Gabby Pahinui, says DeSoto Brown, a Hawaiian cultural-history expert whose brother worked with Pahinui, was not only that he was an outstanding musician and entertainer, and a central figure, maybe THE central figure, of the Hawaiian Renaissance in the '70s, but that he was an inspiration to others. Thousands of Hawaiian kids learned that they were worthy as a people because of Gabby's example.
Born Charles Kapono Kahahawaii Jr., and hanai'd into the Pahinui family, Pahinui was 59 when he died on a golf course in 1980. He worked for the City and County road and refuse crews most of his life. His real passion, though, was music, and Pahinui was one of the great natural musicians of Hawaii, the sort of pure channel that drew international stars like Ry Cooder to learn at his knee.
Pahinui taught himself bass fiddle at age 10. Although he claimed to not understand written music, the charts he prepared for recordings were widely praised for their inventive, jazzy phrasing. Pahinui's rich baritone trembled with bottomless emotion when he sang, and he could slide into a feathery falsetto that cut deeply into people's soul.
Gabby landed a gig as a back-up guitarist for Charley 'Tiny' Brown. He quickly mastered the steel guitar without ever learning to read music. Because most musicians of the time only played in bars, Gabby also formed a drinking habit that stuck with him throughout his life.