HONOLULU — There’s the opening reggae strum of the ukulele and the “ooooh, ooooh” crooning as glassy as the wall of a 20-foot wave, as breezy as the tradewinds on a perfect day. Then the exotic becomes familiar. “Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high,” sings the velvet-smooth voice, poised to flip into falsetto. “Who IS that?” That’s what folks have been asking when they hear Hawaii’s Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Over the Rainbow,” originally intertwined with “What a Wonderful World” on his 1993 solo debut and in the soundtracks to the films “Meet Joe Black” and “Finding Forester.” Popular author Dean Koontz dedicated his recent novel “From the Corner of His Eye” to the gentle soul whose music inspired him. “I hope the reader finds pleasure in my story equal to the joy and consolation that I found in the voice, the spirit and the heart of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole,” Koontz wrote.
The behemoth with the big name (pronounced “Ka-MAH-ka-VEE-vo-oh-lay”) was one of the first Hawaiian singers since Don Ho to have major mainland success. “We can tell whenever NPR (National Public Radio) airs a segment on Iz because we start getting calls from all over the country,” says Jon De Mello, whose Mountain Apple recording company has released all five Kamakawiwo’ole solo albums. “Iz,” as he’s called, has never been more popular, but as with Selena and Notorious B.I.G. before him, this big career boost comes at a time when the artist is no longer around to enjoy it. Approaching 800 pounds, Kamakawiwo’ole passed away due to respiratory problems at age 38 in June 1997. He’s survived by his wife Marlene and an 18-year-old daughter.
The first musician whose body was laid in state at the Capitol in Honolulu, Iz attracted a crowd of more than 10,000 to his funeral. After he was cremated, a convoy of trucks, vans, cars and city maintenance vehicles honked their horns all the way up the Waianae Coast to Makaha, where Iz lived as a teen and formed his first band, the Makaha Sons of Niihau. Fishing boats, outriggers and canoes made the journey by ocean to Makua Beach where Kamakawiwo’ole’s ashes were spread. Hundreds of mourners swam or paddled out from the shore on surfboards for the ancient ceremony. Families floated out on homemade rafts. Some wore T-shirts with messages like “N Dis’ Life we wuz blessed by you,” referring to Iz’s local hit turned anthem, a cover of Collin Raye’s “In This Life.”
“He became an icon while he was still alive because he represented a lot of the stuff his people were going through trying to survive amongst the poverty, the violence, the drugs,” says Mountain Apple’s Bosnian American engineer Milan Bertosa. “Plus he had that amazing voice.” When Iz was able to turn his life around he became a symbol of hope for Hawaii natives, who often feel lost and neglected in the Westernization of their homeland. In introducing his traditional Hawaiian material, Kamakawiwo’ole often spoke in support of the sovereignty movement, which asks reparations and a return of sacred lands from the U.S. government. He spoke for Hawaiians before he sang for everyone.
In a state where they grow ’em big, where girth was a measure of status when monarchs ruled the islands, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole was the biggest, most royal Hawaiian. “He was just this warm, gentle, cheerful sweetheart of a guy who’d start my day off with a joke,” says de Mello, who instructed his engineers to always be recording when Iz was in the studio. “I wanted to see that red (recording) light on from the time (Israel’s) car pulled into the driveway until he started up the engine to drive away. I didn’t want to lose anything he said, anything he played because you never knew what was going to come out of him next.”
Bertosa first became aware of Iz’s musical spontaneity after a 2 a.m. phone call in 1988. “Here was a guy on the phone who I’d never heard of, telling me he just had to get something he’d been working on down on tape,” recalls Bertosa, who had a small studio in Honolulu’s Kaka’ako neighborhood. “I said, ‘OK, you’ve got 30 minutes to get here and 30 minutes to record.” By the end of the hour, “this house with a ukulele” (Bertosa’s first impression of Iz) had recorded the magical arrangement for “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World.” Thirty-three years later, that’s the version you hear on NPR or streaming half a billion times on Spotify.
During one of the spoken snippets of “Alone in IZ World,” his second posthumous release, the singer talks about the obesity that killed his brother Skippy (also in Makaha Sons of Niihau), his father, his mother and his sister with an awareness that a similar fate would soon be his. “I no scared fo’ myself, fo’ dying,” he says in the pidgin English that he also used to answer e-mail from fans. “If I went now, dat’s all right. I go set da table for you guys, keep da stew hot.” “Dis jes one shell,” he’d say of the body that had to be fork-lifted onto stages. “I only in heah temporary. Den on to the next place.”
Kamakawiwo’ole went on sporadic diets, losing 20-30 pounds a day to reach his adult low weight of 570 pounds in 1994. But in the end, food was the one addiction he couldn’t kick. He was a man who rated dinners in his honor at the governor’s residence at Washington Place, but his heart was with the working people of Hawaii. De Mello recalls one state dinner to exemplify this point. “He was always a little late because getting him around was such a production, but this time he was an hour, an hour and a half late, so I got worried.” With Gov. Ben Cayetano waiting patiently for the guest of honor, de Mello excused himself from the table and went looking for the singer. He heard a familiar laugh coming from the kitchen and when he opened the door, there was Iz “talking story” with the help and fixing himself a plate of food, seemingly oblivious that he was keeping the guv and his guests waiting.
“That was Iz,” de Mello says. “He didn’t mean any disrespect toward the governor, but he loved his people, the common folks. Wherever he went, he’d attract a crowd. Everybody just wanted to soak up all that humanity.”
– Michael Corcoran, Dec. 2001