Israel Kamakawiwo’ole is a legend. For many people around the world, he is the voice of Hawai’i. A native Hawaiian, he started playing the ‘ukulele as a boy. In 1976 he formed a band called “Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau” with his older brother Skippy and three other native musicians. Even after Skippy died of a heart attack in 1982, Iz (as he was known to his friends and fans) stayed with the Makaha Sons until 1993.
In 1988, Iz unknowingly and unintentionally made music history. It was late one night — the wee hours of the morning, actually — when he called a recording studio in Honolulu and found the recording engineer (who also owned the studio) working late. Milan Bertosa had moved to the islands from Chicago to start his own recording studio. On the night of the phone call, he had been working on what he remembered was a “horrible dance music project”. He was tired and ready to go home, but agreed to give Iz 30 minutes of studio time if he could get there in the next 15 minutes. Iz made it in time, and after 20 minutes had laid down tracks for three songs. One of those songs would make history.
It is ironic that this native Hawaiian singer’s fame would not spread appreciably beyond the borders of his native land until after his death, and then as the result of a medley of two songs that had no ties to Hawai’i whatsoever. When Iz decided to part ways with the Makaha Sons in 1993 and focus on his solo career, Bertosa pulled out the recordings from that late night impromptu session in 1988 and played them for Jon de Mello at Mountain Apple Company, with whom Iz was working on a new album. One of the recordings Bertosa played for de Mello was a one-take recording of two songs blended together by Iz with his own twist to the lyrics of both songs, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World”. That one-take recording was included on Iz’s “Facing Future” album produced by Mountain Apple; and the rest, as they say, is history.
Iz’s version of “Over the Rainbow / Wonderful World” from the “Facing Future” album has been featured in movies and commercials numerous times. To the haole (non-Hawaiian) world, it has become the trademark sound of this gentle giant of a man, who died of respiratory illness in 1997 at the age of 38.
“Over the Rainbow / Wonderful World” makes my list of all-time favorite songs. You can here it by clicking on the Music Player banner below.
- Israel Kamakawiwo’ole at Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
- Wonderful World – Israel Kamakawiwo’ole a special project of The Honolulu Advertiser.