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World Music Features

The Pahinuis And The Slack Key Tradition

By Bruce Sach
Published October 23, 2008

Becoming a slack key guitarist is not for the weak-willed slacker.

Becoming a slack key guitarist is not for the weak-willed slacker. Traditionally, there is an intensive apprenticeship that could be best described as tough love and trust based on the student learning their lessons. Even if one goes to watch a guitarist play, and does so a little too intently (where the performer thinks the audience member is trying to pick up techniques), a guitarist will turn his back effectively hiding his hands.

 

Ironically, this rigorous training and secrecy is not belied by the resulting music, which seemingly effortlessly echoes the gentle features of the Hawaiian landscape. Listeners can hear the trade winds, the surf, the swaying palm trees, the gentle waterfalls all combining to create an effect usually described as nahenahe (soft and gentle), which traces its origins back to the music’s roots in hula dancing.  

This beautiful music first came to being in the 1830s when Hawaiian King Kamehameha III invited Mexican vaqueros to teach native Hawaiians the intricacies of herding and raising cattle on the Big Island. Not only had they laid the foundation for the tradition of the paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys), they taught the basics of strumming guitar. They even left a few guitars behind. Not knowing how to conventionally tune their guitars, the novice, teacher-less Hawaiians tuned the guitars to their own voice, using their thumbs to create the bass guitar accompaniment. They often employed an open tuning, whereas a major chord is achieved by strumming the strings without touching the frets. (See sidebar below for more information.)

By the 20th century, Hawaiian musicians, in an attempt to pander to American mainland tastes, began to loose their roots and some would say the music’s soul. It didn’t help that the best slack key guitar players tended to keep their tunings to themselves, sharing them, at best, with their own families and openly discouraging anyone else from learning them. These were often hardscrabble working class and rural folk who played music at nights and on weekends with friends and family. One picked it up through apprenticeship and family.

 

The story of innovator Gabby Pahinui is remarkable only in the prodigious talent that made him a legend in his time. Born into a large family of limited means, Pahinui (1921-1980) was the son of a Hawaiian father and a Hawaiian/German/Portuguese mother, only to be adopted by the Pahinui family at an early age.

The Hawaiian practice of hanai (adoption) was often used for the purpose of training craftsmen, hula dancers or healers, with children as young as three being raised by other families. This tradition would pave the way for Pahinui’s path to mastery of the slack key guitar.

Gabby was taken under the wing of Herman Keawe, today recognized as one of the great slack key guitarists of his time.  So, although Gabby normally would not have been exposed to “family” music at the Pahinui home, he had the good luck to be adopted m

According to Hawaiian musicologist Hal Glatzer: “A guitarist fingers the strings ("frets" them) before strumming, to make a chord. But with an open tuning, the strings are, in effect, already fretted.  That is: they're tuned to produce a chord without being fingered.  Most open tunings make a "major" chord – typically, the "key" chord for a song, or a chord that will be needed often in that song. Open tunings also enable a guitarist to create unusual chord or melodic effects that would be impossible or very difficult with a conventional tuning.”

A description of contemporary slack key master guitarist Cyril Pahinui’s playing almost belies the beautiful seamless effect it creates. Liner notes on George Winston’s Dancing Cat label read like figure skating score sheets: “Note Cyril’s signature three finger rolls in his improvised chord progression or his long rubato opening. He will often play with two octaves, giving the impression that two guitars are being used as he plays with different tempos, different melodies, different distinct guitar ornaments and different ways of going back and forth between the two chords.”  References to the distinct tunings used will also be noted, ranging from Taro Patch to Mauna Loa, to C or G Wahine.