Kanikapila Redux

The spirit of Gabby Pahinui’s legendary backyard jams lives on
Story by Liz Simon. Photos by Kent Nishimura.

There are no beefy security guards at the gate of the tribute concert honoring the great Hawaiian slack key guitarist Gabby Pahinui in May. In fact, there is no gate and no charge for all the people streaming into Waimānalo Beach Park with their coolers, chairs, kids and tents. During the “Hawaiian blessings”—as the intermittent rain is called—people without tents seek shelter in the park’s lava-rock pavilion, which doubles as backstage for the performers, a veritable who’s who of contemporary Hawaiian music artists.

The ninth annual Gabby Pahinui Waimānalo Kanikapila unspools languidly over ten hours with 150 performers taking turns onstage. Between songs they pay respects to “Pops,” as Gabby, who died in 1980, is affectionately known. He’s a forefather of the contemporary Hawaiian music scene, and the dulcet, carefree touch of his music seems to infuse the crowd today. People everywhere chat easily, sprawl out in lawn chairs, sing along with Gabby standards played live and make graceful hula motions to the music. It’s an organized event, yet it’s quite in the spirit of kanikapila.

That k-word—kanikapila—is a pidgin English term with Hawaiian roots used to describe informal musical jam sessions. In the 1960s and 1970s Gabby regularly hosted kanikapila at his home in the rural Hawaiian enclave of Waimānalo. As word of these musical bashes spread, they became not only an incubator for talent, but also a symbol for the beauty of Hawaiian culture. Along the way they helped uplift the economically hard-pressed community.

Of Gabby’s ten children, three of them—Cyril, Bla and Martin—have pursued professional music careers. It was Cyril, along with his wife, Chelle, who moved to reprise the spirit of the Bell Street kanikapila by launching the annual event in Waimānalo Beach Park. The couple partners with nonprofit organizations to support the event. They consider it a form of “community reinvestment,” one which has spun off related activities, such as slack key classes for children.

Hopes had run high that Cyril would be at the May concert, but instead he watches a live-streamed webcast of the event from a hospital room at The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu, where he is recovering from surgery for a collapsed lung. He telephones the event and says, over the PA system, mahalo (thank you) to everyone for coming today. Deep sighs of concern and cheerful well-wishes ripple through the crowd. Mixed emotions like these are not out of place at a kanikapila, which is all about keeping it real, just as Gabby Pahinui did at his now legendary jams.

The joy of Gabby’s kanikapila contrasted with his tumultuous early childhood. His father was dragged into the notorious Massie Affair, an alleged gang rape—never substantiated—which led to Gabby’s uncle being murdered by the mother of the accuser and three accomplices. The case spurred derogatory depictions of the Hawaiian defendants in the national news and devastated Gabby’s birth family. Hoping to shield young Gabby from more trouble, his birth parents had him adopted by the Pahinui family. Luckily, the adoptive mother noticed the boy loved music. She borrowed a guitar and took Gabby regularly to Kapi‘olani Park, where he quickly picked up Hawaiian melodies from musicians who played there. He was also a quick study when it came to the Hawaiian lyrics; use of the Hawaiian language was in decline at the time, but it was still alive and well in music. Gabby had a thing for jazz, too, but Ma Pahinui urged him, “Stick with Hawaiian music. It will get you somewhere!”

Done with his formal schooling by age 16, Gabby got a day job with a county road crew, married and settled down in Waimānalo in a house on Bell Street, where he raised his ten children. At night he played for local audiences in clubs and cafés. Gregarious by nature, Gabby invited fellow musicians home from gigs. They were an extraordinary lot. Among them were many who are now considered the twentieth century’s Hawaiian music masters—Sonny Chillingworth, Atta Isaacs and Genoa Keawe, to name a few.

Occasional showers didn’t dampen festivalgoers’ enthusiasm at the ninth annual Gabby Pahinui Waimānalo Kanikapila in April. Top right, students of Hālau Mele Hawai‘i ‘o Pahinui perform.

It was well known that Gabby combined music with drinking at these sessions. When he got going, he’d bust out his hula moves, invite the neighbors over and pass the guitars around to his budding musical offspring. At some point Pops would inevitably turn to his wife and say, “Howzit, Ma? Stew and rice ready yet?” There were always two big pots of beef stew on the stove to feed the rollicking gatherings, which could easily go to dawn.

Kanikapila as it happened on Gabby’s Waimānalo turf offered the best de facto school of Hawaiian music, taught in real Hawaiian style. “And it was absolutely terrifying!” laughs Hawaiian recording luminary Palani Vaughan. “The truth was Gabby could hear if you were out of tune. He would stop the music, tell you your string was off and even name the string.” Even Gabby’s old cronies were astounded by his perceptive ear, says Vaughan, recounting a story of how they would trick Gabby by turning the keys of his guitar “all hamajang” when he wasn’t looking. “But the buggah could still take the instrument, make chords and a melody!” Vaughan chuckles, observing that this was a reflection of Gabby’s grounding in Native Hawaiian oral tradition, where a good ear is a great asset.

Gabby was always looking to bring aspiring newbies into the kanikapila fold. One of them, Mike Kaawa, had been playing in a disco band he formed with his middle-school buddies, who subsequently gave him the boot for toting an ‘ukulele to a rehearsal and suggesting they try some Hawaiian music. After coming to Gabby’s attention at a gig, Kaawa was invited to one of those hallowed jam sessions. Suddenly, the great music idol intoned, “Take one, boy!” meaning, “Take a solo.” This could be a terrifying rite of passage separating the mere jammer from the true musician, but Kaawa felt the force was with him. “Gabby wouldn’t bring you down for anything. He would accommodate you and push you forward. I could feel him saying to me, ‘Yeah! Can!’ because this music is our cultural heritage, and it’s too important to lose. So I learned just to put my best foot forward.”

Gabby’s son Cyril Pahinui and his wife Chelle launched the annual concert in an attempt to reprise the spirit of Gabby’s backyard gatherings and uplift the Hawaiian community. Above, two members of the band Hawai‘i Loa, Herb Lee and Bob Kahihikolo, prepare to go onstage.

As a member of the seminal Sons of Hawaii, and later as a leader of his own band and eventually as a solo entertainer, Gabby took his freewheeling backyard antics into clubs and built his reputation as an iconoclastic alternative to Don Ho, famed for glitzy, Elvis Presley-like showmanship. Vaughan relishes the story about Gabby at one particular club in Kalihi. “So I go inside and hear this big Hawaiian gal heckling Pops from her seat: ‘Hey, Gabby, you talk too much, dammit. Just play your music!’ she is saying, and every-one is wondering, ‘What next?’ Well, Gabby pulls himself up and puts on this upper-crusty British accent, and says, ‘Shuddap, you big balloon. Just shuddap!’” Everyone roared with laughter, even the heckler, and no one was offended because they knew Gabby was just out to make everyone feel good, Vaughan says.

Gabby was more than a masterful entertainer. He became a standard-bearer for a new generation of Hawaiians who wanted to reinvigorate their heritage and end social injustice, as other indigenous people were being inspired to do elsewhere.“Our jams with Gabby just intensified the way we felt about our Hawaiian identity,” says Vaughan. “It didn’t change anything, but it goes back to the way Gabby made us feel good about being original and undertaking new things with verve.” Vaughan felt encouraged by Gabby to eventually devote himself to reviving the music of Hawaiian king David Kalākaua.

Musician Mike Kaawa, also inspired by the artistic experimentation of the “Hawaiian Renaissance” of the 1970s, took a different route from Vaughan by frequently leaving Hawaiian music to explore rock, jazz and Latin music. Gabby gave him his blessing for this, advising, “‘Never be ashamed to play the music you feel inside,’” Kaawa says. Kaawa shares these words from the stage at the Waimānalo “Gabby-fest” before belting out one of his original compositions. Likewise, Vaughan dryly tells the crowd today that the only reason he’s here is that he’s one of the last original alumni of those old backyard gatherings. Clearly he is happy to spread the influence of the man who captured his imagination so long ago.

Musicians Frank Colburn and Andy Llano share a moment in the Waimānalo Beach Park pavilion, which serves as back-stage. Altogether some one hundred and twenty musicians performed at the free festival.

There are two guitar cases against the wall in the corner of the room at The Queen’s Medical Center. One belongs to star patient Cyril Pahinui; the other belongs to Kamuela Kimokeo, one in a steady stream of musicians stopping by to visit. Naturally, many of these visitors bust out their guitars and jam for the man devoted to ensuring that the spirit of kanikapila lives on.

I visit Cyril’s room two weeks before the ninth annual Gabby Pahinui Waimānalo Kanikapila is to be held. As he’s lingered in the ICU, rumors have swirled that the event might be canceled, but now he sits with legs dangling on the bed’s edge, saying that he is happy to talk about why the show must go on. His reasons start with the man he likes to call Daddy. “Daddy always told the old-timers, ‘Watch my son Cyril, how he is,’ and I knew from then he was counting on me to bring Hawaiian music forward, and I think I did good,” he says, adding that he has taken slack key to Europe, to Asia, to recording studios in LA and Memphis and even into the trendy frontiers of new-age music through a collaboration with George Winston.

The inveterately humble Cyril is not boasting. He is happy to defer to Gabby, but when I ask him about his own innovative group, The Sandwich Isle Band, and its breezy breakout cover of “‘Ūlili Ē,” he suddenly starts singing the lyrics. It’s somewhat of a miracle for someone who was breathing only with the aid of a machine recently. But then again this song is like breathing for Cyril. Not coincidentally, he says, the song was a favorite of Gabby’s in the old backyard days. Cyril says he remains devoted to his dad’s music for the simple reason that it comes from the heart of the musician and touches the heart of the listener. Cyril knows the music is worthwhile because people are sometimes moved to tears when he plays it. But despite the tears the music creates a good feeling, he says. Everyone in the room agrees, including Cyril’s cardiologist, Dr. Joana Magno, who says the feeling has infused the entire floor of the hospital.

The resurgence of Hawaiian music in the 1970s was part of a broader Hawaiian cultural renaissance, and Pahinui’s backyard jams were both incubator and proving ground for talent. Above, left to right, Cyril Pahinui, Gabby, James “Bla” Pahinui, Peter Moon and Palani Vaughan.

Magno says that the medical team was more than a bit iffy when Cyril’s musician-visitors held their first kanikapila. But then they saw that other bedbound patients warmed to the sound. Some even put in requests for Pahinui favorites. When I ask if this means that Hawaiian music is good medicine, no one misses a beat in agreeing. “Music is always helping us,” says Cyril.

Then he adds, “Hawaiian music is always in me. I just thank the Lord, I am here and I can bring it out. It is one of the best things to heal.” HH