Steel Trappings

On the Playlist

On the Playlist: Bennie Nawahi

August 1, 2022 • Geronimo "Geri" ValdrizSteel Guitar History

"HAWAIIAN STEEL" is a weekly radio program that spotlights the Hawaiian steel guitar masters from the past to the present. "ON THE PLAYLIST" features the musicians heard on the program's playlist. This month we feature steel guitarist Benny Nawahi!

One of the few Hawaiian guitarists during the 1920s and 1930s who could be considered a legitimate contender to the title "King of the Hawaiian Guitar" was Benjamin Keakahiawa Nawahi.

Bennie Nawahi

Bennie was born on July 3, 1899 in Honolulu to a large family. He taught himself to play slack key guitar, and by the age of 15 he was playing Hawaiian steel guitar and ukulele in Honolulu parks for sailors and tourists. He often teamed with Sol Ho‘opi‘i, who would later become his rival for the title "King of the Hawaiian Guitar," along with Sam Ku West.

In 1919 Bennie played steel guitar with his brother Joe's group, the Hawaiian Novelty Five, on the passenger ship liner Matsonia that sailed between San Franciso and Honolulu. The group eventually landed on the mainland and toured on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. He was crowned "King of the Ukulele" by impresario Sid Grauman of Grauman's Chinese Theatre fame, and the name stuck!

By 1928 King Bennie Nawahi had started his own recording career, recording on many different labels, including Columbia, Victor, Q.R.S. and Grey Gull. He recorded under multiple names such as the Red Devils, Q.R.S. Boys, Slim Smith, the Hawaiian Beach Combers, the Georgia Jumpers, Four Hawaiian Guitars, the International Cowboys, and King Nawahi and his Hawaiians.

Nawahi was one of the few Hawaiian musicians to consistently play Ragtime, Jazz or Blues songs. He backed many black musicians as well as Country and Hawaiian groups.

Benny "King" Nawahi and the Georgia Jumpers
Benny "King" Nawahi and the Georgia Jumpers

He was also unusual among Hawaiian steel guitarists of his day in that he used a single cone National Triolian rather than the National Tricone preferred by most others. In addition, Nawahi was also a multi-instrumentalist playing and mastering the Hawaiian steel guitar, the slack key guitar, the ‘ukulele, and the mandolin.

In 1935, tragedy struck Nawahi, as he suddenly lost his eyesight while returning home from a performance. Doctors were unable to explain why he became blind!

Although the loss of vision was permanent, he returned to the stage, working with various Hawaiian groups in the Polynesian restaurants and clubs that were popular in Southern California. After World War II, he again joined his brother Joe in the Nawahi Trio, recording occasionally, and continuing to perform in clubs.

In addition to his musical abilities, Nawahi was also famed as a long distance swimmer. In 1946 he swam from San Pedro California, to Catalina Island in just over 22 hours, following the sound of a bell in a boat just ahead. He is still the only blind man to have completed the swim.

Bennie Nawahi remained musically active through his later years and suffered a stroke in the late 1970's that left his body partially paralyzed. On January 28, 1985 he died in Long Beach California, after a long illness.

Today fans seek out the early recordings of King Benny Nawahi. He continues to inspire steel guitarist seeking to emulate his dynamic bluesy-jazzy Hawaiian style played on the acoustic resonator steel guitar. His music is now available on CD and online to a new generation of fans who can appreciate this innovative and unique Hawaiian musician!

On the Playlist of Hawaiian Steel: Benny Nawahi

Song CD Album
Maui No Ka Oi King Nawahi's Hawaiians / Hawaiian String Virtuoso / Yazoo Records
Guitar Rhythm The Georgia Jumpers / Treasury of Hawaiian Steel / Cumquat Records
I Went To Hilo King Nawahi's Hawaiians / Hawaiian String Virtuoso / Yazoo Records
Black Boy Blues Four Hawaiian Guitars / On a Coconut Island / Harlequin Records
Otto Wood, the Bandit Slim Smith / Hawaiian String Virtuoso / Yazoo Records
Hawaiian Capers King Nawahi's Hawaiians / Hawaiian Favourites / Goldie Records

"Hawaiian Steel" with Geri Valdriz is broadcast live every Tuesday from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm (HST) on Mana‘o Radio, Wailuku, Maui, Hawai‘i, KMNO, 91.7FM on the radio dial.

You can catch it on the air, or streaming live at www.manaoradio.com. Listeners can also access our online archives to enjoy previously recorded programs at your convenience. Just search "Listen on Demand" for past shows.

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2022 Festivals and Workshops

2022 Northern California Hawaiian Steel Guitar Symposium
August 14, 2022 – Cupertino, CA
Tuition from $100
Hawaiian Steel Guitar Festival Keiki Kine at Kahala Mall
August 27, 2022 – Kahala Mall, Honolulu, Hawai‘i
3:00 PM - 5:00 PM HST

Maui Steel Guitar Festival
October 15, 2022 – The Shops at Wailea, Wailea, Maui, Hawai‘i
11:00 AM - 4:00 PM HST
October 16, 2022 – Queen Ka‘ahumanu Center, Kahului, Maui, Hawai‘i
11:00 AM - 4:00 PM HST

Hawai‘i Island Steel Guitar Experience at Mauna Lani
December 8-11, 2022 – Mauna Lani, Auberge Resorts Collection, Kamuela, Hawai‘i Island

2022 Hawaiian Steel Guitar Showcase Livestream Broadcasts
Facebook LiveYouTube
Hawaiian Steel Guitar Festival Keiki Kine at Kahala Mall

August 27, 2022 – 3:00 PM - 5:00 PM HST

Facebook LiveYouTube
Livestream Open Stage Showcase

September 25, 2022 – 3:00 PM - 5:00 PM HST

Facebook LiveYouTube
Hawai‘i Island Steel Guitar Experience at Mauna Lani

December 10, 2022 Ho‘olaule‘a concert – 5:30 PM - 9:30 PM HST
December 11, 2022 Saturday Twilight at Kalāhuipua‘a concert – 5:30 PM - 8:30 PM HST

2023 Festivals and Workshops
Kona Steel Guitar Festival   
March 24-25, 2023 – Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa, Keauhou, Hawai‘i

Royal Hawaiian Center Presents Waikīkī Steel Guitar Week   
July 10-15, 2023 (tentative) – Royal Grove Stage, Royal Hawaiian Center, Waikīkī

Royal Hawaiian Center Presents Japan-Hawaiian Steel Guitar Festival   
July 14, 2023 (tentative) – Royal Grove Stage, Royal Hawaiian Center, Waikīkī

Royal Hawaiian Center Presents Waikīkī Steel Guitar Festival   
July 15, 2023 (tentative) – Royal Grove Stage, Royal Hawaiian Center, Waikīkī

2023 Hawaiian Steel Guitar Showcase Livestream Broadcasts
Facebook LiveYouTube
Kona Steel Guitar Festival

March 25, 2023 Ho‘olaule‘a concert – 12:00 Noon - 3 PM and 5 PM - 8 PM HST

Facebook LiveYouTube
Royal Hawaiian Center Presents Japan-Hawaiian Steel Guitar Festival

July 14, 2023 Ho‘olaule‘a concert (tentative) – 4PM - 6:30PM HST


Facebook LiveYouTube
Royal Hawaiian Center Presents Waikīkī Steel Guitar Festival

July 15, 2023 Ho‘olaule‘a concert (tentative) – 11AM - 2PM and 4:30PM - 6:30PM HST

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