RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Academy Awards are next month and one contender has already won over fans in Hawaii, where the movie was filmed. "The Descendants," starring George Clooney, is a story of a family grappling with death and infidelity. Its soundtrack is composed entirely of Hawaiian music.

Heidi Chang reports.

HEIDI CHANG, BYLINE: When Alexander Payne set out to make, "The Descendants," he decided to do something no other director had done before - score a Hollywood movie entirely with Hawaiian music. In the beginning, Payne didn't know much about the music. Then, he discovered the legendary Gabby Pahinui.

ALEXANDER PAYNE: And when I started listening to Gabby, I just fell in love.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAYNE: And in fact, so much so, that I considered for awhile trying to score the whole film with his music. I wound up not doing that because there are so many other Hawaiian artists to show and to discover. But his remains the anchoring voice in the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

GABBY PAHINUI: (Singing in foreign language)

CHANG: 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, referring to its open tunings.

Since Pahinui's death in 1980, his music continues to resonate with listeners like Payne.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KAUAI BEAUTY")

PAHINUI: (Singing in foreign language)

CHANG: In the 1970's, Pahinui was at the forefront of the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance. 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."

MARTIN PAHINUI: I was blown away.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAHINUI: I say, yeah. I was so proud of him. Just to hear the music track, I tell you, I cried. That was amazing to hear the music, you know, that I helped my dad record this music. The first song was "Ka Makani Ka ili Aloha." It goes like...

(Singing in foreign language)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KA MAKANI KA`ILI ALOHA")

PAHINUI: (Singing in foreign language)

CHANG: Among the six Gabby Pahinui songs featured in "The Descendants," four were produced by Steve Siegfried of Panini Records. Siegfried says back in the 1970s, Pahinui was the most influential artist in Hawaii. And he's glad his music will now reach a wider audience, thanks to the movie.

STEVE SIEGFRIED: He represented a true Hawaiian lifestyle and a Hawaiian that pursued a musical career. Gabby never made a lot of money in his life. And, you know, he never did it for the money. He did it for the love of the music.

CHANG: And, Siegfried says it's music you don't hear in Hollywood's version of Hawaii.

SIEGFRIED: 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. This is real authentic. It doesn't get more real than this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: Slack-key guitarist Keola Beamer is also featured prominently in the soundtrack. But at first, Beamer says he was hesitant to contribute to the project.

KEOLA BEAMER: You know, Hawaii has really been poorly portrayed in the past. It's been portrayed very stereotypically, just a lot of surface stuff, you know, sunlight and pretty girls in bikinis. And kind of comedy light kind of stuff. I think that this is one of best movies to come out of Hawaii, if not the best.

I felt proud as a Hawaiian human being and that's a nice feeling. That doesn't happen often with Hawaiians in Hollywood.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHANG: Beamer and another slack-key guitarist, Jeff Peterson, were the only artists director Alexander Payne asked to record specifically for the soundtrack.

JEFF PETERSON: At first I was a little nervous. I was thinking, wow, I have to go to the studio and write two pieces on the spot. How's this going to go? As soon as I got there, he 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: The soundtrack of "The Descendants" showcases a wide variety of Hawaii artists, from the 1930s to today. But because it's not a full, new score composed for the film, it's not eligible for an Oscar.

The film's music supervisor, Dondi Bastone, says he and Payne plan to submit the CD next year for a Grammy for best soundtrack compilation.

DONDI BASTONE: 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. And it's really gratifying that it's - the music is resonating in that way now. I mean it's wonderful.

CHANG: That's good news, especially considering that this year, the Grammys eliminated the stand-alone Hawaiian music category.

For NPR News, I'm Heidi Chang in Honolulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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