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As the Oscar race heats up, one contender has already won over fans in Hawaii, where the movie was filmed. And not just for its story of a family grappling with death and infidelity — but also for its soundtrack. The Descendants has no orchestral score. Instead, director Alexander Payne chose to fill his movie exclusively with music by Hawaii artists — much of it from existing recordings.
Payne didn't know much about the music when he started the project. Then he discovered one of the giants of Hawaiian music, Gabby Pahinui.
"And when I started listening to Gabby, I just fell in love," Payne says. "So much so that I considered for awhile trying to score the whole film with his music. And I wound up not doing that because there are so many other Hawaiian artists to show and discover. But his remains the anchoring voice in the film."
Pahinui is known as the "Father of Modern Slack Key Guitar." In Hawaii, that style is called Ki`ho`alu, which means "loosen the key," which refers to its open tunings.
Pahinui grew up poor in Honolulu. His first instrument was bass, and he taught himself to play guitar listening to jazz on the radio. The first guitarist to really catch his ear, according to the bio on his website, was the pioneer of electric jazz guitar, Charlie Christian.
In 1975, Pahinui's breezy acoustic fingerpicking and striking falsetto reached a wider audience on the mainland thanks to a collaboration with Ry Cooder. Pahinui's music still resonates with listeners like Payne.
"He had somehow, in his way of playing the guitar, in his arrangements — certainly in his voice — a way of hooking you in, really of seducing you, of seducing the listener with his unique seemingly carefree soulfulness," says Payne.
Pahinui was at the forefront of the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance of the '70s. Thousands turned out to watch him perform, backed by his four sons.
Both Martin and Cyril Pahinui were overwhelmed to hear their father's music open The Descendants.
"I was blown away," Martin laughs. "I was so proud of him." "Just to hear the [opening] music track, I tell you, I cried," says Cyril. "That was amazing — to hear the music that I helped my dad record."
Gabby Pahinui died in 1980. Among the six Pahinui songs featured in The Descendants, four were produced by Steve Siegfried of Panini Records. Siegfried says that at one time, Pahinui was the most influential artist in Hawaii He's glad Pahinui's music will now reach an even wider audience.
"He represented a true Hawaiian lifestyle, and a Hawaiian that pursued a musical career," says Siegfried. "Gabby never made a lot of money in his life. And he never did it for the money. He did it for the love of the music."
And, Siegfried says, it's music you don't hear in Hollywood's version of Hawaii.
"I think this is a great thing for the artists that are on the soundtrack, to be able to get out to this bigger audience of people that are looking for something authentic," he says. "This is real authentic — the music, it doesn't get more real than this."
The soundtrack includes recordings by the late Raymond Kane and Sonny Chillingworth, as well as such younger players as slack key guitarist Keola Beamer. But Beamer was hesitant to contribute to the project at first.
"Hawaii has really been poorly portrayed in the past," he says. "It's been portrayed very stereotypically — a lot of surface stuff. You know, sunlight and pretty girls in bikinis — comedy-lite kind of stuff. I think this is one of best movies to come out of Hawaii, if not the best. I felt proud, you know, as a Hawaiian human being, and that doesn't happen often with Hawaiians in Hollywood."
Beamer and another slack key guitarist, Jeff Peterson, were the only artists director Alexander Payne asked to record specifically for the soundtrack.
"At first I was a little nervous," says Peterson. "I was thinking, 'Wow, I have to go to the studio, and write two pieces on the spot. How's this gonna go?' As soon as I got there, [Payne] had the warmest most positive outlook. And his support was incredible. But what really moved me was how much he cared about the music. He knew the music. He had really spent time getting it deep into his soul. And so when he explained to me what he wanted, I knew exactly how to express it. I found a tuning that would work, and just played from the heart."
The soundtrack showcases a wide variety of Hawaii artists, from the '30s to today. But because it's not a full, new score composed for the film, it's not eligible for an Oscar.
The Descendants' music supervisor, Dondi Bastone, says he and Payne plan to submit the CD next year for a Grammy — for best soundtrack compilation.
"You know, we had fantasized early on that this film would perhaps do for Hawaiian music what Oh Brother Where Art Thou did for bluegrass," Bastone says. "And it's really gratifying that the music is resonating that way now."
That's good news, especially considering that this year, the Grammys eliminated the stand-alone Hawaiian music category.