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Hawaii News

Multifaceted musician Aaron Mahi inspired generations

CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / 2005
                                Aaron Mahi plays bass for the Glee Club during a Royal Hawaiian Band concert at the Kapiolani Park Bandstand.
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CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / 2005

Aaron Mahi plays bass for the Glee Club during a Royal Hawaiian Band concert at the Kapiolani Park Bandstand.

STAR-ADVERTISER / 1989
                                Aaron Mahi conducts the Royal Hawaiian Band.
2/3
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STAR-ADVERTISER / 1989

Aaron Mahi conducts the Royal Hawaiian Band.

CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / 2005
                                Aaron Mahi directs the all-volunteer Hawaii Ecumenical Chorale.
3/3
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CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / 2005

Aaron Mahi directs the all-volunteer Hawaii Ecumenical Chorale.

CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / 2005
                                Aaron Mahi plays bass for the Glee Club during a Royal Hawaiian Band concert at the Kapiolani Park Bandstand.
STAR-ADVERTISER / 1989
                                Aaron Mahi conducts the Royal Hawaiian Band.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / 2005
                                Aaron Mahi directs the all-volunteer Hawaii Ecumenical Chorale.

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Highlights from the music career of Aaron Mahi

Aaron Mahi, a musician, composer, conductor, recording artist, kahu and bandmaster of the Royal Hawaiian Band for 24 years, died Saturday. He was 70 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 Sunday morning in a news release.

“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.”

Veteran steel guitarist Bobby Ingano recalled sitting in with Mahi, George Kuo and Martin “Gramps” Pahinui at the Waikiki Beach Marriott back when the hotel was a go-to place for Hawaiian music in Waikiki.

“I used to sit in with them every Sunday,” Ingano said. “Aaron them would pack the place on Sundays. He and Martin were the happy ones in the group — kolohe, comical, practical jokers.”

Ingano added that Mahi also was a talented and versatile cook.

“One day at his house there was this big spread — everybody pule (pray) and then make plate. I saw this (Filipino) dish, pork guisantes, belly pork with beans. I said, ‘Who made this?’ Aaron said, ‘It’s my first try. I wanted to try make it.’ I took one taste and, I hate to say it, but it was better than my mom’s! I told him, ‘You cook this better than Filipinos.’”

Born — on July 9, 1953 — and raised in Honolulu, 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 in Connecticut and with conductor Herbert Blomstedt 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 ‘Aina Tuahine and Kaimana.

In 1978 he was commissioned to write 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 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, which had been looted sometime after the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom 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 in 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 Hannemann announced that he would be replacing Mahi with a high school band teacher. Mahi’s last concert as bandmaster was 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 Kuo and Pahinui, did cultural research in Hawaii and elsewhere, and wrote new musical arrangements for 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 Partners in Development Foundation.

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

Memorial observances are pending.

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