jim Keltner, I joined my brothers Martin and Bla for the Pahinui Brothers album. Recorded on Maui, this album included two traditional songs associated with my father, Henehene Ko Aka and Panini Pua Kea, and a cover of John Lennon’s classic, Jealous Guy.
In 1990, I began recording for Dancing Cat Records. My first Dancing Cat release, 6 & 12 String Slack Key Guitar, won a Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award for Instrumental Album of the Year in 1994. I then recorded Night Moon—Po Mahina in 1998, which featured a version of Hi‘ilawe. In 1999, I recorded a third Dancing Cat release, a duet album with Bob Brozman, Four Hands Sweet & Hot, which won the Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award for Instrumental Album of the Year in 2000. Brozman has so much energy; he doesn’t hold back anything when he plays. When we were recording this album, he kept getting cramps in his fingers because we were playing so fast. I remember George Winston of Dancing Cat Records laughing, because he had never seen Bob Brozman get cramps before.
In 1993, I participated in a slack key/country and western crossover when I played on a Randy Travis release, Wind in the Wire. Beginning that same year, and for seven years running, I also participated in the annual Chet Atkins Appreciation Society guitar convention in Nashville. My dad had been good-friends with Atkins, and they were planning to do an album together. When my dad passed away, Chet recorded the song Pu‘uanahulu in memory of my dad. When Chet found out that I was Gabby’s son, he invited me to attend his convention. As we were getting ready to play, Chet would say, “Cyril, what tuning are you in?” and I’d say, “Chet, this is an open C.” His eyes would open wide, and he would say, “What is that?” Not being a slack key player, he had never heard of that tuning.
Over the years I have also had the opportunity to record with the Makaha Sons, Teressa Bright, Fiji, Frank Hewitt, Pali Ka‘aihue, Amy Hanaiali‘i and have laid a few other guitar parts here and there for friends. I have toured to Germany, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan and across the U.S with Ledward Kaapana and Dennis Kamakahi.
In the late 1990s, I had the good fortune to participate in the historic Hawaiian music concerts at Carnegie Hall. My father always told us, “One day my sons’ time will come.” When I walked onstage at Carnegie Hall for the first time, I said, “Dad, we made it.” I could feel him there with me, his ears on my every note and I played as though he was the only one listening.
These days, I am still recording and performing, but I have given up the nightclub thing in favor of colleges and theaters. In my younger days, I used to close the bar, and before I’d know it, the sun would be out. Today, I have to put it in low gear and take it slow.
Over the last three years, I have performed on three compilation albums, Masters of Slack Key, Volume 1 and Legends of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar—Live from Maui, and Treasures of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar all of which won Grammy Awards for Best Hawaiian Music Album.
My own album, He‘eia, recorded on the Dancing Cat label and released in September 2007, met with a pretty good response and was nominated for a Grammy and won a Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award for Island Music Album of the Year. The title song, which was originally composed as a chant for King David Kalakaua, was one of my dad’s favorites. All of the tracks on He‘eia are completely solo with no effects or overlays—just one take on the 6 or 12 string guitar.
In 2010, we released Amy Hanaiali‘i and Slack Key Masters of Hawai‘i. Artists included Dennis Kamakahi, Jeff Petersen, Sonny Lim, and Chino Montera. Each artist is featured and includes several new compositions and new adaptations of Hawaiian classics. Working on the project was a lot of fun and it demonstrates what happens when musicians who respect each other and Hawaiian music traditions come together to share their music. We received a Grammy nomination for the album and 5 Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award nominations as well.
I am currently performing at the Kani Ka Pila Grille in Waikiki every Wednesday night. This is a very nice venue, we get a good crowd, and I really enjoy what I’m doing. I do the best I can to be natural and honest, to let the music say it all. I am still shocked and amazed that my playing sometimes makes people cry—not just women, but men too. When someone tells me this, I usually say, “I’m sorry that I made you cry, brother, but that’s how it is, straight from the heart.”
I really found my love when I started teaching in the schools and communities throughout the islands and where ever I travel to perform. I have some really great students coming up and I look forward to watching them and hearing my stylings and C tuning in their playing.
I have also started a series of workshops called He Huaka‘i E Pana Ai Ke Ea, A Journey to Bring Pulse to the Living. The workshops were inspired by longtime family friend, Uncle George Na‘ope. Uncle George was there in the early days with my family and working with him reminded me of my dad, very old school, with strict attention to protocol. That’s something that you don’t see too often anymore.
The first workshop in the series was built around the song, Hi‘ilawe, which was probably my dad’s signature. He didn’t compose it, but after hearing someone sing it on Moloka‘i, he fell in love with it. He recorded it seven different times and always included it in his performances. My brothers and I have also played and recorded the song, so it has become kind of a family trademark. One of the special things about the new workshop project is that it opened the way for me to travel to the Waipi‘o Valley and to bring my students there. Even though I have performed the song Hi‘ilawe in concerts all around the world, I had never actually seen its namesake waterfall until I started this project. To be there with the students, singing and teaching the song with the waterfall above us and hula dancers and taro patches surrounding us, was truly one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of my life. I could feel the spirits of the ancestors listening and their love for that place flow though my fingers and ring out through the steel strings and tones of my guitar.
Another workshop focused on He‘eia, the title song on my solo album. I have already visited the beach several times to take photos for the album and to video and am now researching the song’s composer and historic context. My new passion is to really get to the depth of the material and to share that with my students. It means so much more than just learning the chords and the words for the song. I am also trying to learn more Hawaiian language. In our family, we learned what we used in our music, but we were not allowed to converse in Hawaiian. Today, students can earn college degrees in Hawaiian language. I am anxious to see what this generation does with music composition. To be able to understand the language and culture enough to really compose is something I can only imagine.
Teaching with workshops was something that my dad didn’t do for us. With him, it was all eyes and ears, just watching and listening. It was difficult, but it paid off. By paying attention and listening, I can now share the music with others. I feel so grateful for all I learned from my dad. I can always feel his presence when I play, and he is still my inspiration and the soul of my music.