Remembering The Great Israel Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole

By Stu Kelly / May 20, 2020

Israel Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole was a native Hawaiian tenor ukulele singer/songwriter who gained international notoriety for his beautiful rendition of his medly “Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World.” His name translates to ‘”the fearless eye, the bold face”‘ and while that reputation certainly proceeded him, IZ was very much a lover of all people and a huge advocate for Hawaiian’s native rights. Kamakawiwoʻole used his music to promote awareness of his belief that a second-class status had been pushed onto fellow natives by the tourist industry. He remained heavily involved in his activism all the way up to his untimely death. 

Born on May 20, 1959, in Honolulu, IZ began playing the ukulele at age 11 with his brother and cousin. In 1976, as many Hawaiians were rediscovering their language and culture, the teenage IZ formed the band Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau with his brother and three friends, playing a blend of contemporary and traditional styles. They toured Hawaii and the mainland US and released 15 successful albums.

In 1990, Kamakawiwoʻole released his first solo album Ka ʻAnoʻi, which won awards for Contemporary Album of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year from the Hawaiʻi Academy of Recording Arts (HARA). In 1993 IZ released Facing Future by The Mountain Apple Company. The album featured a version of his most popular song, the medley “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” (listed as “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World”), along with “Hawaiʻi 78”, “White Sandy Beach of Hawaiʻi”, “Maui Hawaiian Sup’pa Man”, and “Kaulana Kawaihae.” The decision to include a cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was said to be a last-minute one by his producer Jon de Mello and Kamakawiwoʻole. The story of how the song was recorded is truly beautiful. 

In 1988, a friend of Kamakawiwoʻole’s called Milan Bertosa‘s Honolulu recording studio at 3 a.m. and asked if Kamakawiwoʻole could come in to make a recording. Bertosa was in the process of shutting down for the night, but said he could come if he was able to get there in 15 minutes. In a 2011 interview with NPR, Bertosa said, “And in walks the largest human being I had seen in my life. Israel was probably like 500 pounds. And the first thing at hand is to find something for him to sit on.” A security guard gave Kamakawiwoʻole a large steel chair. “Then I put up some microphones, do a quick sound check, roll tape, and the first thing he does is ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ He played and sang, one take, and it was over.”

The song was also later released as a stand alone single and subsequently featured in several major motion pictures, television programs, and television commercials. On October 26, 2005, Facing Future became Hawaiʻi’s first certified platinum album, selling more than a million CDs in the United States, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. The Facing Future has since also become the best-selling Hawaiian album of all time. 

On June 26, 1997 IZ tragically passed away at The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu after a lifelong battle with obesity. He was 38-years-old.  On July 10, 1997, the day of his funeral, the Hawaiian flaf flew at half-staff. His  koa wood coffin lay at the state capitol building in Honolulu, the third person (and the only non-government official) to be so honored. Approximately 10,000 people attended the funeral. Thousands of fans gathered as his ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean at Mākua Beach on July 12, 1997. Israel Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole’s legacy is cemented forever as one of Hawaii’s most beloved artists and activists. 

Watch the official music video for “Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World” below that was released posthumously by The Mountain Apple Company. 

About the author

Stu Kelly