Photo: Cyril Pahinui and students kanikapila
Cyril Pahinui and students kanikapila. - Photo: Courtesy of Cyril Pahinui

In April, in advance of the 11th annual Gabby Pahinui Waimānalo Kanikapila, Chelle Pahinui wrote a tribute to late slack key master Gabby Pahinui, ‘ukulele virtuoso Peter Moon, who had recently passed, and to her husband, beloved Hawaiian musician Cyril Pahinui.

Cyril Pahinui died Nov. 17 at age 68. In rememberance, Ka Wai Ola is reprinting excerpts from Chelle Pahinui’s piece, edited for clarity. The entire article can be read at issuu.com/kawaiola/docs/kwo0418_web.

Photo: Cyril Pahinui
Cyril Pahinui at the Ho‘okahiko Award presentation 2015. – Courtesy photo

Cyril Pahinui’s childhood home on Bell Street in Waimānalo turned into a continuous kanikapila on weekends, with slack key masters such as Cyril’s father Gabby, and often including Leland “Atta” Isaacs, Sonny Chillingworth, Ray Kane, David “Feet” Rogers, Joe Marshall, Genoa Keawe, Dennis Kamakahi, Palani Vaughan, Eddie Kamae and ‘ukulele virtuoso Peter Moon.

Gabby and his friends always encouraged the young ones to participate, and add something to the music, telling them, “Play how you feel, whatever makes you happy, but always respect Hawaiian music and keep it in your heart.”

“As kids,” Cyril remembers, “we were not allowed to talk in Hawaiian; instead 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 Gabby’s son, Cyril 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, by listening and watching his dad and many of Hawai‘i’s foremost traditional musicians (nana ka maka; ho‘olohe ka pepeiao; pa‘a ka waha, or “Observe with the eyes, listen with the ears, shut the mouth. Thus, one learns.” (Pukui, 1983)

“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.”

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.”

If you made a list of Hawai‘i’s greatest slack-key guitarists. Cyril would be vying for a top spot, and while he stepped gracefully into his father’s shoes, he is not just a chip off the old block. Besides playing ‘ukulele, steel guitar, and banjo, Cyril mastered 15 distinct tunings and distinguished himself with an unparalleled signature sound, through his skill of improvisation and spontaneous composition. Cyril became 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 was able to etch his own name in the annals of island music.