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Mr. Skabadooz

In his own words, Eddie Kamae recalls his friend, Gabby Pahinui.


Gabby Pahinui was a mystery to a lot of people, but not to me. I worked with him off and on for over 10 years, and he was like a lot of performers I have known, who are pulled two ways. Gabby was one of the greatest Hawaiian singers of all time. Some say he was the greatest. He was a musical genius. And he was his own worst enemy. We would get jobs because of Gabby, and we would lose jobs because of Gabby. It was more than booze. He was an angel with a demon inside of him. He could drive people crazy. Once I was talking with a guy who used to manage a band Gabby was in, and he had this big scar across his stomach from an ulcer operation. He lifted up his shirt and pointed to his scar and said to me, "Gabby Pahinui did that."

Take the time they staged the first big slack key concert, downtown at Blaisdell Concert Hall. Some of the younger musicians put it together, and Gabby was the star of the show. Everybody knows how much he did to establish slack-key as the most authentic Hawaiian style of playing. They have rehearsed everything and put a tight show together. The place is sold out. Some good bands are there to warm up the crowd. Finally Gabby's time comes. While he walks out onstage a band is already playing, and he is supposed to join in. But now he likes the sound of the music so much he puts down his guitar and he starts to do the hula. Gabby happens to be one of the best hula dancers I have ever seen-you know, that Hawaiian style of male dancing-so the crowd goes wild. But the guys who organized the concert are dying a thousand deaths backstage because the main idea is to honor slack key, and Gabby decides it's time to dance.

Photo: Ken Sakamoto

I remember one day we were in the bar at The Flamingo over on Kapi'olani, me and Eddie Spencer, who worked at the rent-a-car place next door, and the head of the Musician's Union and this real estate guy named Chin Chai. We're in there drinking and having lunch and then playing a few songs. I'm just wearing slippers and a T-shirt, and I have my 'ukulele, and Eddie Spencer is playing a guitar that belongs to Chin Chai. And after a while Gabby comes in. He just got off from his job with the county, doing road work in those days, so he's in his boots, T-shirt, muddy pants. Nobody was playing music just then, so he says to me, "Son, who owns that guitar?"

I said, "That guy over by the bar, Chin Chai."

He said, "Ask him can I borrow it."

So I go over and say, "Chin Chai, Gabby wants to borrow your guitar to play for somebody, but he'll bring 'em back pretty soon."

Chin Chai doesn't even ask where or who. He just says, "Sure, it's OK."

Then Gabby says, "Come with me, son, and bring your 'ukukule."

So we jump in my car and I say, "Where to?"

Well, we drive from Kapi'olani Boulevard all the way up to Nu'uanu Mortuary, where all these people are dressed for a funeral, and I say to myself, "Oh no," because I'm just there in my T-shirt and Gabby in his muddy pants. But it's too late to turn around, so I follow him while he walks up to a guy in a black suit who says, "Gabby, what do you want?"

Gabby names the man who died and says, "I came to play for my friend."

The guy in black goes inside and comes back with a member of the family, another guy in a black suit who looks at our T-shirts and my slippers and Gabby's work boots and just turns around and walks away. Gabby looks at me with this wild look in his eye that says he's going to do whatever he's going to do.

I say, "Who did you come up here for? That guy in the suit?"

He says, "No."

I say, "Then let's go in. But one thing, Gabby-the minute we walk into the mortuary, you start playing."

He says, "OK, son, here we go."

People inside are all dressed up, starting to take their seats and we walk through the doorway, and Gabby starts strumming Chin Chai's guitar, that magic sound, the way only he could do. And nobody gets mad. They don't know what to do but sit there and listen. Then I play my 'ukulele, and we start singing a sweet Hawaiian song that Gabby knows his friend used to love. We walk down the aisle until we get to the casket. When we finish we just say aloha to Gabby's friend and turn around and walk out again and don't talk to anybody, just go back to the car.

While we're driving away I tell him, "Don't ever do this to me again. I don't mind playing if we got decent clothes on, but not with slippers and T-shirt." Gabby he just laughs. He's happy, because that's Gabby's way. Whatever comes to him on the spur of the moment, that's what he does.

He used to have this word, "Skabadooz," which meant anything goes. Sometimes in the middle of a song he turns and says to the rest of us, "Skabadooz," which could mean 'I don't remember how we rehearsed this so just stick with me and we'll get through it one way or another.' Here was a guy who made so many people stop and pay attention to Hawaiian music-me included-and you never knew when he was going to change the words in the middle of a song or make up verses or leave out verses. If you don't know Gabby ahead of time, that can really throw you off.

Joe Marshall would get annoyed because Joe went to Kamehameha and I think he sang in the chorus, and he was a stickler for how the words should go. Joe used to shake his head and call Gabby Mr. Skabadooz, said Gabby had been skabadoozing his whole life and getting away with it.

But that was Gabby's way. You never knew what would happen. He wants to drink all night, he drinks. He wants to do the hula instead of play guitar like everybody paid money to see him do, he dance the hula and bring the house down. If a string breaks in the middle of a number, he keeps on playing. Maybe two strings break. Gabby keeps playing. He finds new chords and takes great solos-with two strings gone! He wants to play a song for his friend who passed away, he don't tell anybody he's coming. If he's in a tuxedo or muddy boots from his job, he doesn't care. He goes, he sings from his heart, so sweet, with so much aloha in his voice he makes you cry.

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Honolulu Magazine June 2018
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