The State of Aloha

When I lived in Kansas, folks often asked me about “Hawaiian music” — real Hawaiian music. Sure, there are silky and polished tunes with steel guitars and sweetly serenading vocalists. There are also the more contemporary reggae-infused tracks. But that wasn’t the kind of music that reminds me of Hawaii.

I would often introduce inquiring friends to the musician I loved as a kid. His voice was gravelly. It was not polished or slick. The falsetto voice — so important in Hawaiian music — was powerful and delicate at the same time. As for his guitar skills, he is widely regarded as one the best slack key guitarists Hawaii has ever produced.

He came from Kakaako — the neighborhood in Honolulu lodged between the crowded, bustling streets of downtown and the sprawling mall that is Ala Moana. Although developers want it to become a trendy place for millennial white-collar professionals on Friday nights, the old Kakaako, with industrial garages and sketchy Korean bars and erotic dance clubs, is still there for now.

The strange, rundown neighborhood has been rundown and strange for a long, long time. Ninety years ago this month, the neighborhood was described as “all tin roofs and falling apart.” That is where one of Hawaii’s greatest — arguably the greatest slack key guitarist — was born and raised.

His name was Charles Kapono Kahahawai Jr. Sound familiar? If not, it’s because that was his birth name. When he was around 6 or 7 years old, his parents hanaied him over to another family, where his named changed.

Just how he got his nickname is unclear. Some say it has to do with his hair, and others credit his penchant for gabardine pants. Either way, the nickname stuck and that’s the name we all know him as: Gabby Pahinui.

Gabby dropped out of school in the 5th grade. He took a shine to music and started borrowing people’s instruments. He taught himself to play the music popular at the time and was soon playing in venues all over Waikiki. It was in the 1930s when the popular music featured catchy jazz licks. Gabby married young (he was only 17) and had 10 children. He played steadily in hotels, bars and lounges, but still had trouble making ends meet.

By the 1950s, Gabby took a job working on road crews for the City and County of Honolulu. He had moved out to Waimanalo, where his home became a hangout for Hawaiian musicians. Weekends were long jam sessions with folks dropping in, playing some tunes, drinking and sleeping (or passing out).

Things changed in the ’70s — not so much for Gabby, but for the rest of Hawaii. Native Hawaiians started to assert themselves politically and socially. Many activists turned to their own culture for inspiration. The younger generation at the time looked to Gabby and his style of Hawaiian music.

Gabby’s records won over fans all over the islands and the rest of the world. It was the music of backyard parties, baby luaus or on the porch. His style and sound had a rawness about it. Gabby’s music was for Hawaii’s people.

He became something like a local Woody Guthrie. Pictures of him in his iconic palaka shirt or in his baggy overalls hunched over a guitar helped make him a Hawaiian folk hero. He is symbolic of the overwhelming need in the local community to restore roots and establish a real sense of place in Hawaii.

Later in his career, he found praise and popularity. But he was humble. He still worked for the City and County on the road crews until an accident ended his career there. By the late ’70s, while the Legislature bestowed honors on him and his music, he taught Hawaiian slack key guitar to kids through the City and County’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

Then, at a golf course one October afternoon in 1980, he suffered a heart attack and died. He was 59 years old. His influence on Hawaiian music is tremendous. For many musicians after him, he is still cited as the major influence on their own work. The very first words of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s world-famous recording of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful Word” are a dedication to Gabby — more than 20 years after his death.

If Gabby were still around, he would be celebrating his 96th birthday today. To this day you will find his name at music festivals, in record album liner notes and on T-shirts. I loved playing it for my friends in Kansas. Some liked it, others were indifferent. For me, it took me back home.

Gabby’s music is the perfect cure for homesickness. Just sit down and listen to him, then you’ll know why.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”