Cyril Pahinui, who carried a Hawaiian guitar legacy, dies at 68
NEW YORK — Cyril Pahinui, a nationally recognized Hawaiian guitarist and singer who preserved and extended the tradition of slack-key guitar, died Nov. 17 in Honolulu. He was 68.
His death was announced by his family and by the National Endowment for the Arts, which awarded him the National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts, in 2017. He had been hospitalized at the Queen’s Medical Center since 2016 for a collapsed lung, pneumonia, and other conditions.
Slack-key guitar — kiho’alu in Hawaiian — is a fingerpicking style that arose in the 19th century as guitars, which had been introduced to Hawaii by Mexican and Spanish cowboys, were integrated into local traditions. It was named for Hawaiian retunings of the guitar, which lowered the pitch of some strings, by loosening or slackening them, to produce consonant open chords, bringing out the instrument’s resonance.
Slack-key guitar grew into its own instrumental tradition, with soloists picking multilayered bass lines, chords, and melodies. Dozens of tunings appeared in isolated local styles as Pacific islands music absorbed elements of ragtime, country, jazz, and rock. Guitarists like Mr. Pahinui also accompanied their own singing, using the sweetly sustained tone, wide vibrato, and rich falsetto of Hawaiian tradition.
Cyril Pahinui was born in Oahu to Emily (Pulepule) and Philip Kunia Pahinui. He grew up in the rural village of Waimanalo. His father, better known as Gabby, was a guitarist and singer who pioneered modern slack-key guitar on recordings as early as 1947.
Gabby Pahinui brought slack-key guitar into prominence as a solo instrument, introducing new techniques and broadening the repertoire, and he was a major figure in a renaissance of traditional Hawaiian culture in the 1970s.
Cyril and his siblings grew up hearing and then joining weekend-long jam sessions at the family home, where his father and other guitarists, notably Sonny Chillingworth and Atta Isaacs, passed on Hawaiian styles in an unwritten tradition. Cyril began playing ukulele at 3 and slack-key guitar at 7.
“Most of the techniques were considered to be secret and were not shared outside the family or music community,” Mr. Pahinui wrote on his website. “We really had to work hard to learn. 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 and figure out his tunings once he was asleep. He could always tell when someone had been in his guitar case.”
His father invited him to join his band when Cyril was 15. In addition to performing, he was responsible for tuning all the instruments.
“I had to train myself to be more precise,” Mr. Pahinui wrote. “Now, I am so grateful for his strict discipline.”
In the mid-1960s, he and the ukulele and guitar player Peter Moon were founding members of the band Sunday Manoa, which fused Hawaiian music with rock. After making his first recordings with Sunday Manoa in 1968, Mr. Pahinui was drafted and served in Vietnam, where he was exposed to the toxic chemical defoliant Agent Orange. His wife, Chelle, told NPR after his death that she believed that his exposure to the substance had contributed to his later health problems.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Pahinui leaves two brothers, James (known as Bla) and Phillip; two sisters, Madolyn and Margaret; five daughters, Amber Pahinui-Stevens, Andrea Pahinui, Anne Shand, Carrie McBurney Wright, and Elizabeth MacDonald; and 19 grandchildren.
When Mr. Pahinui returned to Hawaii in the early 1970s, he rejoined his father’s band, which also included three of his five brothers, James, Martin, and Philip.
In the mid-1970s, guitarist Ry Cooder drew attention to slack-key guitar on the mainland by sitting in with the Gabby Pahinui Band and persuading a major label, Warner Bros. Records, to release its albums. Another mainland label — Dancing Cat Records, run by the new-age pianist George Winston — recorded Mr. Pahinui and other leading slack-key guitarists extensively in the 1990s and 2000s.
Mr. Pahinui’s Sandwich Isle Band released an album in 1978. He later joined the Peter Moon Band, which became a top attraction in Hawaii in the 1980s. But he also had a day job for decades, doing city and county road maintenance on Oahu.
His first solo album, released in 1988, won Hawaii’s major music prize, the Na Hoku Hanohano Award, for best contemporary Hawaiian album and best male vocalist. He recorded with Bla and Martin Pahinui, joined by Cooder, as the Pahinui Brothers in 1992. His 1994 solo album, “Six and 12-String Slack Key,” won the award for best instrumental album, although it also included some vocals.
Mr. Pahinui won 17 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards for his recordings, as well as a lifetime achievement award. When the Grammy Awards included a separate Hawaiian-music category from 2005 to 2011, three of the winning albums were compilations on which he played.
Mr. Pahinui set out to turn what had been his father’s closely guarded family legacy into a durable Hawaiian tradition. He collected local tunings from all around the islands; his own music used 17 different tunings.
After Gabby Pahinui’s death in 1980, the Pahinui family organized traditional jam sessions and an annual festival in Waimanalo. Cyril Pahinui taught music students at the University of Hawaii and elsewhere and instructed teachers through the Hawaiian Music Masters Youth Outreach and Community Reinvestment program.
He also toured nationwide, including appearances at Carnegie Hall, and organized festivals of slack-key guitar in California. In 2007 he started Halau Mele Hawai’i O Pahinui (the Pahinui School of Hawaiian Music).
When he received the Community Spirit Award from the First Peoples Fund in 2013, Mr. Pahinui said: “I will share, I will perform. I will never change. I will teach what I know. It’s not difficult. The kids, some day, they will have to carry it on.”