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Hawaii slack key guitar legend Bla Pahinui dies at 76

  • DENNIS ODA / 2016

    Slack key guitarist James “Bla” Pahinui died today in his Mokuleia home.

James Daniel Pahinui — known for most of his life as “Bla,” the greatest left-handed slack key guitarist of his generation — died Wednesday at his home in Mokuleia after a long battle with cancer. He was 76.

Friends, fans and other musicians mourned his passing.

Eric Keawe, the youngest son of famed Hawaiian falsetto singer Genoa Keawa, recalled Pahinui as a musician who followed “his own path after his Hawaiian music journey with the original Sunday Manoa and the Gabby Pahinui Band. He loved the other side of Hawaiian music called ‘pop music.’”

Keawe added that Pahinui was “like a brother to us. He grew close to our brother Sam Aiko and lived a while out in Hawaii Kai with Sam and his wife, so when we saw each other our hugs of aloha were special. Our last connection was just last year when the mural blessing took place for the mural on the Waimanalo Feed Store wall that shows his father and our mother.”

Rishanna Pactol remembered his “contagious laugh and smile.”

“I had so much fun taking pictures with him and the guys for their last album. I will never forget his voice, and his big heart! Love you Uncle Bla!”

Honolulu musician and professional storyteller James McCarthy recalled hearing him play in a park.

“My dearest memory of Bla is visiting with him at a nearby neighborhood park. I had seen him play, and been at some parties, but the true spirit of the man was so clear when there were no crowds around — just the welcoming smile and twinkling eyes.”

Honolulu marketing executive Patrick Bullard spoke for many in saying simply, “We lost another treasure.”

The second son born to slack key master Charles Philip “Gabby” Pahinui and his wife, Emily Kauha Pahinui, Bla Pahinui learned how to play ukulele in childhood by watching his father, but only took up the guitar several years later while he was incarcerated in what was then known as the Koolau Boys Home.

His teacher, another teenage inmate, was right-handed, and so he learned to play on a guitar that was strung for a right-handed guitarist — “upside down and backwards” for him.

Playing “upside down and backwards” meant hitting the guitar strings in reverse order when he strummed chords, picking the bass strings with his index finger and the higher strings with his thumb when playing slack key, and set him apart from both his right-handed peers and those left-handed guitarists who re-strung their guitars to be played left-handed. This became one of his personal trademarks as a performer.

Pahinui’s first love as a performer was rock ’n’ roll, and he played Waikiki nightclubs as a member of the Playboys, a local bar band, in the early 1960s.

In 1969 he replaced his younger brother, Cyril Pahinui, as a member of the Sunday Manoa and made his debut as a recording artist on the group’s second album, “Hawaiian Time.”

He joined his father, Cyril and two other brothers, Philip and Martin, in recording a series of highly regarded albums in the 1970s, and followed them with several solo albums in the 1980s.

He recorded a single album with Cyril and Martin in 1992, and several solo albums after that— including two for George Winston’s Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters series.

Several solo projects followed, two of which were part of George Winston’s Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters series. In 2016 he came full circle, releasing an album of rock ’n’ roll classics as the leader of quartet named Big Knife.

Throughout his career Pahinui was also known for his strong and soulful singing style that reminded many people of his father.

Bla Pahinui received the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.

Despite his talent as a musician, Pahinui spent much of his life working in construction or doing park maintenance for the city.

He excelled at counseling “at risk” youth; whatever they had done, seen or suffered, they found a kindred soul and heard the no-nonsense voice of experience in Bla Pahinui.

Survivors include his wife, Kathleen Pahinui, his daughter Brandy Clark, his brother Philip Pahinui, and sisters Margaret Pahinui Puuohau and Madelyn Pahinui Coleman.

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