5-20-1959 Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Native Hawaiian musician, entertainer and Hawaiian sovereignty advocate (Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World), born in Honolulu, Hawaii (d. 1997)
Israel Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole (Hawaiian pronunciation: [kəˌmɐkəˌvivoˈʔole], translation: “The Fearless Eyed Man”) (May 20, 1959 – June 26, 1997) also called Bruddah Iz or IZ, was a Native Hawaiian singer-songwriter, musician, and Hawaiian sovereignty activist.
His voice became famous outside Hawaii when his album Facing Future was released in 1993. His medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” was released on his albums Ka ʻAnoʻi and Facing Future. It was subsequently featured in several films, television programs, and television commercials.
Kamakawiwoʻole was born at Kuakini Medical Center in Honolulu to Henry “Hank” Kaleialoha Naniwa Kamakawiwoʻole, Jr. and Evangeline “Angie” Leinani Kamakawiwoʻole. The notable Hawaiian musician Moe Keale was his uncle and a major musical influence. He was raised in the community of Kaimuki, where his parents had met and married. He began playing music with his older brother Skippy and cousin Allen Thornton at the age of 11, being exposed to the music of Hawaiian entertainers of the time such as Peter Moon, Palani Vaughn and Don Ho, who frequented the establishment where Kamakawiwoʻole’s parents worked. Hawaiian musician Del Beazley spoke of the first time he heard Israel perform, when, while playing for a graduation party, the whole room fell silent on hearing him sing. Israel continued his path as his brother Skippy entered the Army in 1971 and cousin Allen parted ways in 1976 for the mainland.
In his early teens, he studied at Upward Bound (UB) of the University of Hawaii at Hilo and his family moved to Mākaha. There he met Louis Kauakahi, Sam Gray and Jerome Koko. Together with his brother Skippy they formed the Makaha Sons of Niʻihau. A part of the Hawaiian Renaissance, the band’s blend of contemporary and traditional styles gained in popularity as they toured Hawaii and the continental United States, releasing fifteen successful albums. Kamakawiwoʻole’s aim was to make music that stayed true to the typical sound of traditional Hawaiian music. During that time period, the songs that many people associated with Hawaii, typically, were not traditional-sounding songs.
Support of Hawaiian rights
Kamakawiwoʻole was known for promoting Hawaiian rights and Hawaiian independence, both through his lyrics, which often stated the case for independence directly, and through his own actions. For example, the lyric in his song “Hawaiʻi ’78”: “The life of this land is the life of the people/and that to care for the land (malama ʻāina) is to care for the Hawaiian culture”, is a statement that many consider to summarize his Hawaiian ideals. The state motto of Hawaiʻi is a recurring line in the song and encompasses the meaning of Iz’s message: “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono” (proclaimed by King Kamehameha III when Hawaiʻi regained sovereignty in 1843. It can be roughly translated as: “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness”).
Kamakawiwoʻole used the tenor ukulele, and his music as a whole, to promote awareness of his belief that a second-class status had been pushed onto the natives by the tourist industry.
At some point in his later years, Israel (Iz) converted to Christianity. In 1996, he was baptized at the Word of Life Christian Center in Honolulu and spoke publicly about his beliefs at the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards. He also recorded the song “Ke Alo O Iesu” (translated as “The Presence of Jesus”).
Throughout his life, Kamakawiwoʻole was super obese and at one point he weighed 757 pounds (343 kg; 54 st 1 lb) standing at 6 feet 2 inches (1.88 m) tall (body mass index = 97.2). He endured several hospitalizations because of health problems. Beset with respiratory, heart, and other medical problems, he died at the age of 38 in Queen’s Medical Center at 12:18 a.m. on June 26, 1997. Kamakawiwoʻole was survived by his wife, Marlene Kamakawiwoʻole, and their daughter, Ceslie-Ann “Wehi”.
The Hawaii state flag flew at half-staff on July 10, 1997, the day of Kamakawiwoʻole’s funeral. His koa wood coffin lay in state at the state capitol building in Honolulu, the third person and the only non-government official to be so honored. Approximately ten thousand people attended the funeral. Thousands of fans gathered as his ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean at Mākua Beach on July 12, 1997. According to witnesses, many people on land commemorated him by honking their car and truck horns on all Hawaiian highways that day. Scenes from the funeral and scattering of Kamakawiwoʻole’s ashes were featured in official music videos of “Over the Rainbow” released posthumously by Mountain Apple Company. As of April 2019, the two videos as featured on YouTube have collectively received over 790 million views.
On September 20, 2003, hundreds paid tribute to Kamakawiwoʻole as a bronze bust (located at) of the revered singer was unveiled at the Waianae Neighborhood Community Center on Oʻahu. The singer’s widow, Marlene Kamakawiwoʻole, and sculptor Jan-Michelle Sawyer were present for the dedication ceremony.
A 2014 Pixar short film, Lava, features two volcanoes as the main characters. Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and his style of music was James Ford Murphy’s partial inspiration for the short film.