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Details might fade, but Gabby’s magic endures

My friend from college days at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, Bob Moore, says being at a Gabby-fest in Waimanalo, when music-lovers and hangers-on would head out to watch the best of the best in Hawaiian slack-key guitar play music in a back yard close to the beach, is his best memory ever — better than being at Woodstock.

I was there, too, and my bet is that none of us can actually remember the first time we loaded up the cooler with Michelob, stuffed everyone who would fit into Bob’s Uncle Charlie’s "dependable" VW van and hit the road for Waimanalo. But we remember Gabby.

Uncle Charlie always said we could depend on it that the van would have problems, the least of which were the expired license plates, but somehow we made it.

Uncle’s name was Charlie Moore, except when he introduced himself as Chuck Less. He said he played guitar but it was always "being fixed."

Charlie did hang out at the legendary Sandbox bar on Sand Island, and it turned out he really did know Gabby "Pops" Pahinui, David "Feet" Rogers and others. He introduced us between songs.

In the ’70s everyone in our entire Papakolea neighborhood was smitten with the sound of life in Hawaii that came from Gabby. We were wearing "Protect Kaho’olawe" T-shirts and trying to grow our own vegetables in the back yard. Most of us were part-time students with part-time jobs. We listened to Gabby’s LPs — long-playing vinyl records.

His voice could sound somewhere between a bulldozer and a train wreck, then turn so sweet that it brought Primo Beer-enhanced tears to our eyes. He connected us, he spoke for us.

BACK IN THE DAY, local businessman Bob Hampton was the owner of Territorial Tavern, the Bishop Street bar where dozens of Hawaiian musicians got a shot at stardom. The weekly lineup read like the racks of Borders Music; the Beamer Brothers, comedy team Booga Booga, the Brothers Cazimero — he booked them all.

"Gabby didn’t have a regular gig, but when he sat in with Eddie Kamae on Hawaiian Sunday, we could hear the crowd from our upstairs office," Hampton says. "Gabby would sing a few songs, then sit down to a row of cold beers. Everyone wanted to buy him a round."

We got the word one night at the Tavern that Gabby’s Bell Street yard in Waimanalo was hopping, and the musicians could be our new best friends. Of course, Uncle Charlie said he would take us if we bought the beer.

By the time we arrived, Gabby’s street in Waimanalo was bumper to bumper with trucks that made ours look new. It was summer. It was hot and humid and smelled of dogs and ducks.

We followed the crowd and the chicken-skin sound of Gabby’s voice singing "Hi’ilawe."

The lawn was jammed with guys and guitars. Under the singing there was a buzz of talk about chording and where the song was born and "who took my beer."

Clutching a cold beer, we handed over the full cooler and sat down for the duration — sometimes a few hours, sometimes until morning.

Our biggest concerns were not to run out of beer and not get left behind when someone realized that it was Monday morning and "we’re late to class, man, we gotta boogie!" People really did say "boogie" back then.

AT THESE Waimanalo marathon music experiences, I don’t really remember food, only music and musicians. Talking to some of my former neighbors only brings up more of the same. What we remember is the song and the guitar-playing — the reward and the excitement of it.

There were times when Gabby had a hard time singing, times when he looked much older than his years. But he’d been living with intensity for a lifetime, and playing the backyard kanikapilas since the 1950s.

Reading musician, filmmaker and Hawaiian treasure Eddie Kamae’s biography, "Hawaiian Son," makes it clear that Gabby’s musical legacy with the Sons of Hawaii evolved from his friendship with fellow musicians. Kamae’s account of sitting down with Gabby for "an hour" in Waimanalo — and staying for days — offers up a close view of Gabby’s magic. It could be beautiful but it took stamina.

There are volumes of stories about Gabby. He was loved, and his fellow musicians recognize his legacy.

Listen carefully to IZ’s 1993 "Facing Future" CD and you’ll hear the late, great IZ say, "Kay, dis one’s for Gabby."

Hard work, a dozen kids and a hard life filled with hard drinking took Gabby away earlier than many would have liked — born in 1921, he died on Oct. 13, 1980, at age 59.

Lucky for us all, three of Gabby’s sons, Bla, Martin and Cyril, have grown the Pahinui tradition — followed by many other musicians who were inspired by hearing Gabby.

Everyone who loves Hawaiian music should know the joy of sitting at musicians’ feet in Waimanalo, hearing music played at the source.

Lynn Cook, a resident of Oahu since 1963 (and longtime Gabby Pahinui fan), is a freelance arts, culture and travel writer in Honolulu.


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