National Endowment for the Arts Statement on the Death of Cyril Pahinui


Photo by Chelle C. Pahinui

It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the death of Hawaiian slack key guitarist Cyril Pahinui, recipient of a 2017 NEA National Heritage Fellowship—the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.

Pahinui is widely recognized as one of Hawaii’s most gifted slack key guitarists and vocalists, whose technical virtuosity, rhythmic adaptations, and instrumental harmonics imparted the soul of Hawaiian music, and whose beautiful, emotive voice rendered an intimate picture of his Pacific island home.

Pahinui was born in 1950, and grew up on the Hawaiian Homestead in Waimanalo, on the windward side of Oahu. Pahinui’s father was Gabby Pahinui, a Hawaiian music legend who taught him his craft. Pahinui began playing ukulele at age three, learning slack key at age seven, and performed on stage for the first time when he was 12. He learned music in the traditional way, nana ka maka; ho‘olohe ka pepeiao, pa‘a ka waha, which means “watch with the eyes, and listen with the ears.” Eventually, Pahinui mastered 17 unique tunings and a range of personalized approaches to finger picking and pa‘ani (improvisation), all created and performed in what is now known as the “Pahiuni Style.”

Pahinui twice played at Carnegie Hall, contributed to three Grammy Award-winning albums, and received 17 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards for his own releases. In 2014, Pahinui received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Hawaiian Music and was inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame.

Through classes at his school, Halau Mele Hawai‘i o Pahinui (Pahinui School of Hawaiian Music), students learn in the traditional kanikapila (“let’s play music/jam”) style, just as Pahinui learned as a child. In conjunction with the Hawai’i State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, Pahinui managed teachers in the Hawaiian Music Masters Youth Outreach and Community Reinvestment program, which extended his teaching style statewide to more than 2,000 students. Pahinui received the 2013 Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Artist Fellowship and the 2013 Community Spirit Award from the First Peoples Fund in support of his teaching.

For the past ten years, in partnership with the City of Honolulu and County of Oahu, Pahinui presented the Gabby Pahinui Waimanalo Kanikapila, a festival designed after the family gatherings from his childhood days. He also produced an annual slack key festival in Seattle, Washington, and co-produced another in Redondo Beach, California.

More information about Cyril Pahinui, including audio samples of his work and video of a performance in his honor at the 2017 NEA National Heritage Fellowships Concert, is available at

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Cyril Pahinui

2017 National Heritage Fellow Cyril Pahinui is widely recognized as one of Hawai’i’s most gifted slack key guitarists and vocalists, whose technical virtuosity, rhythmic adaptations, and instrumental harmonics impart the soul of Hawaiian music.


NEA Public Affairs