Hawaii's music legend

January 02, 2002|By Michael Corcoran | Michael Corcoran,COX NEWS SERVICE

HONOLULU - There's the opening reggae strum of the ukulele and the "ooooh, ooooh" crooning as glassy as the wall of a 20-foot wave, as breezy as the tradewinds on a perfect day. Then the exotic becomes familiar. "Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high," sings the velvet-smooth voice, poised to flip into falsetto.

"Who is that?" That's what folks have been asking when they hear Hawaii's Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's version of "Over the Rainbow," originally intertwined with "What a Wonderful World" on his 1993 solo debut and in the soundtracks to the films Meet Joe Black and Finding Forester. The track has been re-released, with the "Wonderful World" segue edited out, on "Alone in IZ World," which in September became the first album from Hawaii to debut at No. 1 on Billboard's World Music chart.

In his novel From the Corner of His Eye, author Dean Koontz wrote: "I hope the reader finds pleasure in my story equal to the joy and consolation that I found in the voice, the spirit and the heart of Israel Kamakawiwo'ole."

The behemoth with the big name (pronounced "Ka-MAH-ka-VEE-vo-oh-lay") is on the verge of becoming the first Hawaiian singer since Don Ho to have major mainland success. "We can tell whenever NPR [National Public Radio]airs a segment on Iz because we start getting calls from all over the country," says Jon de Mello, whose Mountain Apple recording company has released all five Kamakawiwo'ole solo albums.

"Iz," as he's called, has never been more popular, but as with Selena and Notorious B.I.G. before him, this career boost comes at a time when the artist is no longer around to enjoy it. Approaching 800 pounds, Kamakawiwo'ole passed away due to respiratory problems at age 38 in June 1997. He's survived by his wife and an 18-year-old daughter.

The first musician whose body was laid in state at the Capitol in Honolulu, Iz attracted more than 10,000 to his funeral.

"He became an icon while he was still alive because he represented a lot of the stuff his people were going through trying to survive amongst the poverty, the violence, the drugs," says Milan Bertosa, an engineer with Mountain Apple. "Plus, he had that amazing voice."

When Iz was able to turn his life around he became a symbol of hope for Hawaii natives, who often feel lost and neglected in the Westernization of their homeland. In introducing his traditional Hawaiian material, Kamakawiwo'ole often spoke in support of the sovereignty movement, which asks reparations and a return of sacred lands from the U.S. government.

Bertosa first became aware of Iz's musical spontaneity after a 3 a.m. phone call in 1988. "Here was a guy on the phone who I'd never heard of, telling me he just had to get something he'd been working on down on tape," recalls Bertosa. "I said, `OK, you've got 30 minutes to get here and 30 minutes to record." By the end of the hour, Iz had recorded the arrangement for "Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World" that would, a decade later, be heard in movies and a popular "Fireflies" commercial for eToys.

De Mello went through more than 55 hours of recordings to assemble "Alone in IZ World," the second release following 1998's "The Man and His Music" live CD.

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