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Slack Key Guitar Master Cyril Pahinui: Preserving Hawaii’s Musical Traditions

Two years ago, Hawaiian slack key guitar master Cyril Pahinui produced a film, Let's Play Music! Slack Key with Cyril Pahinui & Friends, which paid homage to the Hawaiian tradition of musicians having backyard jam sessions, and to the legacy of his father, the late “Pops” Gabby Pahinui, who first recorded and popularized slack key guitar music in the 1930s.

Pahinui is preparing a sequel of sorts, a film and series of additional webisodes to showcase the music and musicians of his generation of the 1970s and 1980s. Like the film, the sequel entitled Let's Play Music~Cyril Pahinui & Friends Part II & Webisode, will feature Pahinui and a dozen preeminent Hawaiian musicians playing together and sharing memories between songs. The webisode’s air date has not yet been announced.

In slack key guitar, the strings are tuned down to an open chord with low bass notes. According to the island’s oral history, Mexican cowboys showed up in the 19th century, gave the Natives guitars, taught them the basics, and left, leaving the Hawaiians to develop their own style of tuning and playing.

Slack key guitar was adapted to the dance rhythms and unique harmonies of Hawaiian music and, over the years, has been influenced by American, South American and other Polynesian music styles. It became the soundtrack to the Second Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s, when there was a revival of interest among indigenous Hawaiians to learn their traditional culture, language, and arts.

Pahinui began performing slack key guitar with his father over 50 years ago, when he was only 7. He was drafted in 1970, and sent to Vietnam. After his service, he returned home, returned to his music and played with some of the most notable slack key bands of the era.

In 1994 he signed as a solo artist with Dancing Cat/Windham Hill Records and released a series of classic albums. He performed concerts all over the world, including two performances at Carnegie Hall. Pahinui has worked with other master guitarists, including Ry Cooder, Randy Travis and Chet Atkins, and he has appeared on over 35 albums, three of which have won Grammys. He has also coached Chet Atkins.

“When I coached Chet Atkins, he said ‘Back in Nashville we call this an open tuning,’” Pahinui said. “I told him he was right, but these slack key tunings we learn are not in books, it’s just by hearing. Chet checked all of the books and the only tuning that came pretty close was the open ‘G’ tuning."

“All the tunings I learned were through my dad and my uncles; it was special and I was very lucky. Today I teach the kids, and grownups all these open tunings with slack key. I feel that if I don’t the [craft of slack key] will die, so I’ve been giving workshops everywhere I go. Age doesn't count – if you want to learn it, go ahead; it’s open.”

As he gets older, Pahinui he sees this as his time to secure the legacy of both his father and himself, and to document his time in Hawaiian music history. “As I tell my wife, I am 65 now; when I am 75 I might not be so energetic,” he says with a laugh.

“In the first project, I tried to show what it was like with my father and his friends; he’s no longer around, so I got everybody together… to do this next film to show me and my friends.”

Along with workshops, teaching and his next album, Pahinui can be seen live in Honolulu every week performing at the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Kani Ka Pila Grille.

“I feel there is no end to music, I can go on and on forever, as long as my health is in good condition.”

To learn more about Pahinui and his upcoming film, which successfully raised $81,532 from 467 backers, please visit http://www.cyrilpahinui.com/