Carrying On

By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer, 2015 Artists in Business Leadership Fellow


Slack key guitarist Cyril Lani Pahinui (Native Hawaiian) has performed at Carnegie Hall, contributed to three Grammy Award–winning albums, received several Hoku Hanohano Awards, and recorded on more than 35 Hawaiian musical releases. Through First Peoples Fund, Cyril received a Community Spirit Award and two Cultural Capital fellowships. Cyril lives with his wife, Chelle, in Honolulu and Hilo.

The aroma of beef stew and rice welcomed some of the greatest Hawaiian musicians to Cyril Lani Pahinui’s home as his father’s fame grew. The setting was perfect for the rejuvenation of Hawai’i musical traditions. But it wasn’t easy for Cyril to learn.

Since his dad — music legend Gabby Pahinui — slacked his guitar strings and hid it in the closet at night, the only way Cyril could learn was to get up at 4 a.m. to prepare breakfast for Gabby so he would spend one-on-one time with Cyril. Gabby only taught those who wanted to learn, who paid attention. Listened. Practiced. Dedicated themselves.

Cyril’s dedication paid off the day his dad asked him to join his band. That moment began a lifetime of mastering what Gabby and other slack key guitarist taught Cyril in the coming years. His dad said, “One day, my sons’ time will come.”

Cyril played with Gabby, his brothers, rock-’n’-roll bands, country music stars. He toured in Germany, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, and across the U.S. with Ledward Kaapana and Dennis Kamakahi.

After Gabby passed, Cyril continued his father’s legacy. When he walked onto the stage at Carnegie Hall for a historic Hawaiian music concert, he said, “Dad, we made it.” He could feel his dad there with him, and he played as though Gabby was the only one listening, his perfect ear on every note.

Cyril found love in teaching at schools and communities throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Workshops, music videos, mentorships. He’s focused on archiving historical content while sharing it with the world. With support from previous First Peoples Fund programs, Cyril completed award-winning CDs with and for his students, expanded teaching programs, and produced a film, Let’s Play Music with Cyril Pahinui and Friends Part I, that won the Na Hoku Music Video of the Year and aired widely on PBS.

Failing health and hospitalization hasn’t stopped Cyril. He mentors advanced students from his hospital room and is creating an online monthly video series, working on an instructional book, videos and another film (Let’s Play Music Part II), organizing the 10th Annual Gabby Pahinui Waimanalo Kanikpila Festival (featuring 150 musicians and dancers), and producing a new album.

Cyril wants to ensure the next generation can carry this style of Hawaiian music forward.