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JMT 1.02 Israel Kamakawiwo'ole: the voice of Hawai'i

Jane's Musical Takeaway
bits and bobs and my two cents

Episode 2: Israel Kamakawiwo'ole (1959-97)

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, (learn to pronounce it here, or you can simply call him Iz), was born three months before Hawai'i became the 50th state of the United States. His tragic death at the age of 38 cut short the life of a legend whose beautiful, crystal clear voice spread songs of peace, love, unity, and the beauty of his native islands around the world. (Full bio here)

Israel's instrument of choice was the ukulele, an instrument adapted by 19th century Hawaiians from a Portuguese instrument called the machete. In the late 1920s, a musician named Eddie Kamae sparked the Hawaiian Music Renaissance by playing popular hits on his uke in a Waikiki restaurant. 125 years later, it's still one of the most popular instruments to learn to play. Iz began playing the ukulele when he was 11 years old, and music quickly became his passion.

Here is a wonderful (and short) video retrospective, that will introduce you to Iz as he sings 'White Sandy Beach of Hawai'i'. The last scenes are from his funeral in 1997.

Israel's best known song is probably his version of 'Over the Rainbow', from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. As you'll see in the following video, he combines it with a cover of the Louis Armstrong hit 'What a Wonderful World'. Legend has it that he called to make an appointment with a recording studio at 3am and was told he had 15 minutes to get there before they locked up for the night. He made it in time, walked in, sat down, and recorded the medley in one take with studio engineer Milan Bertosa. He thanked the engineer and went home. The rest is history.

Jane's Musical Takeaway:

  • 1. To refresh your memory, here's a link to the original Judy Garland recording with lyrics. The first thing you'll notice is the difference in style between the original song as written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg and the way Iz recorded it. The movie ballad is filled with yearning and demands your attention as a solo number; Israel's cover sounds as if the song is an old friend, inviting you to sing along.
  • 2. The complaint I often hear from purists is that Iz either doesn't know the lyrics or deliberately changes them. Actually, that's what I find most appealing about his cover of the song. The changes are minor, and they don't alter the message of the lyrics in any way. In Israel's hands it becomes a folk song - something that belongs to all of us.
  • 3. Listen to the way he seamlessly transitions from one song to the next at 2.15. If you know the songs, it can take you by surprise and make you wonder why you didn't remember the song went like this. Now, instead of singing about what's on the other side of the rainbow, the lyrics speak about the colours of the rainbow. It's truly an inspired medley.
  • 4. At 3.48 we're back to the original Harold Arlen song, just in time for Iz to change the melody just enough to allow his voice to soar on the lyrics 'Somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high'. This is a genius alteration, as he sings the song in a way that suits his voice, making it substantially different from the original.
  • 5. Now I know it's not necessary for everyone to like every song, or every singer, and I work very hard to appreciate the beauty, the talent, and the skill behind those things that I don't care for. Personally, I adore Israel, but I understand that he isn't for everyone, and not everyone likes the ukulele which is an integral part of his music. But if you'd like to explore more of his music, YouTube is filled with brilliant selections like his version of Wind Beneath My Wings.

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole put his heart and soul into his music; he is the voice of Hawai'i.

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