Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole’s World

Israel Iz Kamakawiwo'ole - Wonderful World
Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole

Facing Future (Mountain Apple Company BBCD5901, 1993), Alone in IZ World (Mountain Apple Company BBCD5907, 2001), and Wonderful World (Mountain Apple Company BBCD5911, 2007)

Under normal circumstances we hear or read of an artist, then we hound the label or press people for information and a review copy of the CD, or some press person or label will send us a press packet and we go from there. But every once in a while World Music Central falls through the gap – literally. Now the result is that we let an artist fall through the gap. It never fails to rankle me when something like that happens and it can’t be any truer than how Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole slipped passed our radar. Fortunately, president Leah Bernstein of the Mountain Apple Company was kind enough to send us a lovely package filled to the brim with recordings by Mr. Kamakawiwo’ole, the DVD IZ The Man Behind the Music and the book IZ Voice of the People by Rick Carroll.

Now I had heard in passing Mr. Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” At the time I was so struck by the simple grace of the vocals against ukulele, I remember thinking, “Hey I bet that version could give Judy Garland a run for her money.” And, indeed, Mr. Kamakawiwo’ole turned “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” into something extraordinary and earned the number-one spot on Billboards Digital World Song in 2010. The hopeful, fragile beauty of that voice against ukulele simply embodied all that the lyrics try to express. It wasn’t just novelty, it was a song epiphany in vocal form.

IZ: Voice of the People by Rick Carroll. Bess Press, 2006
I think this is where I should mention that Mr. Kamakawiwo’ole passed away in 1997 at the age of 38 due to a respiratory illness. The real tragedy is the age, but then again isn’t that often the way with a truly all encompassing talent. Mr. Kamakawiwo’ole had indeed slipped passed us, offering us no chance to make the slight right. Now, I would never hawk a CD of a deceased artist just for the sake of commerce, but I think in this case the music is just too good and I’d like to see that his wife and daughter get the support.

The three surviving recordings Facing Future, Alone in IZ World and Wonderful World, alone or as a trio, will delight any listener. Those familiar with his version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” will have but a glimpse of the depth of his vocals and easy style, but for new fans Mr. Kamakawiwo’ole will spring wide the wonderfulness of that breezy Hawaiian sound.

There are some overlapping of tracks, but I’ll give you some of the must-haves. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” does appear on both Alone in IZ World and Facing Future. Other popular tunes he covers include a plummy version of “What a Wonderful World,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” Take Me Home Country Road” and the irrepressibly wonderful “Mona Lisa.” Again, a version that could give Nat King Cole a run for his money.

Listeners shouldn’t miss Mr. Kamakawiwo’ole’s versions of traditional Hawaiian songs like “‘Ama’ama,” “Hi’ilawe” or the simply stunning “Kaleohano.” His rich, honeyed vocals and his accompanying ukulele lines turn tracks like “‘Ulilie E” and “Henehene Kou ‘Aka” into wonderful tracks. Looking to raise the hairs on the back of your neck you only have to listen to “Hawai’i 78” on Facing Future recording. All the power and grace that embodied Mr. Kamakawiwo’ole’s Hawaiian heritage and vocal prowess come through loud and clear.

Ms. Bernstein’s letter in the package we received laments that “recordings from Hawaii are often sidelined in retail channels. They also have a slim chance for mainstream radio airplay.” Well, nothing could be further from the truth with many world music recordings. I suppose that’s one of the reason World Music Central exists and why we do what we do. So do yourself a favor and check out any or all of Mr. Kamakawiwo’ole’s recordings. Thumbing your nose at mainstream radio play has never felt so good.

Recordings available:

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One thought on “Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole’s World”

  1. You need to go back to the beginning to Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau when his brother Skippy was alive ,you can hear the freshness in his voice and can hear the voice age as he ages.The aloha that comes thru is what I hear and every giggle every comment lets you into the world of IZ . Mahalo for your kind article and I wished I had found him before he died but glad I have his music now.

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