From the Fall 2017 issue of Ukulele | BY BLAIR JACKSON
Can it really be 20 years since that late-June day in 1997 when Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole—known to many as Bruddah Iz, or simply Iz—passed away at the too-young age of 38? At the public memorial celebration two weeks later, more than 10,000 mourners descended on the capitol building in Honolulu and, as a writer for the local Star-Bulletin newspaper wrote, “stood for hours in their slippers [flip-flops] in a shoulder-locked crowd for a pass-by glimpse of the body of the gentle giant in a koa casket beneath a 50-foot Hawaiian flag . . . . People of all ages, Hawaiians and their friends of all ethnic groups, paid tribute to the entertainer whom they felt they knew and whose songs played in their hearts.”
Especially that song. Fair or not, Iz will always be most remembered for his voice-and-Martin tenor ukulele medley of two great American standards: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World.” It’s an intimate, beautiful, and quietly moving performance, a soulful musical embrace that has become a modern anthem, touching millions of people far and wide, most outside of Hawaiian music circles. And is there a uke player out there who hasn’t tried it (if only at home in private)—been entranced by the gently insistent rhythmic strumming and maybe even mimicked Iz’s alternately breathy and soaring high tenor voice?
That track, recorded in 1988 but tucked near the end of Iz’s 1993 album Facing Future, is the best-selling piece of Hawaiian music of all time. Not only did it propel that disc to become the first Hawaiian album to eclipse one million in sales, the song has been a bona fide hit in several countries, appeared in numerous TV and film soundtracks as well as in commercials, and sold well over two million downloads.
Its success is all the more remarkable because of the circumstances of its recording: It was a single live take in the wee hours of the morning at Honolulu’s Audio Resources recording studio. As the engineer, Milan Bertosa, explained to me in a 2011 interview, “I’d just finished this hellish session with a girl group, recording one syllable at a time for hours, and I’m wrapping cables when the phone rings. It’s 3:30 in the morning and all I want to do is go home, but there’s this jacked-up client who I’ve been doing some work with saying, ‘I’m at this club called Sparky’s with this guy named Israel Kaloka-loka-loka-loka-loka’—I had no idea what the name was—‘and he wants to come and do a demo right now.’ I’m like, ‘I’d be happy to record him; call me tomorrow.’ He says, ‘No, no!’ and then he puts Iz on the phone, and he’s got this soft voice and he’s really polite and really sweet, kind of the embodiment of what a nice Hawaiian person is like. I finally say, ‘Okay, you’ve got 15 minutes to get here. When you get here, you’ve got a half-hour and then it’ll be 4:30 and I’m done.’
“So he shows up—biggest human being I’ve ever met. And we record the songs ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and ‘What a Wonderful World,’ just Iz and his uke, two mics, one take. Beautiful. The other song he recorded that night was called ‘White Sandy Beach’ and he overdubbed another uke, so that was three tracks . . . . After those 15 minutes I was thinking, ‘This is what I’m supposed to be doing for a living; not that other stuff, one syllable at a time.’”
I suppose in the world at large, Iz could be known as a “one-hit wonder,” but Hawaiians know better. And uke players, wherever they’re from, know better. Bruddah Iz packed a lot of great music into a career that spanned more than a quarter-century.
Born on May 20, 1959, Iz grew up in the modest Kaimuki neighborhood of Honolulu, near Diamond Head State Monument. His parents both loved music and sang in church and at backyard parties, and Iz recalled first plinking on a uke when he was around six, though it would be a few more years before he started playing more seriously, with his older brother Henry, who went by the name “Skippy.” The two of them were occasionally hired to play music on catamarans for tourists. Near the dawn of the ’70s, both of Iz’s parents landed (non-musical) jobs at a popular Waikiki music spot called Steamboats. This exposed the Kamakawiwo‘ole brothers—both obsessed with music—to many of the top Hawaiian musicians of the day, including the first wave of musicians who had spearheaded a folk music renaissance by uncovering and rearranging old, forgotten Hawaiian songs (mele), and also composing new tunes in the old style, in Hawaiian.
As Moe Keale—the brothers’ uncle, and by 1969 a member of uke legend Eddie Kamae’s ground-breaking Sons of Hawaii group—noted of this period in Rick Carroll’s definitive biography Iz: Voice of the People: “[Israel] got to meet everybody, the Sons, spend time with Gabby [Pahinui, the Sons’ main singer and guitarist] and all those guys. Eddie and Sonny Chillingworth. They all encouraged him. Absolutely. They used to come down to Steamboats and play, and call Israel up onstage. So he’s standing on the side with his ukulele and he just goes and plays with them… It wasn’t for money; he was just having fun, but the guys, they were giving him money—30, 40 bucks a night to come play.”
In 1973, when Iz was 14, the Kamakawiwo‘ole family moved to the sleepy but picturesque town of Makaha, on Oahu’s western Wai‘anae coast, 35 miles from Honolulu but seemingly a universe away for a teenager who loved the bright lights and exciting music scene of the state capital but had no wheels. Though he was initially resistant to the move, he soon came to love Makaha and its more relaxed vibe. Within a year, Iz encountered a fellow who would have profound impact on his life: Jerome Koko. Both had cut school one day (Jerome at Leeward Community College, Iz at high school) and brought their ukes down to Makaha Beach, where they “talked story” and played their ukes together. One thing led to another and within a few months the two had drafted Skippy and one of Jerome’s other musician friends, Louis “Moon” Kauakahi, along with a few others, to participate in acoustic jam sessions. They mostly played the new-style traditional music that was popularized by the Sons of Hawaii and the Sunday Manoa, whose 1974 album Guava Jam (which featured the Brothers Cazimero) is frequently cited as a turning point in the Hawaiian Music Renaissance.
By 1975, the main foursome and their pakini (washtub) bassist friend Sam Gray had formed the neo-traditional group Makaha Sons of Ni‘ihau. The group named itself after a small island off the southwestern coast of Kauai populated almost entirely by native Hawaiians who eschew modern conveniences to live a more traditional lifestyle; Iz and Skippy’s mother and her father were both born there, and the kids visited often during summers in their childhood. Skippy, who played guitar, was the clear leader of the Makaha Sons in that era; Jerome played 12-string; Iz, baritone uke; Moon, tenor uke; Sam, washtub bass. It didn’t take the group long to garner a decent following and by April 1976 they’d cut their first album, No Kristo.
The early Makaha Sons were very heavily influenced by the Sons of Hawaii (even playing many songs from their repertoire), but as time went on they increasingly developed their own sound and songs. Their angelic vocal blend was rich and powerful, as was their two-ukulele attack. Eddie Kamae was certainly an influence on both Iz and Moon; Kamae affected everyone who came up in that era.
The Makaha Sons recorded a few locally popular albums in the mid- and late ’70s and they worked a lot, even as personnel changes started to affect the lineup. Unlike the more traditionalist Sons of Hawaii, the Makaha Sons increasingly ventured outside the classic style and themes. Iz and Skippy, in particular, felt a strong kinship with the nationalist Hawaiian sovereignty movement that gained momentum all through the 1970s (and beyond), and they brought in a protest song written by Mickey Ioane called “Hawaii ’78” that decried the destruction of the state’s natural beauty. Nor were they musical purists. On one of their albums, they included prominent keyboard synthesizer (which sounds cheesy and dated today) and they occasionally dipped into the “Jawaiian” (reggae) bag and other styles. Iz even wrote a song called “Pakalolo” in tribute to Hawaiian marijuana (one of many vices he enjoyed to excess).
The first era of the Makaha Sons came to a shocking end in the fall of 1982 when Skippy died of a heart attack at the age of 28. Skippy had long been dangerously obese—as was Iz, of course—and eventually his heart just gave out. Suddenly leaderless, the remaining members took some time off but eventually regrouped, with Moon Kauakahi taking on the leader role, Iz becoming more prominent, and former member Jerome Koko and his bass-playing brother John filling out a quartet. The “new” group proved to be even more commercially successful than the old one, perhaps because they were consciously more eclectic, and their first two albums, in 1985 and 1987, both won multiple Na Hoku Hanohano music awards (the “Hoku” is like a Hawaiian music Grammy). In 1992 and 1993, they also won Hokus for Group of the Year.
In 1990, while still a member of the group, Iz recorded his first solo album, the eclectic Ka‘ano‘i, which ran the gamut from a badly over-produced version of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” to the lilting, uke-driven traditional sound of “Ka Na‘i Aupuni.” It also contained Iz’s original version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World,” which was not nearly as effective with so much instrumentation. That album, too, won a Hoku and helped establish Iz as an artist apart from the Makaha Sons. In 1993, Iz, citing alleged financial impropriety by the group’s managers (which was ultimately not supported by an inquiry), quit the band and embarked in earnest on his solo career. The Makaha Sons dropped “Ni‘ihau” from their name—Iz and Skippy had been the group’s link to that island—and carried on as a trio (Moon and the Koko brothers), recording several more successful albums and remaining one of the top traditionally oriented groups in Hawaii. John Koko died in 2012.
Iz released three more albums in his lifetime, each reflecting his broad taste in music. Facing Future, besides including the stripped-down “Rainbow/Wonderful World,” also featured a new version of “Hawaii ’78,” and another radio hit in Iz’s catchy Jawaiian reworking of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Road” (via Toots Hibbert’s reggae arrangement). E Ala E (1995) contained more traditional Hawaiian songs, albeit most of them more extravagantly produced than previous versions. N Dis Life (1996) had a nice selection of more traditional fare (including a crystalline version of the old Gabby Pahinui number “Hi‘ilawe”), but also some of the most egregiously overwrought reggae that Iz ever recorded.
Iz’s producer (and closest associate) during the last few years of his life was Jon de Mello, who was, alas, never shy about layering instruments and adding heaps of reverb on Iz’s tracks. But even at the music’s most excessive moments, Iz’s unearthly voice and uplifting and beautifully articulated ukulele are usually able to shine through. And credit de Mello with this: The albums he produced showcase Iz’s ukulele skills more than the Makaha Sons’ records did. But if you’re a fan of the pure, adorned Hawaiian Renaissance folk sound, the sonics on Iz’s solo albums may come as a shock. (I should note, however, that most Hawaiians didn’t appear to have any concerns about the production or song choices: Every one of his solo albums was a great popular success.)
Sadly, the final chapter of the Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole saga is not a happy one. Obese since his teenage years, Iz simply could not control his weight, and by the mid-1990s he weighed over 700 pounds. Health issues caused him to miss gigs with the Makaha Sons (and probably contributed to their breakup), and later, travel became nearly impossible for Iz. Then simple movements even became difficult—though until quite late he never lost that ability to sing and play uke. Finally, a lifetime of overeating, no exercise, and a lifestyle that for many years included hard drugs, caught up with him and, morbidly obese, he died at Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu, his heart, lungs, and kidneys all contributing to his death.
Rick Carroll writes in Iz: Voice of the People: “All over the Hawaiian Islands people stopped. Some wept openly in public. (Years later people remembered what they were doing and where they were when they heard the news.) Others said prayers. Nobody wanted to believe Israel was gone, his sweet voice stilled. Then something eerie and spontaneous happened: local radio stations began playing Israel’s songs, not one or two, but all his songs, over and over, as if by playing his songs nonstop they could assure his voice would never be silenced.”
The past 20 years of posthumous releases and tributes show that his legacy will continue to grow, and that his voice and his ukulele will always be drifting on a breeze somewhere in this world.