The Pahinui Way

Cyril Pahinui’s life is just one big, continuous jam session. From the time he first picked up an ukulele at age 5, he has played Hawaiian music with “the best of the best.” As the son of legendary Hawaiian musician Gabby “Pops” Pahinui, it isn’t easy living up to the billing.

Cyril admits, “Dad’s a hard act to follow.”

Yet the stature and regard Cyril has among musicians and legions of fans today are monumental. As a slack-key guitarist, he is an extension of his famous dad’s musical brand and is dedicated to keeping Hawaiian music “Hawaiian” in its purest, most traditional sense.

That’s not easy in a diversified society where music of many styles and ethnicities vie for the ears and hearts of listeners. From rock ‘n’ roll to Jawaiian, musical tastes can be fickle and fleeting at the flip of a radio dial – make that an iPod download.

In the din of this chaotic, competitive environment comes a significant musical event on Saturday,Aug. 7, in Waimanalo that will cross all divides in musical tastes. This event – free to the public – reaches into the soul of Islanders to remind us that Hawaii has a musical identity that is unique in the world.

Cyril Pahinui: “Dad’s a hard act to live up to’

That’s why you won’t want to miss the “Gabby Pahinui Waimanalo Kanikapila” Aug. 7 at Waimanalo Park Pavilion. It’s an all-day affair, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., featuring more than 100 Hawaiian music performers in the backyard jam session style established by Gabby Pahinui years ago.

Cyril, who is organizing the event with wife Chelle, describes it as “a gathering of musicians to perform and connect with one another and recognize Waimanalo’s contribution to Hawaii’s music.”

The Pahinui ohana is getting kokua from Hula Supply Center Foundation and Na’alehu Park. The event is a fundraiser for the Hawaii Museum of Music and Dance.

Families and foundations of local musicians are pooling resources to raise $2 million for the planning and design of a future facility. The Pahinuis are donating proceeds from the sale of specially designed T-shirts to bring in the first $1 million.

“We all miss the kanikapila (let’s play music) sessions of our childhood,” says Cyril. “During my dad’s life, weekends at our home in Waimanalo were a continuous jam session. Dozens of musicians, both young and old, came by to jam with the masters.”

The “masters” were guitarists Leland “Atta” Isaac, Sonny Chillingworth and Ray Kane, along with David “Feet” Rogers, Joe Marshall, ukulele virtuoso Peter Moon, Jesse Kalima, Genoa Keawe and Palani Vaughan, among others.

“With a pot of stew and rice always on the stove, our home became the place for rejuvenating Hawaii’s music traditions,” Cyril says.

As Gabby’s fame grew, attendance at the weekend jam sessions mushroomed – sometimes hosting 100 or more musicians and fans. The sessions would begin early Friday morning and continue straight through to Monday morning.

Following Gabby’s death in 1980, kanikapila sessions moved to Waimanalo Park Pavilion, where the city has a plaque commemorating the slack key folk hero.

It is here that folks will gather Aug. 7 to revive the Pahinui tradition. Bring stew and rice or a picnic basket and stay a while to hear Hawaiian slack-key guitar, ukulele, steel guitar and falsetto singing in laid-back island style.

Among the entertainers expected are Palani Vaughan and the King’s Own, Makana, Pahinui Hawaiian Band, Bla Pahinui and Hukipau, Nikki Hines and Friends, Aaron Mahi, George Kuo, Martin Pahinui, Greg Sardinha and Pookela, Jerry Santos, Kalima Ohana, Hilo One, Dennis Kamakahi, Kawika Kahiapo, Ben Kaili and Nobriga Ohana.

This gig is impromptu, improvisational, yet impressive.

No doubt it will be a sentimental occasion for Cyril and his brothers Martin and James “Bla” Pahinui, three of the 10 siblings in the Pahinui household who followed their father’s footsteps into successful musical careers.

It’s been a while since the brothers have recorded or performed together. Cyril plays each Wednesday night at Kani Ka Pila Grille in the Outrigger Reef on the Beach. Brother Martin joins Kawika Kahiapo there on Thursday nights. “Bla” is retired and does occasional gigs with his band Hukipau. The brothers’ last project was a private label recording in 1992.

But – surprise! – the talented brothers are back in the recording studio working on another collaboration, and if all goes well, the release could be out this year. A Pahinui reunion would be landmark.

Meanwhile, Cyril continues to be the keeper of the flame of kihoalu music. He travels extensively and conducts workshops at Bishop Museum, UH-Hilo and in Waimanalo.

In conjunction with the Waimanalo festival, there are ukulele, slack-key and steel guitar workshops on Aug. 6 and 22. Cost is $40 per session; registration at

Learning from a Grammy Award-winning musician is a chicken skin experience. It’s a marvel to learn from a master who is self-taught and still tunes his instruments by ear.

“We didn’t get music lessons, and most of the musicians in those days didn’t read music,” Cyril recalls. “In fact, 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 to figure out his tunings once he was asleep.

“We really had to work hard to learn. That was the style in the old days. If you really wanted to learn, you would have to listen. It was all eyes and ears.

An iconic photo of a backyard kanikapila in Waimanalo with some of the greats (from left), Martin Pahinui, Phil Pahinui, Atta Isaacs, Palani Vaughan, Gabby Pahinui, Bla Pahinui, Peter Moon and Cyril Pahinui

“Dad opened the doors for a lot of people. So many entertainers knew my dad. Even today when I travel in Europe and Japan, people come up with old LPs. My dad made the crossover.”

The same can be said of Pop’s third eldest son. Cyril is carrying on the Pahinui tradition and reaching audiences in significant venues. Cyril has twice played at Carnegie Hall, has contributed to two Grammy Award-winning albums, received several Hoku Hanohano Awards and recorded on more than 25 Hawaiian musical releases.

The singer-musician is known for his technical virtuosity, rhythmic adaptations and instrumental harmonics. Yet his sound is distinctively “Pahinui” and evocative of Gabby’s signature style and presentation.

Those with a musical ear will appreciate the seamless way Hawaiian music can blend subtle influences from other genres.

Cyril explains, “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 the intros and my arrangements are the distinguishing parts of my dad’s renditions.”

A roving slack-key ambassador, Cyril participated in the annual Chet Atkins Appreciation Society guitar convention in Nashville for seven years. These days Cyril is content to tour occasionally and play concert halls.

“My younger days, I used to close the bar and before you know it, the sun is out. Today I have to put it on low gear and take it slow,” says the 60-year-old.

Yet we detected none of that low-gear mode the day we interviewed him. He had just returned from a radio appearance on Perry & Price, was promoting a July 3 gig with the Brothers Cazimero at Bishop Museum and rushed off to check on preparations for the Pahinui Waimanalo Kanikapila.

Cyril’s poised, soft-spoken demeanor defies the super-star within. He’s a chip off the old block.

Reminds one of the historic footage showing his dad after ripping through a rousing rendition of his signature tune Hiilawe.At the conclusion of the song, Pops unassumingly turns to the camera and says, “How da stew?”

Like the Pahinui music tradition, it’s ono.

For more information on the Gabby Pahinui Waimanalo Kanikapila and T-shirt purchase, go to

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