Music by VICE

20 Years Ago, Hawai’i Lost Its Greatest Musical Icon

Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwoʻole, a local hero who earned national success with his cover of “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World,” left an enormous hole in the heart of Hawai’i when he died.

by Dan Ozzi
Jun 26 2017, 5:29pm

Photos via Iz's official website

On the morning of June 26, 1997, word began to spread throughout the Hawaiian islands, from O'ahu to Niihau: Bruddah "Iz" had passed. The 38-year-old singer's rotund, laughing face graced the front page of that day's edition of the Honolulu Star-Register, which announced that he had succumbed to the respiratory failure and other ongoing illnesses that stemmed from his massive size. At 6-foot-2 and reportedly weighing over a thousand pounds at his death, Iz always knew he was destined for a short life. "I'm not scared for myself for dying," he once said. "Because we Hawaiians, we live in both worlds. When our time comes, don't cry for me." Still, the islands felt quieter that day, because they had lost the man who spoke for them. Israel Kamakawiwoʻole was the voice of Hawai'i.

If you'd told Israel's friends and family he would have died the pride and joy of their native Hawai'i, they'd have laughed at you. Iz grew up kolohea trouble-making punk teenager who dropped out of high school and spent late nights in seedy parts of town where he developed an addiction to drugs and alcohol. But his private struggles aside, his natural gift for music combined with a charismatic personality was what drew people in.

Overs 17 years, Israel made a name for himself as a member of the seminal Hawaiian group, Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau, alongside his older brother Skippy who would die at 28 in 1982, a result of a heart attack related to obesity. What most Americans knew to be Hawaiian music during this time was what Hawaiians called hapa haolebastardized mainland takes on island sounds that were usually sexualized and racist caricatures of their culture, as seen in Elvis' kitschy romantic comedy Blue Hawaii. But the Sons gave Hawaiians authentic music that natives could take pride in.

Israel's career, as well as the history of Hawaiian music, would forever change one night in 1988 with a drunken phone call. As the legend goes, when the phone rang in Milan Bertosa's Honolulu recording studio at 2:30 AM, he had just finished a long session for "a horrible dance music project," where he was "trying to make a singing group from winners in a Shorebird wet t-shirt contest, with girls who couldn't sing." A client was calling from a pay phone at Sparky's, a bar a few blocks away which also happened the best place in the area to score meth and coke, and he had someone with him who wanted to come in and record: Israel Kamakawiwoʻole.

"We're shutting down, come by tomorrow," Bertosa told him.

"No, no, here, talk to Israel," the client said.

Iz was soft-spoken but persuasive on the phone. "Please, can I come in?" he begged. "I got this idea."

Bertosa was tired and wanted to go home, but, having relocated from Chicago the year prior, he was struggling for new business and agreed to give an hour to this guy whose name he couldn't pronounce.

After a while, there was a knock at the door and "in walks the largest human being I had seen in my life," Bertosa once recalled. The floor of the studio shifted as Iz stepped on it. Bertosa called down to security to bring a steel chair up for his guest. After Iz was situated and mic-ed up, Bertosa started recording. Iz, who weighed around 500 pounds, was winded just from the burden of standing to wait for the chair, and his heavy breathing picked up on the microphone. But as he strummed a ukulele, which looked like a child's toy in his massive mitts, a gentle sound came out of him as he crooned a beautiful succession of "oooohs."

It was his take on two songs: Judy Garland's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" from 1939's The Wizard of Oz merged with Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World." It was recorded in one take and was a technically imperfect version of both songs—Iz changed some of the lyrics and hit a few bad chords, but there was undeniable character in his rendition, which injected the Hawaiian aloha spirit into mainland classics.

After they wrapped up after 4 AM, Bertosa gave Iz a tape of the recording and stuck another copy in his desk where it remained for five years. The songs would sit there in a drawer until 1993 when Iz was pursuing a solo career, after having parted ways with the Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau. While recording Iz's second solo album, Facing Future, Bertosa dug out the recording and suggested to Iz's producer, Jon de Mello, that it be included, which it was, as the penultimate track. When Facing Future was released in 1993, Israel was at a low point, making so little that he was on welfare, supporting a wife and child. But the album's unexpected success would end up securing their financial security for years to come.

Much like Iz once said that Hawaiians live in two worlds, so did Facing Future. In one world, Iz's homeland, it was an instant classic. "It was an immediate hit in Hawai'i, rejuvenating Israel's career and catapulting him to the status of icon almost immediately," author Dan Kois wrote in his detailed 33 ⅓ book about the album. But it wasn't the Judy Garland/Louis Armstrong cover that made it a local success. In fact, Iz hardly ever played that song in his live shows. For Hawaiians, the album became popular for more politically minded songs like "Hawai'i '78," in which Israel laments over how the old kings and queens would feel if they were to come back and see the changes to their land.

"Could you just imagine they came back
And saw traffic lights and railroad tracks
How would they feel about this modern city life?"

Lyrics like this helped restore Hawaiians' sense of identity after decades of Americanization had stripped the land of its character, and it made Israel a folk hero who stood for Native Hawaiian rights. But while he was often labeled an activist and the face of the sovereignty movement, it's unclear how comfortable with this responsibility Iz actually was.

"It's true that Iz wasn't out on the barricades," writes Kois, "But... he missed no opportunity to express his pride in being Hawaiian. And so in the end it barely mattered whether he marched down the street waving the flag or not. He was the most popular music star in Hawai'i; his music, for his fans, was absolutely pro-sovereignty; he was, to everyone who cares about him, Hawaiian."

But while Iz became a local legend for personifying the Hawaiian spirit, Facing Future's life on the mainland would become a completely different story. The album didn't find an audience until a few years after Israel's death when "Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World" became an unlikely success. Though the song was not played much on the radio aside from an NPR spotlight on the "gentle giant of Hawaiian song" in 1996, it became a sleeper hit through an array of licensing deals by his Hawaiian record label, Mountain Apple Company.

Most Americans first heard the song around 1999 in a commercial series for eToys.com (which later became Toys "R" Us). And even though the commercials didn't use more than a few seconds of Iz's "oooohs," interest became so strong that, in an effort to reduce the volume of requests they were getting, eToys added a button on their website that directed customers to information about the song.

In addition to its commercial use, it had a cultural moment, being used in dozens of films, trailers, and TV shows including Meet Joe Black, 50 First Dates, ER, Party of Five, Snakes on a Plane, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and many others. It's been covered on American Idol and used during rain delays at New York Mets games. For mainlanders, the song became synonymous with island culture, the type of song played at destination weddings and oceanfront restaurants. And because the song didn't get radio play and Israel Kamakawiwoʻole was not a household name, people felt a personal connection to it as their song, like they had discovered a secret. The fact that the tune came to represent tourists' vision of an idyllic Hawaiian paradise is a bit hilarious considering it was likely the result of a long night of drugs and debauchery.

The song's proliferation was further aided by the early 2000s' internet boom. Newly launched e-commerce sites like Amazon helped get physical CDs of Facing Future, as well as Iz's other albums, to customers in all parts of America, regardless of whether or not they were available in local stores. The rise of file-sharing applications like Napster spread the song's reach even further. And while mainlanders didn't seem to have as much interest in the rest of the album's 14 tracks, their fixation with just one song helped Facing Future become the only Hawaiian record to sell over a million copies, a feat that likely would have been impossible just a few years prior.

Though Israel was celebrated in Hawai'i during his time on Earth, he didn't live to see this breakout success in the other 49 states. Despite numerous attempts, he was never able to get his weight under control. He took up swimming in his final years, which helped him move his 750-pound body more easily, but couldn't curtail his eating. He relied on an oxygen tank and had frequent stays in the hospital where friends would sneak him Twinkies or boxes of Oreos. Walking required frequent rest breaks and stairs became impossible for him so he sometimes used a forklift to hoist himself on stage. As a performer, he became less reliable, often showing up late to concerts and interviews, or canceling all together. He once described his obesity as feeling like a prisoner of his own body.

When Iz crossed over to the other world at 12:18 AM at the Queen's Medical Center, it was like the people of Hawai'i all lost a family member. The morning DJs at KCCN-FM read the news of his passing through tears. Crying Hawaiians called in to the station all day to share their love of their fallen bruddah.

Hawaiian governor Benjamin Cayetano decided to allow Iz's body to be lain in public at the state Capitol courtyard, an honor which had only been granted twice before, once for a governor and once for a US Senator. And although Cayetano was met with some criticism for allowing a non-elected official to use the forum, he held firm to his decision, saying, "Israel was a state treasure. He was a giant in his field. He had achieved a special status. The state Capitol is a facility that's owned by the people of the state and symbolizes the public trust."

Flags flew at half-mast the day of Iz's funeral, and ten thousand people turned up to pay their respects. They waited for hours to pass Iz's casket, which had been custom-built out of koa, with wood from all the islands by 50 family members and friends. Iz's wife Marlene and daughter Ceslieanne were seated beside the casket which sat below a 50-foot Hawaiian flag and a giant portrait of Iz having his hair brushed by Marlene for a photoshoot. People prayed and wept as they passed Iz's body, and handed photos, flowers, and gifts to the ushers who collected the offerings. A celebratory concert followed and lasted through the night.

A few days later, after Iz had been cremated, his ashes were loaded onto a voyaging canoe to sail to Makua Beach on the west side of O'ahu where he had lived for many years. Hundreds lined the the coast or paddled out on rafts and surfboards, and the adjacent two-lane highway was backed up for miles around the island. Once the boat reached Iz's final resting place a few yards off shore, a giant urn was raised towards the shining sun. As the ashes were scattered into the blue waves, people cheered and splashed, some waving flags that bore Iz's name. Drivers of cars and semi-trucks in the distance blew their horns, and the sounds echoed off the mountain ranges, serenading the celebration of life of a legend.

As the ashes spread throughout the water, blending with the salt and sand of the Pacific Ocean, Marlene dove in. Other friends and family members followed, taking a last swim with Israel. They made a tradition of returning to the spot every year on June 26, bearing leis and flowers, and swimming with Bruddah Iz, an aloha to the beloved giant who became one with Hawai'i.

Dan Ozzi is on Twitter.

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