By Dawna L. Robertson
Long before he garnered global fame from his Facing Future album release in 1993, Israel Kamakawiwo`ole was revered throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Affectionately called “Iz” or “Bruddah Iz” (“Bruddah” being pidgin for “Brother”), he was also referred to as “the kid with the ukulele” in the early 1970s when summoned onto stage at the Waikiki nightclub managed by his mother.
When skipping out of school one day, he met another truant named Jerome Koko who was also into music. Along with his brother Skippy, Israel joined Koko, Sam Gray and Louis “Moon” Kauakahi to form the Makaha Sons of Niihau in 1976.
Blending traditional and contemporary styles as part of a Hawaiian music renaissance, the groundbreaking group released some 15 albums, hauled in a bounty of Na Hoku Awards from the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts (HARA) and toured throughout the United States.
In 1990, Israel launched his solo career by releasing the island reggae genre Ka ʻAnoʻi. “I had been friends with Israel for a number of years and would see him often in Waikiki,” says Jon de Mello, producer and CEO of The Mountain Apple Company.
“Israel wasn’t happy with that album,” de Mello says. “He came to me in 1993 with an open heart and open mind, and asked me to help him make his own decisions and his own music. Israel wanted to keep it simple and Hawaiian based. And we did just that.”
When piecing together Israel’s debut Facing Future album with The Mountain Apple Company, de Mello suggested adding the Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World medley Israel recorded in an impromptu
3 a.m. session five years earlier. The soft-spoken musician had convinced engineer Milan Bertosa into staying in studio to lay down several tracks he was compelled to record immediately. Exhausted from a previous 12-hour session, Bertosa finally agreed to a half-hour of time if Israel arrived within 15 minutes – which he did.
With only his vintage 1928 Martin ukulele and two mics, the revered Hawaiian singer recorded the track in a single take. It took more than half a decade for that enchanting vocal laid in a mere 15 minutes to launch Israel into international fame.
“Israel was somewhat reluctant about including the track since he felt he didn’t consistently nail the lyrics and melody,” says de Mello. “It was the final one we added.” Two decades later, Facing Future remains the best-selling album of all time recorded by a Hawaiian artist.
The recording is intimate. If you listen carefully, you can hear the light clicking of Israel’s fingernails on the ukulele strings and soundboard. At the top of the song, he quietly dedicates the tune to Pahinui.
“I was familiar with Israel’s music and was living in Manoa at the time,” says sculptor Jan-Michelle Sawyer. “Having seen Israel perform live, it never crossed my mind that I would someday create a commemorative sculpture of him.”
While driving one day, Israel’s medley came on the radio. “When I heard him say ‘This one’s for Gabby,’ I took it as a sign,” says Sawyer. She had just completed a bronze bust of Pahinui that stands today at the entrance to the Waikiki Shell in Kapiolani Park.
“I wanted to create a tribute to Israel – to honor him because it’s clear that he changed people’s lives and is considered a hero among the people of Hawaii,” Sawyer says.
The artisan recalls reaching out to Israel’s widow, Marlene, on Christmas Day of 2000. “With all the sculptures I’ve done, I always get the family’s blessing,” she says. With Marlene’s affirmation, Sawyer moved forward.
While Israel was a gentle giant standing at 6’2” and often weighing more than 750 pounds, Sawyer created a 200-pound bust that focused more on his spirit than his physical size. Photos and a steady flow of Israel’s music inspired her during the creative process.
“I did a meditative prayer and asked for Israel’s guidance to create an image he would be happy with,” she says. “I felt like he was helping me. His spirit was so present because I was thinking about him all of the time.”
On Sept. 20, 2003, Sawyer’s bronze bust tribute to the revered singer was unveiled at the Waianae Neighborhood Community Center on Oahu’s Leeward Coast. "I wanted him to be facing the ocean," Sawyer says. "He talked so much about the Waianae Coast and all his memories there. It makes sense that to honor him, the bust should be placed in an area that meant so much to him."
Through Israel’s eyes
Israel’s size plagued him with health challenges throughout his brief 38-year life. His imposing physical presence was such a dramatic contradiction to the golden voice, ukulele artistry and “aloha” spirit that made “Bruddah Iz” a cultural icon.
The team encored Facing Future with E Ala E and n Dis Life prior to Israel’s passing in 1997. IZ in Concert: The Man and His Music, Alone in IZ World and Wonderful World were released posthumously.
De Mello reflects on his friend as warm and personable. “If you ever met Israel, he would shake your hand,” says the producer. “After he passed, people would tell me that they had met him in an elevator during a 10-second ride and he gave them aloha. He was aloha.”
Israel was again feted by HARA in 1997 for n Dis Life as Male Vocalist of the Year, Favorite Entertainer of the Year, Album of the Year and Island Contemporary Album of the Year. The man who made such a monumental impact on Hawaii’s music culture watched the ceremony from a hospital room.
The music legend passed away from respiratory failure later that year before his phenomenal success made him the best selling Hawaiian musician of all time. He was so revered by the people of Hawaii that his koa coffin laid in state at the Hawaii State Capitol – an honor typically reserved for select government officials.
A few days later, Israel’s ashes were carried on a traditional Hawaiian voyaging canoe for scattering off the Waianae Coast’s Makua Beach where brother Skippy’s ashes were scattered 15 years earlier.
A dozen years after its release, Facing Future became Hawaii’s first certified platinum album by the Recording Industry Association of America. His celebrated medley has no boundaries, with The Mountain Apple Company licensing Israel’s
music for use in such films as Meet Joe Black, 50 First Dates and Finding Forrester.
“For reasons that cannot be adequately explained or understood, people feel good when they hear his voice, they feel safe and they feel happy,” de Mello says. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from. That indefinable unique characteristic which is at the core of all great music burns bright in Israel Kamakawiwo`ole’s voice. It is for that reason that Hawaiians worldwide consider him their standard bearer.”
De Mello adds that Israel’s message still lives in his music. “He wanted a human community without boundaries, where people everywhere took care of each other,” de Mello says. “That was his ‘Wonderful World.’ In Israel’s words, ‘Dis music is feelings dat goin’ las’ fo`eva’.”
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