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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, August 19, 2002

Iz's fans not alone in world

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Jon de Mello clearly remembers the late October night nine years ago when a familiar voice roused him from the comfort of his bed.

Demand for Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's music continues to grow five years after his death. "Alone in Iz World," right, was the top seller on Amazon.com in July.
"I'd told Iz that whenever he was ready to record, just call me," said de Mello, CEO of the Mountain Apple Co. "And so I get this call at 2 in the morning, and it's him asking if we can go to the studio and record something, just him and the 'ukulele."

"Iz," of course, was Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, the legendary local musician who died in June 1997. At the time, Kamakawiwo'ole had just broken from the Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau and was working with de Mello to establish a solo recording career and his own record company, Big Boy Records.

With de Mello and engineer Milan Bertosa at the controls, Kamakawiwo'ole recorded three songs that night: "White Sandy Beach of Hawai'i," an experimental untitled medley, and "Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World."

It's the last song — a snapshot of the artist at his gentle, poignant best — that has come to redefine the way the world listens to Hawai'i and to elevate Kamakawiwo'ole to unprecedented success some five years after his death.

The song first received international exposure when it was played during the credits of the 1998 Brad Pitt movie "Meet Joe Black." Since then, it has been used in the movie "Finding Forrester" and several television shows, including this year's season finale of "ER," in which Anthony Edwards' character dies in Hawai'i.

"People hear that song and they stop cold," de Mello said. "There's a magic quality that came out that late night."

In Kamakawiwo'ole's recording, classics by Judy Garland and Louis Armstrong are blended and transformed into something uniquely local by the artist's simply strummed 'ukulele and his warm falsetto voice. At the time of its issue, the song was received as everything from a pithy love song to a powerful call for Hawaiian sovereignty. More recently, movie and television directors have tapped the song's stripped-down emotion in scenes of death or separation, using it as a sort of anthem of heartbreak.

Fueled by the active licensing efforts of Mountain Apple and Big Boy Records, interest in the song and Kamakawiwo'ole's other recordings have been skyrocketing in recent months.

In the July 27 issue of Billboard magazine, Kamakawiwo'ole recordings made the charts in five categories. The posthumous "Alone in IZ World" ranked No. 173 on the prestigious Billboard 200 chart, as well as on the Top World Albums (No. 1), Top Independent Albums (No. 13, with a "greatest gainer" designation), and Top Internet Album Sales (No. 15).

In 1995, Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo'ole performed at Diamond Head Theatre. Millions of people around the world have been exposed to the late performer's music, thanks to Hollywood movies and advertising.

Advertiser library photo • May 20, 1995

Kamakawiwo'ole's 1993 CD, "Facing Future" ranked No. 25 on the Top Pop Catalog chart, a recognized gauge of consistent sales.

"Alone in IZ World" also captured the top spot on Amazon.com's Top Seller's list last month, beating out new releases from Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl Crow and Eminem.

Kamakawiwo'ole has also been featured in a number of different media. A short feature on him appeared in People magazine on June 10, another in Parade on July 7.

And on it goes. Last year, Internet provider America Online twice featured Kamakawiwo'ole on its welcome screen. In Austria, Kamakawiwo'ole's music is used for milk advertisements.

Royalties from Kamakawiwo'ole's music have ensured that his family is financially secure, and that his widow, Marlene, is able to help those who had helped him while he was alive.

Marlene Kamakawiwo'ole said her husband would have been "stoked and humbled" by his growing international popularity. For her, however, the success is bittersweet.

Wherever she goes these days, Israel's voice seems to follow. He's everywhere, it seems, yet never close enough.

"It seems like his passing away was just yesterday," Kamakawiwo'ole said. "Sometimes when everything slows down, I miss him even more. But when I hear his music, I feel a little closer. I feel like he's here."

Kamakawiwo'ole divides her time working as a cardiology technician for Kaiser Permanente and caring for her two grandchildren, ages 1 and 2. She said her daughter, Ceslieanne, who was just 14 when Israel died, is getting her life together after years of personal struggles.

"I feel for her," she said. "She and Iz were best friends. She was his arms and legs when he was sick."

Kamakawiwo'ole remains involved in decisions about how her husband's music is used. And, to be sure, opportunities abound.

According to de Mello, an estimated 200 million people have been exposed to Israel Kamakawiwo'ole and his music in the past 11 months.

"We heard him for the first time watching that 'ER' episode and it gave both of us the chills," said retired Army Capt. Ben Carillo, who moved with his wife, Kelly, from Arizona to Hawai'i last year. "My son downloaded the song off the Internet and sent it to us. It broke our hearts when we found out he had died a while ago. I wish we could have seen him perform that song."

The Carillos join a growing community of fans that includes well-known figures such as author Dean Koontz and recording artists Sting and Elton John.

"I've been around long enough to know that there has never been anything remotely close to what Israel has done," said de Mello, a major figure in the local music scene since the 1950s. "I'm very close to Don Ho — and people around the world still associate Hawaiian music with Don Ho — but even Don never had this."

In Hawai'i, the demand for his music has been constant for years — from tourists and locals alike.

At Borders Books Music and Cafe on Ala Moana Boulevard, Kamakawiwo'ole recordings are consistently among the top 10 in sales, usually No. 1.

The same goes at Tower Records, Cheapo Island Music and other local music stores.

"A lot of our business comes from Japanese tourists," said Van Fujishige, a manager at Cheapo in Mo'ili'ili. "Some will ask for recommendations, but most of them know who he is, or they've had tour guides who recommend him."

Kamakawiwo'ole grew up in Kaimuki and, later, Makaha. He started the Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau, with Skippy (who died in 1982 at age 28), Louis Kauakahi, Sam Gray and Jerome Koko.

Chronic respiratory problems associated with his weight, which at times exceeded 750 pounds, made touring and performing difficult, but it didn't deter Kamakawiwo'ole from pursuing a solo career or reaching out to his growing army of fans.

"He once did a performance and autograph signing at Ala Moana Center and 2,000 people showed up," de Mello said. "The show ended at 9:30 p.m. but we didn't leave until after 1 a.m. because he wanted to make sure he signed every autograph. He was a people's person."

At the time of his death at 38, Kamakawiwo'ole was riding a crest of remarkable success. He was widely recognized as one of a handful of premier performers in Hawai'i, his CD "n Dis Life" won four Hoku awards, and negotiations with the producers of "Meet Joe Black" were under way.

De Mello was on his way to London to meet with a writer for a proposed biography on Kamakawiwo'ole when he received word that his friend had died.

"He was the funniest, wittiest, smartest, coolest, trippiest guy," de Mello said. "He had a heart 100 times bigger than his body, and I think that's what is still showing through in his music."