Let’s Play Music: Cyril Pahinui Brings Another Chapter of the Gabby-Jam Tradition to Film
Few artists in American music history can be considered as influential and as closely identified with their genre as Hawaiian slack key legend Gabby Pahinui. Most Hawaiian artists – and some mainland roots music players like Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal – refer to Pahinui as their musical father. Slack key artist Cyril Pahinui, meanwhile, can call Gabby his actual father.
Coming of age during the Hawaiian Renaissance – the cultural revolution of the 1970s – the younger Pahinui has participated in 35 releases of Hawaiian music and has won three Grammy awards for his contribution to anthology compilations of slack key guitar music, The Masters of Slack Key Guitar series.
Like many Hawaiian youth, Pahinui began playing ukulele when he was seven years old. He had the privileged advantage of learning slack key guitar from watching his father jam with other great iconic musicians like Atta Issacs Sr. and Sonny Chillingsworth during his childhood in the small town of Waimanalo on Oahu. If there was ever an ideal setting for the natural music of slack key, Waimanalo is it. Similar to how the hills of Kentucky and the Piedmont region of the Appalachians have served the mainland with country and folk music, Waimanalo, nestled against the steep green Ko’olau mountains so near to the Pacific Ocean, became the setting for Gabby “Pops” Pahinui’s finest music. It was there, at his home, that he held backyard sessions known in Hawaiian as kanikapila jams. During his childhood there, Cyril soaked in the blended Hawaiian music his father innovated over the years. However, as Cyril’s mastery of slack key was growing during his teen years, he was drafted into the military in 1969 and served in Vietnam.
On returning home from the controversial war, during the early Renaissance days of the 1970s, Cyril began playing in his father’s band. He is forever linked with his father’s career through the seminal Warner Bros. recordings of the early ’70s. It was during this period when Cyril crossed paths with Ry Cooder, an already-established mainland solo artist and session musician for bands like the Rolling Stones. At the time, Cooder was a young student of Hawaiian music who had come to the islands to learn directly from Gabby. He performed live and on studio recordings with the band.
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Cyril Pahinui grew to be a master of kī hōʻalu (slack key). In 2013, after over five decades of recording and performing, he was given the Nā Hōkū Hanohano Lifetime Achievement Award for “perpetuating the craft of slack key music through performance and teaching,” according to the academy.
In 2013, Cyril was awarded a fellowship from the Native Arts & Culture Foundation to produce a film series for Hawaii’s PBS network. The first video chapter of Let’s Play Music with Cyril Pahinui & Friends was completed in 2014. I first saw the film in flight to Honolulu in 2014, when I was traveling there to attend a slack key festival. The film effortlessly and skillfully recreates the backyard, informal feel of Gabby Pahinui’s jam sessions with his son, Cyril, at the center. Interwoven with historical narrative, the music is at the center of the series along with the strong presence of Cyril’s father.
Today, Cyril Pahinui and family have embarked on fulfilling the vision created by the first film with a second chapter of the filmed backyard festival titled Let’s Play Music, which they’re hoping to fund through a Kickstarter campaign. Performances and interviews will include Jerry Santos, Henry Kapono, Robert Cazimero, and Roland Cazimero, along with vintage footage of the late Rev. Dennis Kamakahi, ukulele great Peter Moon, and of course, the father of it all, Gabby Pahinui. There’s also the best in Americana-roots instrumentation, including the lap steel guitar, dobro, and stand-up bass. The film will help to preserve and extend the best of Hawaiian music for future generations. However, for Cyril Pahinui, it is simply a way to keep alive his passion for his father’s music and the connection that began inside of him during his childhood, long ago.