By Dan Kois
The tiny ukulele never looked so small as when it was played by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. Set against his massive frame—by the time of his death in 1997, he topped 757 pounds—Kamakawiwo’ole’s ’60s-style Martin tenor might easily have been mistaken for a toy or a punch line, but in his capable hands, it was the perfect instrument to elicit the intricate flourishes that Hawaiian music requires.
Kamakawiwo’ole—known to his fans simply as Iz—was intuitive and fluid on the ukulele. Even late in his life, singing and strumming with an oxygen tank by his side, his playing stood up to the virtuosos who joined Iz onstage, including guitarist Roland Cazimero and keyboardist Gaylord Holomalia. Iz played the occasional bum note—but in his nearly 20 years with the beloved group Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau, and in his short, but potent, career as a bandleader on his own, he wielded that Martin 1T with flair and good humor, coaxing songs from it that defined Hawaiian music for a generation of islanders. And with the success of his “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” medley (released in 1993, and later featured on several TV and film soundtracks), Iz helped spark the ukulele renaissance in contemporary music.
The story behind this particular medley illustrates how much simply playing—in shows, at cookouts, and in one fateful impromptu recording session—was in Iz’s blood. He cut the song in 1988, in one take, in a downtown Honolulu studio where he’d never played, with an engineer he’d never met, at 3:30 in the morning. He was using coke and meth heavily in those days, and while the engineer, Milan Bertosa, could barely keep his eyes open, Iz was raring to go. He’d had a friend call Bertosa and beg for late-night studio time. When Iz showed up, clad in sandals and an aloha shirt the size of a tent, he had nothing with him but that Martin uke and a song he was dying to play. He waited patiently while Bertosa called building security to find a chair that could support his weight. Then he settled down, leaned into the mic, dedicated the song to the beloved Hawaiian musician Gabby Pahinui, and began strumming and oohing.
The spirit of performance that overtook Iz that night was one honed through tens of thousands of hours of music, starting when he learned to play the uke at the age of six. Family gatherings were musical affairs: his parents played and sang, and his uncle Moe Keale was a ukulele virtuoso, who was a member of Eddie Kamae’s legendary Sons of Hawaii band. At 11, Iz was accompanying his older brother Skippy on Waikiki tourist catamarans, playing hapa haole tunes for mainlanders as the sun set over the Pacific. Soon thereafter his parents got jobs at Steamboats, a Waikiki nightclub that was at the center of the Hawaiian music renaissance. When uncle Moe and the Sons of Hawaii performed, Iz and Skippy sat stage-side, occasionally being called up on stage to join them, happy to pocket the 20 bucks slipped to them at show’s end.
At other times, Iz and Skippy would hang out on Makua Beach on O’ahu’s west side, playing ballads in time with the waves breaking on shore. Eventually some local guys joined them, they started gigging parties, and the Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau was born.
A careful listen to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” reveals the casual, island approach that Iz brought to his playing. Though gemlike and perfectly formed in Judy Garland’s rendition, Iz didn’t mind changing up the lyrics, substituting “the dreams that you dare” for the line about birds flying over the rainbow. It might have been a mistake, but now it’s been replicated through a long chain of pop-culture covers in American Idol performances, movies, and ads. You could imagine a future in which Iz’s incorrect lyrics replace the original. When the song first started registering on the mainland, a rights supervisor called the Honolulu-based record label, complimenting them on their lovely version of the song and asking if perhaps they could have the artist re-record the track with the correct lyrics. “Well, I’d really love to,” said the company’s president, “but he’s dead.”
That the track even came to see the light of day was really just a lucky coincidence. Bertosa had been holding on to his cassette of the impromptu recording session for five years when he just happened to get hired as the engineer for Iz’s Facing Future sessions. Bertosa thought that Iz, by now hundreds of pounds heavier than in 1988, sounded bad, so he played the cassette for the album’s producer, saying, this is what he could sound like. Not to pass up a good thing, the “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” medley made it onto the 1993 release, and now you can hear snippets and versions in advertising jingles, movie soundtracks, twee indie-pop songs, or anywhere a producer wants an exotic feeling of wistfulness and wonder.
But don’t only remember Israel Kamakawiwo’ole for this hit song. Remember him as the big man making music with his Martin, carting it all over O’ahu, playing it on beaches and in bars, driving it around in his car, strumming it on stages and in hospital beds. The man and his uke got in trouble together, and they made great songs together. When Iz died, he cradled that little uke in his big hands one last time. They went into the fire together, and together they were scattered over the waves off Makua Beach.
Iz’s Other Hit
The history of Hawaiian music is one of itinerant, ad hoc, on-the-spot music making. While there are plenty of reasons why the ukulele became a predominant instrument in this sphere, one of them is, simply put, its portability. It’s an instrument good for dropping in on a “bruddah” at home, or hanging out on the beach, or playing anykine at any time. (The initial rehearsals for Iz’s biggest-selling album, Facing Future, took place at Queen’s Hospital in Honolulu, where he sat in a specially made “big boy” bed, strumming his uke with Cazimero and Mel Amina at his side.)
That was the kind of music making Iz loved best. He was not always great at getting to scheduled gigs—he was infamous on the islands for canceling shows or showing up high. The best of his songs bear the marks of informality and improvisation that peg them as the products of hours of screwing around with friends. Take the spirited “Henehene Kou ’Aka,” an ode to Honolulu’s old streetcar line: it’s a song that’s played at every luau and beach party—one that, when sung with friends, functions as a kind of giggly showdown, participants throwing in verse after verse, each trying to one-up the next. Years after Iz’s death from diabetes-related kidney and respiratory failure, a live version of “Henehene” became a hit in Hawaii, despite—or perhaps because of—Iz’s ribald substitution of the song’s repeated refrain “For you and I.” For Iz, it became “For pu in sai”—pidgin slang for, well, putting it inside.