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Hawaiian music legend Aaron Mahi dies at 70

STAR-ADVERTISER / 1998
                                Pictured is Aaron Mahi who served as bandmaster of the Royal Hawaiian Band for 24 years.
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STAR-ADVERTISER / 1998

Pictured is Aaron Mahi who served as bandmaster of the Royal Hawaiian Band for 24 years.

STAR-ADVERTISER / 1989
                                Aaron Mahi directs the all-volunteer Hawaii Ecumenical Chorale.
2/2
Swipe or click to see more

STAR-ADVERTISER / 1989

Aaron Mahi directs the all-volunteer Hawaii Ecumenical Chorale.

STAR-ADVERTISER / 1998
                                Pictured is Aaron Mahi who served as bandmaster of the Royal Hawaiian Band for 24 years.
STAR-ADVERTISER / 1989
                                Aaron Mahi directs the all-volunteer Hawaii Ecumenical Chorale.

Aaron Mahi — musician, composer, conductor, recording artist, kahu and bandmaster of the Royal Hawaiian Band for 24 years — died Saturday just days before his birthday. He was 70 years old and had been in declining health for several years.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi described Mahi as “a true legend in the world of music.”

“Aaron’s legacy as the bandmaster for the Royal Hawaiian Band for nearly a quarter of the century leaves an indelible mark on our community and our culture,” Blangiardi said in a press release this morning.

“His dedication and passion for preserving and sharing the rich musical traditions of our native Hawaiian heritage have touched countless lives. Aaron was more than a musician; he was a beloved figure whose influence extended far beyond the notes he played. His commitment to excellence and his love for our island’s music have inspired generations, and his loss will be deeply felt by all who had the privilege to know him or experience his artistry… We will forever cherish his contributions to our community and the joy he brought into our lives through his music.”

Born and raised in Honolulu on July 9, 1953, Aaron David Mahi gravitated to music at an early age. At 14, he received a mentored scholarship from the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra. He graduated from Kamehameha Schools in 1971 and continued his musical education at the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut and at the Herbert Blomstedt Institute of Conducting at La Sierra University in California.

Mahi returned to Hawaii in the mid-1970s. He performed with the Windward Symphony Orchestra and recorded as a member of two Hawaiian music groups — Hui Aloha ʻAina Tuahine and Kaimana.

In 1978, he was commissioned to compose string arrangements for “Captain Cook, A Bicentennial Tribute 1778-1978,” an album commemorating the bicentennial arrival of Captain Cook.

The next year Mahi joined the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra as a bassist and then began occasional performances as its conductor. In 1981, Honolulu Mayor Aileen Anderson appointed him bandmaster of the Royal Hawaiian Band. He served as bandmaster for 24 years.

Mahi was the first Native Hawaiian to serve as bandmaster since Charles E. King retired in 1941. He was the only bandmaster other than Heinrich “Henri” Berger, the “Father” of the modern Royal Hawaiian Band, who was fluent in English, Hawaiian and German, and he was therefore able to read German-language materials dating from Berger’s 43 years as bandmaster.

Mahi was an active conservator of the band’s Hawaiian legacy. He sought out lesser-known compositions by classic Hawaiian composers, used the piano scores of lost orchestrations to re-create them, and continued the band’s tradition of touring outside Hawaii with tours of Europe and Japan, as well as to the U.S. mainland.

In 1983, while on tour in Germany, Mahi was presented with a schellenbaum (a traditional German band instrument known to English speakers as a “jingling-johnnie”) to replace the band’s original schellenbaum that had been looted sometime after the Overthrow in 1893.

In 1988, he collaborated with the Friends of the Royal Hawaiian Band, a private community group, to produce and release two CDs recorded during the band’s concert at Carnegie Hall concert that year.

In 2003, the Federal Republic of Germany awarded him the Bundesverdeinstkreuz (Federal Merit Cross) for his continuing success in renewing and strengthening the traditional cultural ties between Hawaii and Germany.

There was then considerable public backlash in 2004 when newly elected Mayor Mufi Hannemenn announced that he would be replacing Mahi with a high school band teacher. Mahi’s last concert as bandmaster was on Feb. 13, 2005.

An alii philanthropist offered to lead a campaign to create a new band for Mahi that would be a full-scale rival to the Royal Hawaiian Band. Mahi graciously declined the offer. Commenting publicly on his ouster Mahi expressed his feelings in Hawaiian: “Mai nana inoino na hewa ke kanaka, aka ahui kala ama‘ema‘e no.” (“Don’t look at the sins of men, but forgive and be cleansed.”)

In the years that followed Mahi continued his life’s work as a musician, composer, conductor, recording artist, researcher and cultural resource. He played music in Waikiki with George Kuo and Martin Pahinui, did cultural research in Hawaii and elsewhere, and charted new musical arrangements of the annual Kamehameha Schools song contests.

Mahi also served as kahu of the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs and as kahu of the Makiki Community of Christ Church. From 2009 until 2021, Mahi was a part of the Hui Nohona culture team for the Partners in Development Foundation.

He received the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts Lifetime Achievement Award in 2021.

Funeral services are pending.

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