Hawaiian Beach Combers (featuring King Bennie Nawahi): “Honolulu Bound” (78—possibly issued on Paloma, 1928)

A lot of the sound of modern American country music can be traced to India. It was Indian guitarists who first introduced the technique of slide playing to Hawaii, and it was Hawaiian guitarists that popularized the sound in the early 20th Century. When it first caught on big in country and western string bands in the 30s, it was often referred to as Hawaiian guitar.

There were a handful of great early Hawaiian slide players that helped spread the style. Sol Ho’opi’i, Sam Ku West, Joseph Kekuku, and Frank Ferera were all among the greats, and perhaps their most formidable competitor was King Bennie Nawahi. He actually got the “King ” in his name for his prowess on the ukelele, but it was just as apt for his slide playing, which was agile and brilliantly melodic. 

Nawahi was born in Honolulu in 1899, long before Hawaii brought the count of states up to a nice, even 50, but his career brought his the mainland early on. He recorded with a lot of different groups, and when he cut this rollicking ragtime number in 1928, he was about as far from Hawaii as it’s possible to get and still be in the country, living in Boston. 

Among the many other musicians he played with around this time were future members of the Sons of the Pioneers, the pioneering country band best known now for the eternal classic “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” While Nawahi had ridden a proverbial wave of fascination with all things Hawaii in the 1920s, he saw work fall off in the early years of the Depression, as did many musicians. In 1935, he went suddenly blind but continued performing and recording, switching to electric guitar in the mid-30s.

He also had a sideline as a long-distance swimmer and once swam the 26-mile channel between Santa Catalina and San Pedro, which is impressive enough even if you don’t consider that he was blind when he did it.

Nawahi lived to be 85, and by the time of his death, the steel guitar sound he helped spread had evolved into an integral part of country music, and it could even be heard playing across the top of juju grooves in Nigeria. Together with the bottleneck style developed by blues players in the Mississippi Delta, it had helped make modern popular music what it is.