Israel Kamakawiwoʻole was a native Hawaiian ukulele player, singer and activist who was known as the “Voice of Hawai`i.” Sometimes called IZ, he fought to preserve traditional island heritage and sound.
A video Google Doodle was unveiled on May 20, 2020 in honor of Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s 61st Birthday. It’s a rendition of the classics Somewhere Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World which you can watch later in this article. It’s not easy to turn a classic into a new classic – especially two of them – but Kamakawiwoʻole did that with this song. The Google Doodle was created in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the U.S.
“Israel is so much more than one song; with his band and successful solo career, he redefined popular Hawaiian music through his own unique style and spread his love for the islands around the world,” Google noted.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Kamakawiwo`ole Was Born in Honolulu & Raised in a Native Islander Family That Traced Its Roots to a Forbidden Island
According to Google, Israel Ka`ano`i Kamakawiwo`ole was born in 1959 in a suburb of Honolulu, Hawai`i and “raised in a native islander family with a shared love of Hawaiian music.”
His official biography says Israel “was the third child of Evangeline Keale Kamakawiwo’ole, a Hawaiian woman born on Ni’ihau, and Henry ‘Tiny’ Kaleialoha Naniwa Kamakawiwo’ole, a part-Hawaiian born on O’ahu. His proud parents knew he would be special even before he emitted his first bold vocals.” His last name meant, “the fearless eye, the bold face.”
Israel’s bio notes that he was “an almost pure Hawaiian of unusual lineage; he could trace his ancestral roots to an island that even today remains the most Hawaiian of all, the so-called ‘forbidden; island of Ni’ihau.”
2. He Is Best Known for His Melodic Version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Which He Recorded in a Single Take
The song that Kamakawiwo`ole is best known for – his sweetly melodic version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow – was created in a single take in 1988.
“Late one night in 1988, Israel sat down in a Honolulu studio, closed his eyes, and in a single take, sang an emotional `ukulele-backed version of the classic song, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,'” noted Google.
The song became “an international phenomenon.” His bio explains the appeal, “His recordings are featured in commercials throughout the world, which remain in rotation because of Israel’s unique ability to connect. For reasons that cannot be adequately explained or understood, people feel good when they hear his voice, they feel safe and they feel happy.”
Milan Bertosa was there when Kamakawiwo`ole first recorded the song, a scene he described to NPR: “…in walks the largest human being I had seen in my life. Israel was probably like 500 pounds. And the first thing at hand is to find something for him to sit on…Then I put up some microphones, do a quick sound check, roll tape, and the first thing he does is ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ He played and sang, one take, and it was over.”
3. Known as the ‘Ukulele Boy’ Growing Up, Israel Joined a Beloved Band That Used Native Sound
Israel was seen with a ukulele by the age of 10, and by the time he was a teenager, he, his brother, and three friends “dug deep into the traditional sounds of the islands. Together, they achieved huge popularity across fifteen albums,” wrote Google.
The band was called Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau. They would win “many Na Hoku Hanohano Awards and change Hawaiian music history,” according to Israel’s website.
According to his official bio, Israel’s dad was a bouncer at Steamboats in Waikiki, and his mom was the manager there. As a young boy, he would find himself on stage there, eventually becoming known as the “kid with the ukulele.”
In 1993, he launched a solo career. He helped bring Hawaiian sound back to its native roots and away from the touristy songs of his childhood.
4. Israel Was Described as Having a Special Energy
People who met IZ said he was special.
“In Hawaii, we talk about this thing we call mana,” musician Del Beazley, who grew up with Israel, told NPR.
“Mana is like an energy that you get. We believe we get ours from the elements first, the Earth, your sky, your ocean, your God, and all that is inside of us. And when we open our mouth to speak, to sing or to play, that’s what we let out. But it’s that that makes him [Israel] special, because his mana always came out.”
NPR reported that Israel’s band became popular in an era in which native Hawaiians “were rediscovering their language and culture.” His group “embraced traditional melodies.”
5. Kamakawiwo`ole Died in 1997 But Said He Wasn’t Afraid of Dying
Tragically, Kamakawiwo`ole did not live a long life and certainly not long enough to see his 61st birthday. According to Vice, he “succumbed to the respiratory failure and other ongoing illnesses that stemmed from his massive size.” He was 6 foot 2 inches tall and weighed over 1,000 pounds when he died, the site reported.
He predicted an early death.
“I’m not scared for myself for dying,” he once said, according to Vice. “Because we Hawaiians, we live in both worlds. When our time comes, don’t cry for me.”
His brother Skippy, who was in the band with him, also died young due to obesity at age 28.