Slack Keying Off

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Establishing one's own musical identity rarely is easy, and it can be even more difficult when you live in the shadow of a legend. Ask Sean Lennon or Jakob Dylan. Occasionally, though, the mantle is easily passed.

In the world of Hawaiian music, few names are bigger than Charles "Gabby" Pahinui. With an extraordinary touch on his 12-string guitar and a distinctive, coarse-sounding falsetto, the great slack-key guitarist spearheaded a renaissance of Hawaiian music and culture in the 1970s.

Before his death from a heart attack in 1980, Pahinui gave the torch to the second youngest of his 10 children. Rather than be intimidated or overwhelmed by the legacy, Cyril Pahinui accepted his fate with pride and a smile.

Cyril Pahinui performs Saturday at the Seventh Annual Aloha Concert Jam in Long Beach, at which attendance has climbed gradually from several hundred the first year to the 5,000 expected for the weekend-long bash at the Rainbow Lagoon.

The Pahinui family lived in the rustic town of Waimanalo on the island of Oahu. Their backyard often saw a spirited gathering of professionals, aunts and uncles, plus the next musical generation, including Cyril and brothers Philip, Bla and Martin. Country-style luau--a hearty mix of music, food and drink--would often last into the wee hours.

Cyril Pahinui, now a 48-year-old grandfather, remembers soaking it up.

"My father was the center of attention, but it really wasn't difficult for me to find my own voice, because I started playing music when I was 7," he said. "I learned so many things from him, but I realize that I could never replace my dad. He wouldn't want me to, anyway.

" Pops believed in me," he added in a telephone interview from his Oahu home. "He told me, 'Son, your day will come.' So I'm working hard to master slack key and re-energize it with as much mana [soul] as I can. You'd be surprised at how many people respond to this traditional music."

Pahinui recorded his first solo LP, "6 & 12 String Slack Key," in 1994. His forthcoming "Po Mahina" (Night Moon) is scheduled for release Aug. 25.

Both albums are part of Dancing Cat Records' Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters Series, which composer, pianist and label founder George Winston developed to document the slack-key repertoire.

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Nine albums have been released, and Winston has said he hopes to eventually deliver more than 60, featuring such as influential figures as Keola Beamer, Ledward Kaapana, Ozzie Kotani, George Kuo and the late Sonny Chillingworth.

In press materials accompanying those releases, Winston said he fell in love with slack key because "it sounded like springtime in Montana." His attraction to Hawaiian music and culture seems contagious. Several pop-and-rock-oriented musicians--including Taj Mahal, David Lindley and Ry Cooder--have gotten into the act.

Folk-blues artist Mahal, who lived on the island of Kauai for 12 years before moving to Pasadena several years ago, enlisted Hawaiian group Napali in making his latest album, "Sacred Island."

In 1975, Cooder played with Gabby and Cyril on "The Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band" LP (Panini Records). Six years ago, Cooder, string wizard Lindley and session drummer Jim Keltner collaborated with Cyril and two of his brothers--Martin and Bla--on "The Pahinui Brothers," an eclectic album featuring a reggae version of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy," a breezy cover of the Dell-Vikings 1957 hit single, "Come Go With Me," a Fijian farewell song ("Isa Lei") and several traditional Hawaiian-language tunes.

Larger crowds can be attributed in part to the introduction of slack to mainstream audiences by players such as Cooder, Lindley and Mahal, said Malosi Taeleifi, Aloha Jam promoter.

"When someone like Ry Cooder takes an interest in slack key and incorporates it into what he does, it can only raise the profile of Hawaiian music," said Taeleifi, of Chino Hills. (Taeleifi and others behind Aloha Jam also hope to raise money--as much as $20,000--for the event's main beneficiary, Long Beach-based Comprehensive Child Development, a nonprofit agency that provides or arranges care for 250 children from low-income families.)

"Some mainlanders still think of island music as Don Ho playing for Grandma from Oklahoma," Taeleifi added. "But they're much more willing to embrace it if a James Taylor or a Paul Simon is involved."

Pahinui disagrees, insisting that Hawaiian music stands on its own and is valued more for its inherent qualities than its acknowledgment by outsiders.

"BMG/Windham Hill is [Dancing Cat's] distributor, so our product is sold all over the world," Pahinui said. "You hear the slack-key sound in France, Switzerland, Japan, Australia. . . . When I perform in these countries, people approach me after my concert and ask me to autograph one of my CDs. I really think they're drawn to the uniqueness of the music . . . the rippling sounds created from picking the strings. There is something beautiful and comforting about it that touches people's hearts."

As for name recognition, Pahinui said there's only one that matters.

"My dad's name is as good as gold," he declared with pride. "His impact on so many people is just amazing, really. But it wasn't just music; it was his way of life. . . . How he embodied the aloha spirit."

"Of all the things he told me, what stands out is how much he stressed being gracious and approachable. He told me, 'Cyril, never get too high up on your horse. Meet the public, shake their hands. Share your talent and gifts.' "

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Notes on the Slack-Key Guitar

Slack-key guitar is not a type of instrument but a distinctly Hawaiian way of tuning and playing an acoustic guitar.

Instead of tuning the strings to the notes used in standard pop, folk, classical and jazz music, some strings are tuned lower, or "slacked," to create an open tuning, which means a chord can be produced without any fingers on the fret board.

In slack-key playing, which dates to the 1830s when Spanish and Mexican cowboys took their guitars with them while working in the Hawaiian Islands, the thumb plays a bass line; melodies and accompaniments are plucked with the fingers. Songs are derived from ancient chants and hulas, with elements from other musical sources incorporated by individuals.

Slack-key guitar is different from Hawaiian guitar, which also uses open tunings; in that case, the guitar lies on the player's lap, and a steel bar is slid across the strings to change notes and chords. From this technique, which developed roughly about the same time as slack-key, evolved the steel-guitar playing style that has become synonymous with Hawaiian music.

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