We all know Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (IZ) as one of the cornerstones of the ‘ukulele renaissance with his memorable and intimate rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World. It has since been a worldwide inspiration to pick up the ‘ukulele with it’s simple yet perfect accompaniment to IZ’s beautiful voice. The recording has made it’s way into weddings, graduations, TV, movies, etc. for it’s timeless sentiment and of course IZ’s breathtaking performance.
Their is the casual listener and then their is the lifelong fan who has listened to IZ with the Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau and followed him through his solo releases: E Ala E, N Dis Life, etc. I like to think I sit somewhere in between the two as IZ had already passed away when I first started playing ‘ukulele. Though as a kid I do remember learning how to play the intro to Hawaiian Superman and being anxious to learn the rest of the song. My teacher gave my friend and I the song sheet and my mother took me down to Borders Book and Music to pick up my first copy of Facing Future. I was instantly hooked and had Hawaiian Superman on repeat on my JVC boombox to the next lesson. I know my parents were relieved when we got a new song the next week, only to find out it was Henehene Kou ‘Aka.
Every ‘ukulele player has their own account of getting to know IZ, wether personally or through his music. A special memory that’s held in the hearts of many Hawaiian musicians and fans, was the night of the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards in 1996. Being a guest performer during the awards, IZ took a few moments to talk to the audience about the dangers of gangs and drugs. He says things such as, “What is in a rag? To blow hanabata cuz,” and,”Stop the dope,” making a plea to the public to be responsible and take care of our kuleana as a people. Before launching into Kaleohano he makes a dedication to all the members of Makaha Sons, which came as a surprise to an audience who had watched the band’s relationship deteriorate over the years.
The other members of the Makaha Sons (including his brother in law Kauakahi) and IZ were on a “no speaking terms” since IZ’s departure and the start of his solo career. A mixture of bad blood and substance abuse kept the band apart for many years as IZ continued his career gaining fandom throughout Hawai’i. In 1996 IZ had already been battling his health issues for sometime and you can even hear it as he strains his voice during the performance at the Na Hoku Awards. Captured in the moment, IZ is suddenly interrupted with applause as the members of the Makaha Sons, Kauakahi and the Koko brothers, join him on stage to finish the song. The audience instantly stand as the old friends exchange hugs before jumping back into the song. “Love each other, love you Hawai’i,” are his last tear soaked words as the Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau finally reach reconciliation.
I get misty eyed every time I watch the footage of this historic night in Hawaiian music history. Some say you had to be there to really know the impact of the evening and I think they are right in saying so. However as being someone who has been directly effected by IZ’s music, I feel like I am siting in the front row every time.
Hope you enjoy!