The Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF) mourns the passing of Native Hawaiian slack key guitar player Cyril Pahinui (2013 National Artist Fellow – Music). Known for his warm demeanor and generous spirit, he was a cherished member of the NACF family of artists. In his storied career, Cyril twice played at Carnegie Hall, contributed to three Grammy Award-winning albums, received several Hoku Hanohano Awards and recorded on more than 35 Hawaiian musical releases. As a slack key guitarist, Cyril’s technical virtuosity, rhythmic adaptations and instrumental harmonics impart the soul of Hawaiian music, and his beautiful, emotive, and well-recognized voice renders an intimate picture of his Pacific island home. As his wife Chelle told NPR, “It’s improvisational music. Just as a hula dancer can do the hand motion for a wave in a hundred different ways, so can a guitarist play a phrase a hundred different ways. Cyril never did a song the same way twice. He always created the music with the emotion he was feeling at the moment. If he was happy, he could play it quick and lively, but if he was feeling down, he could slow it down and pull at your heartstrings.”
Cyril, the son of musical legend, Gabby Pahinui, was in his own right, one of Hawai‘i’s most gifted guitarists and singers. Cyril said of his musical journey, “I started playing music from the time I could hold an ukulele, began learning slack key at age seven, and performed on stage for the first time when I was 12. I grew up with four sisters and five brothers, and we all learned music in the traditional way, by listening and watching my dad and other musicians. That was the style in the old days – if you really wanted to learn, you had to listen. In those days, we didn’t get music lessons, and most of the musicians I knew didn’t read music. Most of the techniques were considered to be secret and were not shared outside the family or music community. We really had to work hard to learn.”
In turn, Cyril took great pleasure in teaching and providing guidance to the next generation of players. “I really found my love when I started teaching in the schools and communities throughout the islands and where ever I travel to perform. I have some really great students coming up and I look forward to watching them and hearing my stylings and C tuning in their playing”, said Pahinui. “I felt that this music should be taught in the same way it was taught for generations. What is known as the kanikapila style of learning, in Native Hawaiian, ‘come let’s play music.’ Kanikapila refers to the old style of learning where musicians watch and listen and play along at their own skill level.”
Our deepest sympathies go out to his family, including his wife, Chelle Pahinui, daughters Amber, Andrea, Anne, Carrie, and Elizabeth, 19 grandchildren, his brothers James (“Bla”) and Philip Pahinui, and sisters Margaret Pahinui Puuohau and Madelyn Pahinui Coleman.