Hearing Gabby Pahinui for the first time was, for me, like a hot Summer’s day acquiescing to the cool breeze of evening. Gabby “Pops” Pahinui (named “Gabby” from an early gig wearing gabardine pant uniforms) is indisputably the most important Slack Key guitarist ever, though Gabby acknowledges his teacher Herman Keawe as the greatest. The style is called Slack Key due to the loosening of certain guitar strings so the result is a pleasant chord when openly strummed. And while there is no dissonance associated with the style, I find the results thoroughly engaging, unlike some other exercises in 100% consonant (“happy”) music.
Given Gabby’s eventual fame among world music enthusiasts, and his influence on younger Hawaiian musicians, it is strange to think that Pahinui went through long spells of obscurity, during the days when slicker pop prevailed and more traditional Hawaiian forms fell by the wayside.
Pure Gabby was recorded during one of those dry spells. In 1961, Dave Guard, one of the founders of The Kingston Trio, was fortunate to be able to realize his dream of capturing Gabby Pahinui’s guitar and voice in a simple acoustic setting, with just string bass and ukulele accompaniment. Unfortunately, he was not able to convince a major label to release it. Eighteen years later, Hula Records distributed the album, which includes a bonus disc with an interview between Dave and Gabby.
Gabby Pahinui’s career finally took wings once again, during what has been called the Second Hawaiian Renaissance. Along with his talented friends, sons, and young bucks like Peter Moon and Ry Cooder, he recorded as The Gabby Band. We are now blessed—not only with many fine Gabby Pahinui records—but with a proliferation of Slack Key recording artists.
Gabby’s 91st birthday would have been this Earth Day, April 22. The song above is Hi’ilawe, the celebrated waterfall of Waipi’o Valley. It chronicles a girl from Puna who visits a boy in the Valley, but cannot take the gossip among his relatives nor the chatter of the birds and runs back to her family. Note how Gabby gives the sound of her running home at the end.