"While some ask if what I do is traditional, a better question might be 'What is traditional?'" Hawaiian singer and guitarist Martin Pahinui offers gently. "It could be the tourist thing, like Alfred Apaka or Don Ho. What they did then, that could be called traditional. They're all songs that have been recorded hundreds of times, but they're done in different styles or with different rhythms."
That definition of traditional, Pahinui says, stretches a bit more with each passing decade.
"Over the past few years, [Hawaiian music] has gotten away from its roots," Pahinui says. "It now has a wider range -- orchestrations with strings, new instruments, things like that. As far as the vocals, it's still there, but if you heard the old stuff...."
Pahinui and his cohorts, fellow Hawaiians George Kuo and Aaron Mahi, grew up on the old stuff. In fact, Pahinui and Kuo's unique instrumental style of ki ho'alu, or slack-key guitar, traces its origins back to the early 1830s, when Spanish and Mexican cowboys and cattlemen introduced the instrument to locals. Quick to adopt the instrument, the native Hawaiians developed a complex catalog of alternate drop-string and open-chord tunings to match the keys of their traditional chants. With names like Wahine, Mauna Loa and Ni'ihau, they sound more like beautiful island flowers than guitar-tuning systems.
For Pahinui, the musical traditions of Hawaii hit even closer to home. His father, Gabby Pahinui, is considered one of the island chain's legendary treasures.
"I didn't even realize until these last few years how much impact he had," Pahinui says. "Last night there was a couple from the UK at my show, and they said that when they first visited Hawaii many years ago, they were introduced to Daddy's music. They still have it today. But he never pushed the music on us. If he saw that we were interested, he'd teach us. My father always taught us that if you do anything, whether it's music or whatever else, you always do it right."
In the beginning, however, Martin's musical tastes were at odds with those of his father.
"When I first picked up the instrument, it was all rock and roll," Pahinui recalls with a laugh. "He said, 'Oh, forget about it. Martin has his own thing.' Of course, he was the same when he was young. He played jazz and classical music, but he never forgot Hawaiian music. He always told us to never forget who you are."
Clearly, it's a lesson that Gabby's youngest son has taken to heart, culminating in the release of his solo debut of traditional Hawaiian music, Ho'olohe (Listen). Joined by Kuo, also on slack-key guitar, and Mahi on bass, Pahinui reveals not only a natural fluency in this particular instrumental style but also a stunning, expressive voice. Singing in his native language, he ranges from soaring falsettos to breathy bass.
Pahinui is modest about his vocal abilities, but he admits that having a distinctive voice is an important component of what he does with Hawaiian folk music, though he uses another fellow folkie of a different vein as an example.
"When some people hear a voice that grabs them for the first time, like Alison Krauss, they'll be like, 'Wow, she sounds like an angel,'" Pahinui says. "It's the quality of her voice that captures so many ears. With that and great musicians, you can do anything in the world."
When it comes to recording and performing traditional music and all of the critical baggage the process brings with it, Pahinui says personal gestures are often the only things that will distinguish one interpretation from those that have preceded it.
"You know how you hear the music that you like, whatever you love to listen to?" Pahinui asks. "You can do it the way you heard it, or you can create your own thing with some creativity. If it suits you -- if you enjoy it and like it -- hopefully the people will like it too, yeah? I don't want to say it's a sensitive issue, but if you're trying to reach people and you do it from your heart, I think it will get across."
The real test is taking that message to the inescapably nontropical American Midwest and offering it to an audience with little knowledge of Hawaiian culture beyond a handful of reruns of Magnum, P.I. and a few viewings of Disney's Lilo & Stitch. Yet it's a challenge that Pahinui, Kuo and Mahi are completely comfortable tackling.
"It's hard for us because we do it in the Hawaiian language," Pahinui admits. "I wouldn't ever say that we feel out of place, but we are depending a lot on the music. We enjoy doing that."