Songs in a Slack Key

A historical Hawaiian music festival comes to Redondo Beach
by Mark McDermott
Published January 15, 2009


Here is a story of three guitars, two wandering Hawaiians, a death song, a mainland dream and a drifting sound.
Cyril Pahinui was seven years old, the second youngest in a family of 10 that included five brothers and four sisters who lived in Waimanalo, just beneath the Ko‘olau Mountains on the windward side of the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
Young Cyril would listen closely for the sound of his father returning home each night, because that was his guitar time. His father, Gabby Pahinui was the most legendary Hawaiian musician of his time – this was the middle of the 1950s, a decade after Gabby had become the first guitarist to record music in the traditional “slack key” style that dated back a century. His local notoriety was not accompanied by financial reward. Gabby still worked by day in road crews doing pick and shovel work, but he lived for the musical communion of his nighttime gigs.
Every night when he came home, Gabby would take his guitar case and put it away in a closet. Cyril would tip-toe out of his bed when he was sure his father couldn’t hear. The boy would open the case and take out the instrument. And what he would find would be a puzzle: every night, Gabby unwound every string.
The boy would have to figure out how to tune the guitar to his father’s famed “slack key” tunings himself. Master musicians from each island tuned their guitars differently, various open tunings that were named after flowers, mountains, waterfalls and women. The tunings were deeply guarded family secrets, sometimes even within a family.
“I was trying to see what tuning my Dad used,” said Cyril in an interview this week. “But, you know, he put all the strings down to nothing. That’s what they call slack key!”
There was a method in his father’s ways. Somehow, he marked his guitar each night, so he would know when the boy had touched it. And as Cyril grew a little older, he would offer clues to the boy, mostly in the form of an oft-repeated urging. “Son, listen,” he would tell Cyril. “Listen. Then you start tuning.”
Cyril became a master listener. The family’s backyard became famous for the gatherings of musicians who would congregate there each weekend, and the boy would watch, and listen, enthralled. Eventually, his father put him in charge of tuning all the family’s instruments. Cyril would often rise at 4 a.m. before his father left for work so the two could talk. They became fiercely close. By the time Cyril was a teenager, he began joining his father at gigs. And when he left in 1969 to join the U.S Army’s 101st Airborne Division Artillery in Vietnam, his father gave him simple instructions.
“Go, son,” he said. “Go, and come back.”
Cyril took Hawaii with him into the jungles of Southeast Asia. He became a sergeant and saw the violent brunt of war from his very first day, when his job was to pick up body parts and put them in green bags. He carried his guitar with him wherever he went, and when there was time he and another Hawaiian in his unit would play songs from home. The other men, who called him “the Hawaiian” or “Pineapple” because they couldn’t pronounce his last name, were bewildered by the mysteriously beautiful sounds that flowed from Cyril’s guitar.
“Hey, Pineapple, what kind of music is that?” they would ask.
“This,” Cyril would respond, proudly, “is Hawaiian music.”
The men would shake their heads. Like most of the world, they had never heard a guitar played in slack key, Hawaiian style – a ringing, intricate, melodic sound that somehow evokes the beauty of its place of origin perhaps more than any other music in the world. This wasn’t Don Ho.
Cyril Pahinui would return to Waimanalo in the early 1970s and join his father and brothers to play a key role in what became known as the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance. All things Hawaiian, including its traditional music, dance, and the language itself, enjoyed a sudden flowering after decades of neglect. Unfortunately, Gabby would die young, at the age of 59, in 1980, but he would leave behind a legacy that his sons carry to every corner of the world to this day.
Cyril, who is now himself 59, has become one of the great ambassadors of Hawaiian music. He has performed all over Europe, Asia, and the United States – including twice at Carnegie Hall. This Sunday afternoon he will be among the musicians playing at the Second Annual Southern California Slack Key Festival at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center.
The festival is the only one of its kind outside of Hawaii and is among the greatest gatherings of slack key players in the modern history of the music. The indoor setting, with its pristine acoustics, is ideal – and unusual – for a festival of ringing slack strings. The lineup features seven of the greatest acts currently working in Hawaiian music: the Pahinui Hawaiian Band, the group Maunalua, Barry Flanagan of the group Hapa, young Hawaiian world music star Makana and respected slack key veteran John Keawe.
The two other guitarists – Jeff Peterson and Jim “Kimo” West – are at the forefront of a movement that is taking Hawaiian music to some rather unexpected places: the worlds of jazz and blues and Japan. And in these two artists’ divergent paths – one is quite literally a wandering cowboy, the other a rock guitarist heretofore best known for his work with Weird Al Yankovic – one can glimpse at the strangely unifying power of songs in a slack key.

Songs of the
wandering Paniolo
The story of slack key guitar begins in a very real sense with the arrival of Captain George Vancouver aboard His Majesty’s Ship Discovery in 1793. Things had famously gone awry between the British and the Hawaiians a few years earlier – Captain James Cook died violently on the beach in 1779, although he was not eaten, as the myth goes – but Vancouver’s mission was a peaceful one. He brought Hawaii’s first unifying king, Kamehameha the Great, a gift: a small herd of cattle. Vancouver believed the cattle would be perfect for establishing a little old-fashioned English agriculture on the islands.
It wasn’t a small herd for very long. Kamehameha established a “kapu”, a ban against harming the animals, and allowed them to breed and wander to their heart’s hungry content. By the time the king’s grandson, Kamehameha III, ruled the islands in the 1830s, the herd was so out of control that he sent for Spanish-Mexican and Portuguese “vaqueros” to manage the cattle and teach Hawaiians the fine art of cowboying.
The cowboys brought guitars. They were called “paniolo” (from Espanol) by Hawaiians and trained local men to ride horses and rope cattle well before any cowboys roamed the ranges of the American mainland’s Wild West. And when they left – or didn’t, as some vaqueros chose to stay in Hawaii – the newly established paniolo way of life included cowboy music that the locals made their very own. Hawaiian music up until this point mainly consisted of chants. As the locals adapted the guitar to their own sensibilities, the music that emerged had a strong vocal quality: the paniolo learned to make their guitars sing. Hawaiian guitars have been singing ever since. Jeff Peterson was growing up in the mountains of Maui in the 1970s when he first heard the songs of the wandering cowboys. His father was a paniolo on the Haleakala Ranch, and some of Peterson’s earliest memories are of his father coming home at midday to play his guitar.
“He’d get up really early, you know, working on the ranch, and he’d come back in the early afternoon,” Peterson recalled. “And the first thing I could hear was boots coming through the wood floor of the old ranch house, ‘clunk, clunk, clunk,’ and I could tell he was back home. He’d have the chaps and the spurs on, the whole thing, but he’d take a break and pick up his guitar. He never played professionally, but he just really loved music.”
The real revelation of what the music meant came to Peterson when his father began taking him on camping trips up in the mountains and the little boy saw and heard the music in its native habitat.
“My father and his friends, they really enjoyed the outdoors, so they would go camping, they would go on fishing trips, and there was a cabin up on the mountain above where we lived,” Peterson said. “It was called the Peanut House because it was so small. No electricity, so all the cowboys would get up there – we’d ride horses up through the pastures to get there – and they’d start a fire and start cooking and break out all the instruments and have a great jam session. That is really where I got inspired to play, just sitting around and watching. I was tiny, about three or four, and all the way up through high school I used to keep going there. I could just see how much fun they were having and I thought, ‘Oh, I want to be a part of it.’ But at first I’d just watch, and I think that was a real part of tradition of learning Hawaiian music – it’s a folk tradition, an oral tradition, so you’d just watch and learn. And when they’d be done I’d sneak over and pick up the guitar and pick at it a little bit.”
Like Cyril Pahinui, Peterson also noticed something a little bit odd: these cowboys, who were so kind to him in every other respect, didn’t really seem to want to teach him much. And they particularly didn’t share their particular slack key tunings: those were closely guarded secrets. So Peterson listened closely, and learned, and by the time he graduated high school was such a proficient player that he was admitted into the music program at the University of Southern California. He’d gotten into electric rock guitar as a teenager, so he arrived at USC thinking he’d go in a different direction, musically, and studied classical and jazz guitar as an undergraduate. But away from Hawaii for the first time, he became homesick, and he found a way back home by playing slack key.
“I really felt this need the first time I got away from home to play the music I grew up around, and it became really important to me,” Peterson said. “And that is when I realized, wow, this is something really important for me to do. It’s who I am, it’s my roots, and so I really devoted myself to that music. But then I had this background, too, of playing classical music and jazz and all these other styles, and I found links between all these different styles.”
Peterson, who is 37, has become internationally renowned for his unique “slack key jazz” approach. He has performed with such musical legends as Michael Feinstein, James Galway, and Eric Clapton. Among his solo albums is a stunningly beautiful collection of jazz standards titled “Slack Key Jazz” (his version of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” is a marvel: the melody remains utterly intact, but somehow makes bebop Hawaiian). In his own way, he has become a slack key ambassador, as well, taking Hawaiian music into heretofore unexplored realms.
In fact, just recently, this son of a paniolo found himself in one of the more plush musical joints in the world – Feinstein’s at the Loew’s Regency on Park Avenue in New York City – playing with famed Broadway baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell.
“He let me do slack key in the show, and that was so incredible, to play for that audience, kind of the high-brow New York Park Avenue crowd,” Peterson said. “But they were so in to it. I think the music itself has a very emotional, soulfulness to it, and it just calms the whole New York energy down a little bit so people can take a deep breath and they can imagine that imagery in Hawaii. I think it is something that happens immediately with slack key – it takes you away from wherever you are, if you are outside Hawaii, and it takes you right back here.”
“Everyone is in their tuxedos and I started playing Hi’ilawe,” he said. “It’s a wonderful standard, and it was Gabby’s signature song, and just…the room was so silent you could hear a pin drop. It really had an impact on people, and it was such an honor to be able to share and represent Hawaii.”

Kimo’s death song
Jim West isn’t from Hawaii and his slack key journey began under sorrowful circumstances.
West was born in Canada and grew up in Florida as a straight-up rock n’ roll kid. He was a guitar player in rock bands from the time he was 14, and when he came to California as a young man in the early 1980s, he played pretty much anything that would land him a gig – punk, pop, jazz, rockabilly, whatever it took to pay the bills and keep on playing. He always played his acoustic around home, and as a devotee of old blues and slide guitar, he frequently messed around in open tunings developed on the Mississippi Delta by bluesman early last century. Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, he met up with a young songwriter and smartass who called himself “Weird Al” Yankovic. Soon, after Yankovic’s parody of Michael Jackson’s song “Beat It”, titled “Eat It”, became a national hit, West found himself touring nationally and enjoying a sort of weird rock star alternative reality.
But West also never stopped returning to his real love: instrumental music. He established himself as a composer and player for film and television and continued to explore as many textures as he could on guitar. In the late 1990s, he was living partly in Hermosa Beach and partly in Hawaii – where he’d been journeying regularly since the mid 1980s, hence the name “Kimo,” Hawaiian for Jim or James – when tragic turn of events occurred that took West in an unexpected musical direction.
An old buddy had just visited him in Hawaii – a man named James, who was a chef and a friend from his Florida days.
“Of course, having a chef as a house guest is always nice,” West said. “But then, after we got back, I got a message he’d died suddenly. He was this young guy, so I was really down about that, and I was sitting down playing my guitar just kind of to console myself and I kind of wrote my first slack key guitar song. So I named it after him and recorded it.”
He called the song “A Lei for James” and shared it with a Hawaiian friend, a man named Kalani English (who is now a Hawaii state senator). English was astonished, and told him he should do more music in slack key style.
“So at some point I had 12 or 13 songs, and somebody said you should put out a CD, and I hadn’t even thought about it – I was just recording them basically so I wouldn’t forget them.”
That collection of songs became the album “Coconut Hat” – named after the hats Hawaiians weave for tourists – and it quickly established West as a slacker, it’s really an honor to represent the music. I was thinking of the Kupuna [the elders], the people who came before us, and it’s always a tribute to what they have already done. It’s great to people living in California who are from Hawaii – it’s like taking a vacation, coming back home for a few hours – and then to see a lot of new faces.”
One of the elders very much present was Gabby Pahinui. Whenever and wherever his son Cyril plays, the mighty spirit of the original slack key ambassador drifts from Cyril’s guitar, bringing with it an evocation of waterfalls, mountains, flowers, and the beauty of his home beneath the Ko‘olau Mountains.
“Oh yeah, I feel his presences every time when I’m performing,” Cyril Pahinui said. “When I do his favorite songs and things like that, I always feel his presence, because if it wasn’t for my father, I wouldn’t be doing this…my brothers, it’s different, but it’s almost that we have the same feeling. For me, the way I play, I think of my dad, I think of Sonny Chillingsworth, I think of Atta Issacs – those are the three most of all in my life playing music, and if I can add them in music today…And what makes it great, I do things and kids say, where are you getting this from? And my secret is my secret. I don’t look in the books for anything. It’s just by hearing and by playing with the people I play with.” Slack key music is an antithesis of what music often becomes in today’s so-called music industry, where somehow music itself – which in most of human history has sprung from family and community – becomes something apart from us, just another commodity. Slack key is a decidedly backyard music, a stroll together through a forest, a shared seat by a waterfall.
West said that this is a quality that attracted him to the music, and something he has tried to adhere to – he doesn’t play slack key in search of some “niche” market or to supplement his income, but rather out of a pure love for the music. He has recorded several slack key records – including “Hotel Honolulu”, an album of Eagles songs done in slack key – and he has brought many of his musical influences to bear in what he brings to his Hawaiian music – his “Goin’ Up Country” is a stunningly lovely slack key blues and he has taken a few touristy Hawaiian songs like “Little Grass Shack” and transformed them into slack key gems (He and Peterson plan to perform West’s slack key arrangement of “Chatanooga Choo-Choo”, dubbed “Waimananlo Choo-Choo after the former narrow gauge line that ran in Hawaii).
And West tries not to make a dime while doing it.
“It was kind of a thing where nobody was out trying to make money with it, and that in fact has sort of been the basis of my slack key career,” West said. “It’s like, you know, I always record these records just out of love of doing it – I don’t do it thinking I’m going to make a whole lot of money. I just try to keep that motivation completely away from it. I just do it because I like to do it and I sell enough CDs to where at a certain point I can afford to make another one.”
Peterson, whose songs often veer into jazz, somehow always manages to retain this inherent Hawaiian quality. His music ranges widely – “Let’s Ride”, for instance, invokes giddy-up rides through his home pastures while touching on a little bluegrass tinge – but it always goes back to home.
“What really makes slack key what it is – it’s not just the tuning, it’s the phrasing, and it’s the sense of Aloha that goes into the music,” Peterson said. “There is a feeling, you can’t really describe it, but it comes from living in Hawaii and it comes from knowing the people and the culture and the beauty of the place. I think of a lot of imagery when I perform. So I might imagine that Peanut House up on the mountain and my childhood and the experiences I had, or it might be a different place, like the Manoa Valley where I live now…it’s outside Honolulu, but there is a rainforest right down the street from me.”
It’s a funny thing – many of the tunings, of which there are hundreds, are identical to country and blues tunings. In fact, a big part of the country sound – the lap slide, or steel guitar – originated in Hawaii. Cyril Pahinui recalled meeting Chet Atkins, who was a great admirer of his father’s and had hoped to record an album with him before Gabby’s untimely passing, and being surprised to learn that his C and G tunings were alive and well in Nashville.
“When I met Chet Atkins and when he found out I was Gabby Pahinui’s son, he wanted me to be at his convention, and I’ve been going there for seven years,” Cyril said. “Man, I never met so many guitar players in my life…I used to sit right next to Chet for lunch and dinner and talk story, and in front of 3,000 people, he talked about me and my dad. When he first heard me play, I was playing the 12-string in this C tuning I play, and told me, ‘Sir, you sound like three guys playing.’ I hit the ceiling, to have person like that talking about my dad and me.”
Cyril often thinks of something else his father said to him. “Son,” Gabby said, not long before his passing, “Stick to your guitar.”
He has stuck to his guitar, and it has taken him on a long, wondrous journey that always leads straight home to Hawaii, wherever he is. Cyril has won many awards – including a Grammy – but he says his reward came from his home, from that time when he was a little boy tip-toeing to his father’s guitar case in the middle of the night.
“My biggest Grammy – my Dad is my big award,” he said. “To have him, to have his name: Gabby Pahinui, I am the son of Gabby, and that is the biggest award I can have.” ER
For information and tickets to the Southern California Slack Key Festival, see www.socalslackkeyfest.com. For information on the artists in this story, see www.cyrilpahinui.com, www.jeffpetersonguitar.com, and www.jimkimowest.com.