Buried Treasure: Who is Israel Kamakawiwo'ole?

You've probably only heard Israel (a. k. a. Iz) Kamakawiwo'ole's most famous song, "Somewhere over the Rainbow," on TV commercials or in a handful of movies. The tune features Iz's gorgeous vocal accompanied only by his solo ukulele. My love of his version of the classic song is second only to Judy Garland’s original from The Wizard of Oz.

Iz recorded the song twice. The longer version combines Garland's classic with Louis Armstrong’s "It's a Wonderful World" and it's the one I prefer. The shorter track features just "Rainbow" without Armstrong’s hit. Recently, the song rode to the top of the charts in Germany even though it was first recorded for his 1993 CD, Facing Future. By selling 1,000,000 copies it is the first album in history by a Hawaiian artist to achieve platinum status.

I became fascinated with Hawaiian music during my vacation there two years ago and I listened to more than a little bit of Iz on CDs I found in souvenir shops. He possessed a beautiful tenor voice but unfortunately the thing that prevented me from purchasing one of his discs is the fact that he rarely sung in English. Most of his songs were recorded in his native tongue so I waited until I got home and downloaded "Rainbow" from iTunes.

Iz was an important figure beloved by Hawaiians. He was very active politically and was prominent in the movement that continues to push for independence for the former island nation that was annexed by The United States in the 19th century. (We're not talking politics here so if you are interested in this chapter of American history there is plenty on the web for you to read.)

Sadly, Iz was a very huge man and he died in 1997 at age 38 due to severe health problems brought on by his extreme obesity. At his peak he weighed over 757 pounds. The singer was so loved that his body laid in state in the Hawaiian State Capitol building in Honolulu. Only two other people have ever been given that honor and he was the first person to receive it who wasn't a politician. The state flag was flown at half mast. Reportedly, 10,000 mourners attended his funeral.

Iz's musical legacy was his voice, and while the sight of this Everest sized human strumming a very tiny, guitar-like instrument is almost incongruous, there is no denying the special gift belonging to one of the tropical paradise's most revered artists.

Despite the Hawaiian legend's recent, posthumous success in Europe and his god-like status in the fiftieth state it's unfortunate that, while we may be somewhat familiar with his most famous song, most American Mainlanders do not know the man's name.

Iz's official website.


  1. Based on what I've heard and read about Hawaii's statehood I'd concede that I understand their desire for independence.

    I can totally see how their struggles would make for some very emotive music. There's a lot of hurt over the events that transpired leading to statehood and much like the Blues on the mainland US were borne out of 300+ years of slavery I can see where the cultural pain of native Hawaiians losing their country would translate into beautiful music.

  2. Well, Hawaiian music is a folk music for the most part, and like folk music on the continent it has roots in many different influences (as I was moving away from Oahu in 1984, "Jawaiian" fusion of Hawaiian folk and reggae was ascending).

    Hawaiians, actual ethnic Hawaiians, often have at least some sympathy with the nationalists, but they were not, and probably are not, the majority of even the Hawaiian population as far as I could tell...and the Polynesian population of Hawaii, including Samoans and other non-Hawaiians, was not by any means the dominant group numerically nor economically. Comparable to most native nations in most of the States...Alaska probably has more of a parity between native nations and Caucasians than most other states, and the ethnic mix in Hawaii leaves it with no majorities, unless one homogenizes all folks of Asian ethnicity (and even then it might be close).

    Meanwhile, for Hawaiian music, have you tried the Brothers Cazimero yet? (The Peter Moon Band was probably the biggest single act to break out just before my leavetaking...)

  3. I have played "Over the Rainbow" several times, when it comes up on my radio shows. Next time I swear I'll try to pronounce the guy's name.

  4. I recently came across IZ's music on You Tubes and listen to it a lot now, especially the music he sung in Hawaiian. As a result I started to listen also other Hawaiian music and also Samoan music. For me it is music that is sung with a lot of feeling and longing... Yossi


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