Play How You Feel - The Gabby Pahinui Waimānalo Kanikapila. - Photo: Christopher Skapik 1978 Kanikapila in Waimānalo

Paying homage to his late father, Cyril Pahinui initiated the Gabby Pahinui Waimānalo Kanikapila, designed after gatherings from Cyril’s childhood days when weekends at the family’s home on Bell Street in Waimānalo were a continuous kanikapila. As in those days, the festival attracts more than 100 musicians and gives thousands of fans an opportunity to witness some truly unforgettable moments, amazing performances and one of a kind all-star jams by some of Hawai‘i’s greatest musicians who just get together to play music in the park. The 11th annual festival on April 21 celebrates Waimānalo’s musical heritage, Gabby’s April 22nd birthday, Cyril’s April 21st birthday along with a special recognition of longtime family friend, Peter Moon a frequent participant in the historic backyard jams.

Far from the tourist attractions of Waikīkī, Waimānalo on the windward side of O‘ahu became the perfect setting for the revitalization of Hawai‘i’s musical traditions. A welcoming pot of beef stew and rice on the stove, nurtured the impromptu jam sessions often including Leland “Atta” Isaacs, Sonny Chillingworth, Ray Kane, along with David “Feet” Rogers, Joe Marshall, Genoa Keawe, Dennis Kamakahi, Eddie Kamae and ‘ukulele virtuoso Peter Moon. As Gabby and the gatherings grew in fame, attendance mushroomed – sometimes hosting a hundred or more musicians and fans and the police would close off the street. Beginning early on Friday mornings, the music often continued straight through to Monday morning.

As Cyril’s older brother Bla recalls: “Sometimes there’d be a hundred people there. It would go on for days, but when my mom went to church Sunday morning that was the sign that everybody better be gone when she got back. Well, my father would wait an hour or so, till he figured the service was just about over, and then he’d get everybody out in the yard working. When mom came home and saw us all sweating away, she’d forgive everything and cook a big meal for everybody. And the party would go on for another couple days!”

Fading music traditions, kolohe overtones and kaona, secret tunings and stylings emerging from the kūpuna inspired the young, aspiring players, many of whom went on to become leading Hawaiian musicians and slack key masters. Gabby and his friends always encouraged the young ones to participate, and add something to the music. Music was his life and Gabby told them, “Play how you feel, whatever makes you happy, but always respect Hawaiian music and keep it in your heart.”

“As kids,” Cyril bemoans, “we were not allowed to talk in Hawaiian, we learned ‘Mele ‘ōlelo.’ Because of our efforts, students can now earn college degrees in Hawaiian language. To be able to understand the language and culture enough to really compose is something I can only imagine. I am proud that I did stick with Hawaiian music and have helped to pave the way for this next generation. And I know it is Hawaiian music that took me around the world.”

As the son of musical legend Gabby Pahinui, Cyril Pahinui was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. Mesmerized by the music, Cyril started playing from the time he could hold an ‘ukulele, learning kī hō‘alu, slack key, at the age of seven. Growing up with four sisters and five brothers, music was learned in the traditional way, “Nana ka maka; ho‘olohe ka pepeiao; pa‘a ka waha,” Observe with the eyes; listen with the ears; shut the mouth (Pukui, 1983) Thus, one learns by listening and watching his dad and many of Hawai‘i’s foremost traditional musicians.

Photo: Cyril Pahinui and his band perform at 2015 Gabby Pahinui Waimānalo Kanikapila
2015 Gabby Pahinui Waimānalo Kanikapila in photo Jeff Au Hoy, Cyril Pahinui, Kunia Galdiera, Peter Wook Moon, and Sonny Lim – Photo: Poohko Hawaii

“We didn’t get music lessons and most musicians in those days didn’t read music,” recalls Cyril, “my dad slacked his strings and hid 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. We had to work hard to learn. That was the style in the old days, if you wanted to learn you would have to listen and tune your instruments by ear. I would get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and make my dad breakfast so he would spend time with me before leaving for his day job. Just me one-on-one with him. When he shared something new he would expect you to practice and the next time you played you could tell he was listening to see if you had mastered it. Then he would share something else.”

Make a list of Hawai‘i’s greatest slack key guitarists and Cyril Pahinui would be vying for a top spot. When he was 17, Cyril joined his father’s group, the Gabby Band. “I shared my generation’s passion for rock ‘n’ roll, from Fats Domino and Little Richard to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. But that wasn’t a roadblock to playing slack key. My father loved the Beatles, too, his favorite Beatles song was, “Hey Jude.” When I joined the Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band in the 1970s, my dad would sometimes ask me to play familiar Beatles and Stones riffs as introductions to traditional Hawaiian songs. Most people probably don’t even realize it but some of these intros and my arrangements are the distinguishing parts of my dad’s renditions.”

After returning from two years of service in Vietnam, in 1968 Cyril was on “The Sunday Mānoa” and, again joined his father, brothers, Chillingworth, Isaacs and others in the legendary Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band. The group’s easygoing style and high level of artistry enjoyed great popularity and inspired other musicians. Cyril arranged songs for and played a variety of instruments on all five of Gabby’s classic groundbreaking albums on the Panini label. While also working with Palani Vaughan, on his, “Iā ‘Oe e ka Lā” albums chronicling King David Kalākaua’s music and times. Joined his brothers for the “Pahinui Brothers,” an album requested by his mother, and then produced his own namesake album, “Cyril Pahinui.”

Cyril, who stepped gracefully into his father’s shoes, is not just a chip off the old block. Not only has he distinguished himself with an unparalleled signature sound, through his skill of improvisation and spontaneous composition, Cyril has also become one of the true greats in Hawaiian music and a formidable brand in the local music scene, just as his father was in his day. His well-recognized and highly regarded body of work shows just how deeply he has been able to etch his own name in the annals of island music.

With that he had the good fortune to participate in the historic Hawaiian music concerts at Carnegie Hall. His father always said, “One day my sons’ time will come.” When Cyril walked onstage at Carnegie Hall for the first time, he said, “Dad, we made it.” he could feel his dad there with him, his ears on my every note and he played as though his dad was the only one listening.

Mastering 14 different tunings, Cyril was invited by Chet Atkins to teach slack key for seven years at the annual Appreciation Society guitar convention in Nashville. Atkins had been good friends with Gabby and they had planned to do an album together. When Gabby unexpectedly passed away, Chet recorded the song Pu‘uanahulu in Gabby’s memory and invited his son, Cyril to attend his convention.

In 1994, Cyril befriended George Winston and recorded some 97 songs in his studio as a solo performer. The collaboration produced five award winning albums and is currently preparing to release, “Market Place,” yet another collection of his Dancing Cat label recordings.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Cyril developed a close personal and professional bond with Peter Moon. Inspired by Gabby’s music, Peter invited Cyril to stay at his home in Mānoa for weeks at a time so he could gain insight and skill in slack key. This collaboration resulted in several recordings with the Pahinui family, as well as those of Cyril’s first group, Sandwich Isle Band, then Sunday Mānoa with Palani Vaughan, and in 1979, the Peter Moon Band.

Against this backdrop, Peter Moon, who passed on Feb. 17, was to become one of the most innovative and influential musicians in Hawaiian music history. His influences extend beyond his own recordings and are felt by Hawai‘i’s musicians young and old as his recordings still play daily on Hawai‘i’s radio stations.

Peter Moon was a master, and his own son has patterned himself on his father’s distinctive technique. Ignoring successor-syndrome, Peter has dug into the Peter Moon style while rummaging through his father’s extensive music productions and scrapbooks. And the son of the ‘ukulele legend has taken after his father, playing the ‘ukulele as naturally as he breathes, and is poised to keep musical artistry running in the family.

When the two sons of Hawai‘i’s music masters got together to jam, and these two intertwining stories again joined as one, it seemed a manifestation of eternal recurrence, the idea that we live our lives again and again, moving forward and back into the past, coming full circle. Cyril heard potential in the young musician and, just as the slack key elders had shared when he was growing up, so he now had the opportunity to pass on skills and knowledge to the next generation.

After recording and performing world-wide for over 40 years, the Hawai‘i State Foundation on Culture and the Arts contracted Cyril to complete eight years of apprenticeship work under the Traditional Folk Arts program. With further inspiration from long-time friend, the late George Lanakilakeikiahiali‘i Na‘ope at the Nā‘ālehu Theatre, mentorships led to the Hawaiian Music Master Youth Outreach and Community Reinvestment and the instruction of thousands of local students including weekly classes taught over the past five years in three schools in Waimānalo.

In addition to Cyril, mentors in the program have included Palani Vaughan, Dennis Kamakahi, Sonny Lim, Dwight Tokumoto, Peter Moon’s son Peter Wook Moon, Aunty Genoa’s grand-daughter Pomaika‘i Keawe-Lyman, Jeff Au Hoy, Sean Robbins, Kawika Kahiapo, and nephew Kunia Galdeira. Students in these classes join their mentors on stage in hō‘ike style performances at the annual Gabby Pahinui Waimānalo Kanikapila.

“Among my fondest memories is an afternoon when I was seven years old and had been sent away to play by my parents. Instead, I hid behind the fence to watch and listen to my father jamming with Atta Isaccs and Sonny Chillingworth. The sound their guitars made together brought tears to my eyes. At that moment, I promised myself that I would learn from them, play like them, and carry their music and legacy forward. It is a commitment I have pursued from that day until today. My guitar has been a constant companion, and my playing was always straight from the heart, in a way that would make my kūpuna proud. This festival carries that commitment into the future. It is a symbol of my love for my masters and Hawaiian music and is offered with aloha for all those I have played for, played with, or taught, and especially those who just come out to listen.”

Presented in partnership with Nā‘ālehu Theatre, City and County of Honolulu, ‘Aha Mele and Outrigger Hotels, the Gabby Pahinui Waimanalo Kanikapila is free to attend and is supported by t-shirt sales at the event and available online at