In the Spirit of Gabby

Milton Lau played guitar with Gabby Pahinui, and founded the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival to honor his legacy.  The 25th annual festival happens Sunday, featuring the musicians pictured here

Melissa Moniz
Friday - August 17, 2007
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Preparing for the 25th annual Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival, legendary musicians are proud to carry on a true Island tradition

From left, Ozzie Kotani, Milton Lau, Dennis Kamakahi and Ledward Ka‘apana will take the Kapiolani Park Bandstand stage Sunday
From left, Ozzie Kotani, Milton Lau, Dennis Kamakahi and Ledward Ka‘apana will take the Kapiolani Park Bandstand stage Sunday

With three dominating wins since the Hawaiian music category was added to the Grammy Awards in 2005, slack key guitar - also known as ki ho’alu - has solidified its mark in music history.

But even before the Grammy wins, and even the countless Na Hoku Hanohano awards, there was the modern-day father of slack key guitar, Gabby “Pops” Pahinui. His music paved the way for living legends such as Dennis Kamakahi, Ledward Ka’apana and Ozzie Kotani, and even made lasting impressions on individuals such as Milton Lau, the founder of the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival.


Upon hearing Pahinui play at backyard parties at his uncle’s house back in the ‘60s when he was a kid, Lau found himself in awe of the musician. Lau recalls Pahinui inviting him to join in on a jam session back in 1978, and he was hooked.

“He let me jam with him and I was really mesmerized by all his music,” says Lau, a born-and-raised Kaneohe boy. “I was really into Hawaiian music, and Gabby was like the greatest. Unfortunately Gabby died in 1980, and I decided that I would try to do something to honor all his contributions to Hawaiian music, so I started this thing (Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival) in Waimanalo (Gabby’s hometown) in 1982.”

This year the festival celebrates its 25th anniversary, with seven hours of non-stop slack key music Aug. 19 in Kapiolani Park. The lineup includes a mix of slack key living legends and upcoming greats, such as Ledward Ka’apana, Dennis and David Kamakahi,Ozzie Kotani, Pilioha, Kaukahi, Maunalua, Michael Ka’awa, Hapa, Kaoru Konoike, Donald Kaulia, Keale, Brittni Paiva, Danny Carvalho, Stephen Inglis, Dwight Kanae, LT Smooth, Paul Togioka, Pali, Cindy Combs, John Keawe and Kuuipo Kumukahi, Haunani Apoliona and Ho’okena featuring Glen Smith.

Dennis Kamakahi: Slack key is ‘the first true music to come from Hawaii’
Dennis Kamakahi: Slack key is ‘the first true music to come from Hawaii’

“It doesn’t seem like 25 years because I’m 28 years old today,“says Lau, laughing.“It’s just been great to have people who share your vision. And then, of course, you have to have the artists. It’s been a great journey because all the artists have been passionate about what we do.”

What’s almost as remarkable as the star lineup is that admission to the festival is free. It’s a single example that some of the best things in life are free.

“Over the years people have asked us why we don’t charge and make some money, but that was never our concept,“says Lau.“If you knew Gabby, he would prefer just playing with friends in the back yard and he would forget his paid gig. It was about sharing his music, and so in the spirit of Gabby Pahinui we do it free on every island.”

Ledward Ka‘apana: Gabby would be happy we’re carrying on
Ledward Ka‘apana: Gabby would be happy we’re carrying on

The festival brings together old friends and new to celebrate and perpetuate the 175-year art form that has become almost indigenous to Hawaii.

The history of slack key guitar dates back to 1832 when guitars were brought by Mexican and Spanish cowboys, hired by King Kamehameha III to help handle an overpopulation of cattle.When the hired cowboys returned home a few years later, some gave their guitars to the Hawaiians, who then incorporated what they heard with their traditional chants, songs and rhythms.

“To me, slack key is the first true music to come out of Hawaii,“says Dennis Kamakahi, who has been

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