James "Bla" Pahinui
Born in 1942 to the late slack key guitar legend Gabby Pahinui (1921-1980), founder of the modern slack key era (he made the first ever slack key recordings in 1946), and the late Emily Pahinui, Bla was raised in Waimanalo, on O'ahu's picturesque windward side. He is one of the most individualistic Hawaiian musicians of his generation. Though he is very much his father's son, he has carved a distinctive niche in Hawaiian music. "I go back to the fifties and I love my rhythm and blues," he says. "So when it comes to Hawaiian music, sometimes I find myself changing it, not to destroy it, but to express it the way I hear it." He feels his main innovations are in phrasing. "I don't like to rush the note," he says. "I like to stretch it and to take the melody in a new direction." He adds that in recent years he's learned the value of understatement. "You can say so much with simplicity. The most important thing is how you present the tone, and how things fit together in the big picture."
Although he likes to experiment, Bla's firmest commitments remain to the song and the audience. "Whatever you do, bottom line, it has to work," he says. "It has to be real, but it has to work - not just for you but also for the other musicians and for whoever takes the time to listen to you. My dad got away with a lot of stuff because it worked. And he touched so many people because he shared what was in his heart in such an honest and direct way." Bla finds this approach both artistically satisfying and spiritually rewarding. "When you give away the good that's inside you, when you play for the audience, not just for you, so much mana (power) comes back. It makes a big difference in the music and in how you act as a person."
As discussed more fully in the liner notes to his first Dancing Cat release, MANA, Bla's history in music extends back to the 1950s. The second oldest son of Gabby Pahinui, Bla grew up surrounded by song. Jam sessions at the Bell Street family home were almost daily occurrences. "Sometimes there'd be a hundred people there," Bla recalls. "It would go on for days, but when my mom went to church Sunday morning, that was the sign that everybody better be gone when she got back. Well, my father would wait an hour or so, till he figured the service was just about over, and then he'd get everybody out in the yard working. When mom came home and saw us all sweating away, she'd forgive everything and cook a big meal for everybody. And the party would go on for another couple days!"
Gabby and his many musician friends always encouraged the kamali'i (children) to join in the music. Bla built his own first instrument around the age of ten. "I took an old two-by-four, put four nails at the top, four nails at the bottom, and stretched some fishing line between them for strings. I used to play that for hours." About a year later, his father got him his first store-bought instrument: a Martin tenor 'ukulele. "The first song he taught me to play was 'Poor People of Paris,'" recalls Bla.
The 'ukulele became Bla's best friend and constant companion. "It cost $78, a lot of money back then. I used to take it everywhere, until one night I took it to a friend's house. They were having a party, and everybody was playing music. It got late, and I fell asleep. When I woke up, the 'ukulele was gone. I looked everywhere and asked everybody, but I never did find it. I tell you, I was afraid to go home after that!" Even after all these years, Bla still misses that Martin. "Whoever's got it, I wish they'd give it back; it has a lot of sentimental value to me."
Bla switched over to guitar as a teenager. A lefty in a world of right-handers, he learned to play it upside down and backwards from the normal position. This led him to start picking the deeper, bass strings with his index finger and the higher strings with his thumb, creating a very unique sound, especially within the slack key tradition. His use of vibrato, ornaments and chord voicings is also very distinctive, especially the descending bass lines on minor chords and his use of diminished chords. One can hear how Bla and his brother Cyril have influenced each other's guitar styles. To add emphasis in his arrangements, Bla also developed a percussive upward strum with his thumbnail that remains a hallmark of his style.
Bla usually plays in the "Dropped D" Tuning, in which the five highest-pitched strings are the same as in Standard Tuning. This sometimes gives his music a sound similar to the beautiful Mainland American folk guitar tradition, especially guitarists like James Taylor.
In the late 1950s, as Bla began to meet more musicians his own age, he expanded his musical interests into Latin music and R&B. He feels that the Latin music has most influenced his guitar playing, while the R&B has more deeply affected his vocal style. Around the time R&B began to be marketed as rock and roll, it started to receive wider exposure in Hawai'i. Local clubs began importing Mainland acts, giving Bla and his friends a chance to hear the music live. He fondly recalls the club Betty Reilly ran in Waikiki. "What a joy!" he says. "We'd stay there all night." Clubs also began hiring local kids to play the popular new music, which inspired Bla and some friends to start their own band, The Playboys. "Two guitars, bass and drums. We did a lot of Chuck Berry songs. I played a Telecaster back then. Good fun days." Through the years, Bla has retained his love of R&B, especially the classic doo wop of Shep and The Limelites, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Bob and Earl, The Del-Vikings and many others.
Another main influence, not surprisingly, is Gabby. Bla says that when he was growing up, his father answered his musical questions, but mostly taught by example, and encouraged individuality rooted in tradition. "He bought me everything I wanted," Bla recalls, "even a purple Les Paul. He knew I was a rock 'n roller, but he never said anything about that. He told me once that Hawaiian music is the foundation, but he never told me what to play. He always said 'Play whatever you feel, whatever makes you happy, but always keep Hawaiian music in your heart.'"
In the early 1960s, with the folk music boom in full swing, Bla returned to acoustic music and his Hawaiian roots. In 1962, he met Peter Moon at Ala Moana Bowls, a popular surfing break. "Peter always carried his 'ukulele with him, so I started bringing down my guitar." In 1966, Peter proposed doing an album for Hula, the label Gabby recorded on with The Sons of Hawai'i. By then, Peter and Bla's group included singer Palani Vaughan, bassist Albert Kalima, Jr. and Bla's younger brother, Cyril. "We came out with MEET PALANI VAUGHN & THE SUNDAY MANOA (Hula Records 524)," he says. "After that, Palani left and Cyril went into the service. We carried on with the HAWAIIAN TIME album (Hula Records 528 - out-of-print), and Peter went on from there."
The Sunday Manoa specialized in traditional material, both reflecting and helping expand the grassroots revival going on among young local musicians of the time. In the early 1970s, Gabby left the Sons of Hawai'i and drafted his sons Bla, Cyril, Martin and Philip to join him in the Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band, one of the most popular and influential groups of the era. At the height of what is often referred to as the Hawaiian Renaissance, the Gabby Band filled venues, outsold big Mainland releases and revitalized the slack key scene. The group also included bassist Joe Gang and slack key masters Sonny Chillingworth and Atta Isaacs, but it was Gabby, known affectionately as Pops, who ruled the roost.
"My dad was really flowing back then," Bla recalls. "He had all his talent and all this support around him. But after five albums, everything came to a standstill. There were problems, so my dad stayed away from music for awhile, and really got into my mom and the family. He wanted to do another album with the sons alone, but the sad thing was that the sons weren't ready. That was his biggest wish, but the Lord took him October 13, 1980."
Throughout the 1980s, Bla continued to record and perform with family and friends. In 1992, their father's wish partly came to pass when Bla, Martin and Cyril reunited for an album entitled THE PAHINUI BROTHERS (Panini 2014). Recorded on Maui, with Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Jim Keltner, Van Dyke Parks, Dwight Yoakam, Nick DeCaro and others, it came out to rave reviews. Since then, Bla has continued to pursue music in his spare time, and work for the city and county of Honolulu. Like his brother Martin, a member of the new slack key-based quartet Hui Aloha, Bla really enjoys playing with a band. "Lately, I've been working with a younger blues and roots music band," he says. "I want to mix my Hawaiian music with Mexican and Latin music, even a little Cajun and zydeco. Some people don't understand it, but my dad and Sonny (Chillingworth) would relate to it. They were both really into Latin music. The rhythms are different, but the texture and the feel of the music is very close to slack key."
Also, like his brother Cyril, Bla has been recording solo for Dancing Cat. "I always told myself I was just a rhythm guitar player," he says. "But playing solo, opened up a whole new way of playing for me and gave me a lot more confidence." Bla's first solo release, MANA, appeared in 1997.
WINDWARD HEART collects live solo performances. "Most of it was done totally out of the blue," Bla says. "There was no set list, no planning, I didn't even know I was being recorded, I was just having fun." Producer George Winston says, "I was there and this was the first time I had seen Bla play in person. This was an incredible and totally soulful and deep moment in time, and I have listened to it hundreds of time over the years and played it for so many friends. I knew it had to be heard. I always let it be known that Bla is one of my biggest inspirations to play music, and technically he is my biggest influence for playing in the key of D."
Bla says he was quite surprised when George called to say he wanted to release the live recordings. "I offered to do something more technical, more polished, but he said the tapes were one-in-a-million just the way they were. And after listening to them, I see his point. It's all real, no editing or overdubs, just one guy up there having a blast, and following his heart. And that's very cool."