Saturday, September 25, 1999

100 Who Made A Difference

Star Gabby Pahinui Star

Star-Bulletin file photo
Gabby Pahinui entertained audiences in Hawaii with
his unique brand of guitar playing.

Hawaiian musician a
slack-key master

By Burl Burlingame


''THE thing about Gabby Pahinui," says DeSoto Brown, a Hawaiian cultural-history expert whose brother worked with Pahinui, "was not only that he was an outstanding musician and entertainer, and a central figure -- maybe THE central figure -- of the Hawaiian Renaissance in the '70s, but that he was an inspiration to others. Thousands of Hawaiian kids learned that they were worthy as a people because of Gabby's example."

Born Charles Kapono Kahahawaii Jr., and hanai'd into the Pahinui family, Pahinui was 59 when he died on a golf course in 1980. He worked for the City and County road and refuse crews most of his life. His real passion, though, was music, and Pahinui was one of the great natural musicians of Hawaii, the sort of pure channel that drew international stars like Ry Cooder to learn at his knee.

Pahinui taught himself bass fiddle at age 10. Although he claimed to not understand written music, the charts he prepared for recordings were widely praised for their inventive, jazzy phrasing.

Pahinui's rich baritone trembled with bottomless emotion when he sang, and he could slide into a feathery falsetto that cut deeply into people's soul.

But he was best known as the guardian of kiho'alu, or slack-key music, the purely Hawaiian method of finger-hammering drone-tuned strings and simultaneously playing a melody with other fingers.

While the method of playing would have survived without him, it's doubtful that it would have become the dominant musical form of Hawaii today.

Called "Pops" by his friends, Pahinui was a sly, cheerful fellow who had the knack of eliciting instant empathy. His long battle with alcohol made him seem more like a regular fellow, although he was anything but.

Gabby Pahinui may have been this century's most naturally talented instrumentalist, the sort of working-class hero who turns life into art, and vice versa.

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