Gabby (Charles Philip) Pahinui
In his younger days, Gabby Pahinui was once described by a popular youth publication in Honolulu as "the folk hero of the Hawaiian music world". Born Charles Kapono Kahahawai, Jr. in Kaka`ako, Oahu, he was renamed "Charles Philip Pahinui" by his hanai parents, Philip and Emily Pahinui. His family was poor, and he was a school dropout. For many years he worked a daytime job as a laborer on a City and County of Honolulu road crew.
As a musician, Gabby's free spirit and unabashed ways endeared him to young people and adults alike. Because feeling was such an overwhelming quality of his music, his impressive skills seemed natural, rather than earned. What was inborn - his perfect sense of pitch and tempo and the truly Hawaiian quality of his singing voice - tended to be taken for granted.
Self-taught, he began his career at ten as a bass player. He graduated to guitar early on, and for some forty years played the club circuit in Honolulu. Gabby credited his more than ten years with "Andy Cummings and His Hawaiian Serenaders" as "a big influence on my life."
Late in his career Gabby was re-discovered by a whole new generation for his slack key virtuosity. His recordings of this period became popular with the masses. This styling overshadowed his unique guttural falsetto singing voice, and his talent as a steel guitar stylist, still regarded by some as "one of the best".
Ironically, Gabby's first love was jazz. As a boy, he thought Hawaiian music all sounded the same. It was jazz that was a fundamental influence on his slack key technique, evident in his rhythmic adaptations and instrumental harmonics. A great part of his influence on contemporary slack key guitar players was his technical virtuosity, which he compared with the picking technique of Country Music legend Chet Atkins.
It was Gabby's uncanny ability to impart the soul of Hawaiian music, however, that captured the attention of musicians and audiences alike. Slack key artist and teacher, Ray Kane, once called Gabby "the greatest living slack key artist" for the power he projected in his music. (Some referred to it as his "mana", his gift from God.)
As early as the 1940's he recorded singles with Andy Cummings on the Bell label, singing, and playing both steel and slack key guitar. Gabby was one of the first to record a slack key album when he teamed with steel guitar artist, Alvin "Barney" Isaacs, Jr. in the late 1950's. It was Gabby's 1970's album with "Sons of Hawai`i", however, that catapulted him to fame and the attention of concert promoters.
In 1977, more than thirty years into his career, Gabby Pahinui, by then familiarly called "Pops", attracted major media attention. Wayne Harada, reviewing "Gabby Pahinui's Hawaiian Band, Vol. 2" called it "truly a milestone in Hawaiian music." Of Gabby, Harada wrote "one of the greatest living innovators in Hawaiian music", referring to the "distinctive, layered instrumental harmonics" of his slack key styling.
By his death in 1980, Gabby Pahinui , once a youth subculture hero, had become - and remains - an important force in contemporary Hawaiian instrumental music. His legacy is not only the consummate skill of his playing, but also the special spirit evident in his musical performance.
Sources: "Hawaiian Music and Musicians" (George Kanahele, Editor); Harry B. Soria, Jr. Hall of Fame Advisory Board Archivist