When Cyril Pahinui arrives for his weekly Wednesday night gig at Kani Ka Pila Grille, the valet and bell team at Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort, spring into action. One opens Uncle Cyril’s car door. One grabs a luggage cart. Another starts unpacking Uncle Cyril’s gear, including the slack key guitar for which Cyril is known.
This is how the people of Hawaii take care of a Hawaiian music legend.
Uncle Cyril is wearing his trademark hat—backwards—when we greet each other with kisses on the cheek. This night, Uncle’s aloha shirt is black with a design of a manta ray on the back, and I know his two backup musicians will be wearing the same when they arrive.
We walk by the hotel’s pool, past the restaurant fixture known as The Shore Bird with its bird’s eye view of Diamond Head, and step onto the sands of Waikiki Beach. We talk about the recent rain, and Cyril says, “It’s better than snow.” And I get the sense that nothing much bothers Cyril. He’s reached a place of equanimity in his life. “I enjoy life,” he says.
We look out at Waikiki on a sunny evening as the shadows are beginning to lengthen, and Cyril says, “What do I see? I see home. As a local boy, Waikiki and Hawaii will always be my home. I’ve been all over the world. I’ve played Carnegie Hall and Nashville.” He looks down the beach toward Diamond Head. Beyond that point and up the coastline, past Koko Head and Makapuu, lies Waimanalo, the location of Cyril’s childhood and immersion into Hawaiian music. “But this is my home.”
I note his boyish laugh, a high note played in repetition. He continues. “When I walk the beach, I think about my ancestors, my ohana, and my kuleana. I am so blessed to live in Hawaii. I started playing Hawaiian music when I was a young boy, learning from my dad. But it’s my generation’s turn to carry on my dad’s legacy and that of his peers. I want to help the next generation of musicians.”
Cyril’s dad is the Hawaiian music pioneer Gabby “Pops” Pahinui, known for his mad guitar skills, his falsetto, and his Waimanalo home where musicians gathered in what is now widely known as the “kanikapila” form. That is, free-form, backyard jam sessions. Here, the traditional Hawaiian music style was forged.
Speaking of kanikapila, Cyril was behind the naming of the restaurant at Outrigger Reef on the Beach. “It really just means, ‘Let’s play music,’” he says. “I am happy and proud that I can send my friends and family to a place where there’s good Hawaiian music every night of the week. People come here from all over the world--Mississippi, Wisconsin, New York, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Virginia, Tennessee. I want to spread Hawaiian music all over the world.”
To that end, Cyril, at 64, just released his latest CD. Cyril plays slack key guitar, Jeff Au Hoy plays steel guitar, and Peter Wook Moon plays ukulele. “It just came out this month,” he says. “Traditional Hawaiian music in the Pahinui style.”
The irony, Cyril tells me, is that when he was 17 he started playing with Peter’s dad, who was 23. Fast forward a few years, and he's playing with Peter--who was 17 when they first started playing together. When it comes to music in Hawaii, it’s a circular progression.
By now, we’ve made our return walk past the pool and to the stage, where Cyril starts to set up for his evening performance. When he takes his seat behind the microphone, slack key guitar in his arms, he says, “Welcome to Kani Ka Pila Grille. This is the place where we practice. The place where we perform. People from all over the world come here just to listen to Hawaiian music. This is my life. This is my home. This is my everything.
We call ourselves Kani Pu Kolu, three sounds together. We have ukulele, steel guitar, and slack key guitar. We love to play traditional Hawaiian music. Because that’s where we come from."
Earlier, when I asked Cyril about his set list for the night, he said with his light-hearted laugh, “There is no set playlist. They just follow me. They know. We play what comes to us in the moment. That’s kani ka pila style. We have fun. That’s the whole point when we play music. It’s different every time.”