The Father of Hawaiian Music

“Pops”, they called him. Phillip Kunia “Gabby Pops” Pahinui was his full name, and they called him “Pops” because he led a revival of Hawaiian music in the 20th century. Pops was at the forefront of the Hawaiian Renaissance.

Gabby Pahinui was an icon not only for his generation but for the young musicians that followed. Today, Gabby is still considered one of the masters of Hawaiian music, a major source influence that continues to permeate the musical culture of these islands. But before all of Hawaii and the world looked to Gabby as the leader of Hawaiian folk music, Gabby was a young man who mastered slack key, steel guitar and just about every other musical instrument he picked up—without a single lesson. He played his first bar gig at 13. Over the next few years Pops would perform at over 200 nightclubs in Honolulu and play alongside famous Hawaiian artists of the time: Andy Cummings, Sol Ho’opi’I, Charley “Tiny” Brown,  John Puni Paulia, and many more. His biggest influences outside of Hawaiian music were jazz greats:
  • Charlie Christian, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and Django Reinhardt
Over the next decades, Gabby continued to perform with the best Hawaiian musicians and was a member of the group, Sons of Hawaii, which featured Hawaii’s greatest:
  • Eddie Kamae, David Rogers, Moe Keale, Dennis Kamakahi, and Joe Marshall.
Although Gabby mastered the steel guitar, his slack key guitar gifts helped keep the instrument alive in the islands. His slack key playing remains the benchmark for musicians aspiring to master the “ki ho’alu”, or slack key. Musicians from around the islands would come down to Gabby’s famous Waimanalo home to jam, eat, drink and fellowship in music. The Pahinui household was a cooking pot of Hawaiian Music. Everyone who was anyone came by to jam with “The Master”, so much that the Waimanalo house became a second home for musicians. Pops was a working-class hero. He inspired generations of artists with his musical mastery, yet he met struggles with finances and a heavy drinking problem. Together with his wife, Emily, they had 13 children (three were lost to miscarriages). In fact, they once had such a hard time paying the rent and feeding their kids that Pops had to sell five guitars. But Pops was a humble, respectable man who never asked for too much. He never once relied on welfare for help. He worked for the City & County of Honolulu for 14 years to support his family, but Pops met with an accident. Pops said he would’ve continued working until retirement. Pops played purely out of love for music.
Scholars of Hawaiian music cite him as a major influence.  Yet rather than seek commercial success, he played music out of pure love. Instead of compromising his music, he supported his family by driving a City & County of Honolulu refuse truck for much of his life, until he had an accident on the job.  In the last few years of his life he taught Hawaiian slack key guitar to the youngsters of the community for the County’s Department of Parks and Recreation. –
Pops passed his musical legacy to his sons when he asked them to perform on his album, “Gabby” (1972). The album was and still is a milestone in Hawaiian music that transcends all efforts attempting to achieve what Pops accomplished. More interestingly, most of the musicians on the album were his sons, including:
  • Bla Pahinui, Cyril Pahinui, Martin Pahinui and Phillip Pahinui.
In the late 1970s, the State House of Representatives recognized Pops as the foremost figurehead in preserving Hawaii culture. In 1979, Gabby became a “Living Treasure of Hawaii” and a year later he won a Na Hoku Hanohano award for “Slack Key Medley” from the album “Pure Gabby”. Later that year, October 13, 1980, Gabby “Pops” Pahinui passed away after suffering a massive stroke. Years of heavy alcohol habit and the accident that left him unable to work took its final toll. Pops will be remembered as the father of Hawaiian folk music, a man that everyone will look up to for inspiration even when Pops himself never thought highly of his accomplishments.

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