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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Big man's music lives on

 •  Getting along alone in Iz world
 •  Soulful tunes, painful life re-examined

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole performed the hit "Over the Rainbow," which reached new heights after he died at age 38 in 1997.

Betty Stickney

'IZ: The Man Behind the Music'

9 tonight; repeats 9 p.m. April 24


Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo'ole sits with his daughter Wehe, left, and wife Marlene.

Mountain Apple Co.

Marlene Kamakawiwo'ole, wife of the late Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo'ole, said tonight's TV special will make the "butterflies start up" for her.


Wehe Kamakawiwo'ole is the daughter of the late Israel Kamakawio'ole.


I saw Israel Kamakawiwo'ole for the first time at Yoko's in Kapahulu, in the late 1960s.

I didn't meet him till a few years later, when The Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau were performing at Hank's Place in Kaimuki.

Iz and his brother Skippy were two of the largest souls I'd seen. Sumo-sized bodies that housed incredible talent. Unexpected size if you heard them sing before you saw them. Laid-back types. Totally uninhibited. Unabashedly local Hawaiians who loved making sweet music together.

Iz's music lives on, but there are times I hear it and miss him — and remember how painful it was to watch him struggle with things we take for granted: Walking. Climbing steps. Breathing.

Iz died on June 26, 1997, at age 38. I was on my way to work when I heard on KCCN that Iz had died early that morning at The Queen's Medical Center. The mentors nearest and dearest to him — Mountain Apple Co,'s CEO Jon de Mello, and the record company's president, Leah Bernstein — were in New York, and I worked all day and into the evening to track them down for comment.

For Iz, it was worth the effort.

Somewhere over the rainbow, all around the world, someone is playing Iz's signature tune right now. Maybe at home. Or on a radio station or Internet download. Happens every day, every hour.

And somewhere up above, Bruddah Iz is guffawing, "Unbelievable."

Iz was a man of honesty and spontaneity. Said the unexpected. All the time.

His smile was his calling card. That grin, that smile — a twinkle in the eye, and you knew something evil and funny would be forthcoming. That's what kept his shows with The Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau (later, The Makaha Sons) the ultimate pleasure: You never knew where he'd go.

"Over the Rainbow" typifies the kind of unintended joy and success that dotted his career.

With Iz, you could seldom plan a specific timetable.

Like a child, he'd love to play first, then work.

That's why his last recording producer, de Mello, devised the manner of putting him into the studio and rolling the tape — what you got was the real Iz. And that's pretty much how varying versions of "Rainbow" resulted — right down to the mispronunciation of "chimney" to "chiminey" tops.

Iz was imperfect, but truthful. Finesse with flaws.

His girth was his albatross. It kept him from a "regular" life.

The Makaha Sons first appeared on the "Today" show when Bryant Gumbel emceed with Katie Couric. While colleagues Louis "Moon" Kauakahi and the Koko brothers, John and Jerome, were able to walk to the beach in front of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Iz used a service entry and rode to the set in a golf cart.

At an Aloha Festivals ho'olaulea, he had to be forklifted onto the makeshift stage to perform. Walking was strenuous and taxing; stairs were impossible. Those memories are the ones you'd like to forget.

I often wondered if well-meaning friends and 'ohana were helping or hurting Iz and his older brother Skippy. Once, at the Ala Moana Hotel, The Makaha Sons shared the stage with the late comedian Rap Reiplinger. Between shows, folks would bring trayfuls of burgers to the brothers, who sat on stage and ate. It looked like hired hands were bringing nourishment to the ali'i ... and the volume was astounding.

Still, Iz's cheerfulness and his joy overshadowed his private discomfort and frustrations. He was really a child caught in the body of a giant; his playful demeanor always connected with audiences that followed him at now-gone venues — Hank's Place in Kaimuki, Rap's Room at the Ala Moana Hotel, the Ranch House.

After he went solo, Iz and the men of The Makaha Sons were at odds, even if Kauakahi was Iz's brother-in-law. A cold-shoulder period persisted for a couple of years. In a historic you-had-to-be-there moment, at the 1996 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, Iz was performing with his new group while Kauakahi and the Koko brothers were in the audience. You could feel the strain of his voice, when Iz was performing Kauakahi's "Kaleohano." The three men looked at each other, stood up en masse, and went onstage to "rescue" Iz, ending the not-speaking-to-each-other edict, finishing the tune together to a rousing standing ovation.

There were group hugs — and tears.

I interviewed Iz several times throughout his career, but will never forget the time he was living in a Kamake'e Street condo, isolated from his family during a time of dieting and duress. His meager surroundings included tanks of oxygen; a telephone nearby; a computer at his bed; a TV in the distance. He was clad in a wrap-around malo; aides would come to feed him, wash him, take him to the pool for water aerobics. Even with tubes in his nose, though, he was chipper — the phone linked him to his wife and daughter; the computer was his key to the outside world.

I was out of town when thousands came to pay respects as his body lay in state at the Capitol. I also missed the scattering of his ashes from the canoe Hokulea at Makua.

But I bet that somewhere, there was a rainbow welcoming Iz.

The song has eternal life; so does Iz's imprint and impact on the music scene, all around the world.

• • •

Getting along alone in Iz world

Israel Kamakawio'ole with the Makaha Sons at the 1982 Hoku Awards.


Life without Iz has been a challenge for his widow, Marlene Kamakawiwo'ole, 42.

"Not a day goes by where I don't think of him, or someone compliments me about his music, or I find how his songs has touched or helped others," said Kamakawiwo'ole, who is a cardiology technician at Kaiser Hospital.

"I'm not angry that he's gone, but I do get disappointed. Especially when we have family gatherings. The loss I feel is ... when I know my grandchildren, and his, will never feel him. Or get a hug. They recognize his music, they know his face. But on a physical level, they'll never get that hug from Papa. Iz was great with kids; he would be a jungle gym to all our nephews, who'd climb up over him and down the other side."

On the eve of yet another TV special, "Iz: The Man Behind the Music," premiering tonight, Kamakawiwo'ole knows the drill. She'll be nervous, edgy, when memories of Iz trickle through her mind.

"The butterflies will start up; so will the emotions. It's hard not to get a little jittery. But that's the way it is, whenever there's a moment to reflect on Israel," she said.

Iz and Marlene had one daughter, Ceslieanne "Wehe" Kamakawiwo'ole, now 21 and a student at a beautician school. "She was his best friend," said Marlene Kamakawiwo'ole about the relationship.

Other remembrances:

  • What they've learned: "Belief in God. Iz was a man of faith; he instilled that in me. God has blessed us abundantly," said Marlene.
  • How their 'ohana has changed: "I've adopted my two grandchildren — Wehe's daughter, Kiara, 4, and Eliza, 2 — as part of his teaching of peace, love, joy, family."
  • Advice from Iz: "He was always a child at heart, big time. He used to always tell me, 'Don't be so serious.' With his love and laughter, he was able to communicate with the older folks, teens, even babies; when children come around, first they are scared, because he looked so different. After they observe, they get attached to him. He knew the joy of childhood, value of laughter."
  • How they celebrate his birthday (May 20): "We go to the beach (his ashes were scattered off Makua Beach). Wehe will take flowers. Sometimes the boys (his colleagues from the Makaha Sons) stop by, too. At home, we pray for him."
  • How they're blessed: "Thanks to family and friends. And Jon de Mello (CEO of the Mountain Apple Co., which distributes Iz's work, helping the Kamakawiwo'oles financially) taught us that this (music) is a business."
  • What she still misses: "His humor; he had this charm of making you laugh; that's what I really miss. His laughter helped us overcome all the obstacles. Plus his companionship. We could read each other's minds; look at each other and know what each other was thinking."

— Wayne Harada, Advertiser entertainment writer

• • •

Soulful tunes, painful life re-examined

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole with the Makaha Sons at 88 Island Music, Island Hearts Show.


Chronology of 'Over the Rainbow'

Bruddah Iz's "Over the Rainbow" and his medley of "Over the Rainbow/ What a Wonderful World" have had exposure worth a pot of gold. Here's where the songs have been heard:

1996: "Picket Fences," CBS.

1997: "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes," Victor Television movie of the week, Lifetime.

1998: "Party of Five," Fox; "Meet Joe Black," Universal Pictures (with Brad Pitt).

1999-2000: eToys.com TV adverting campaign, on TV, radio and the Internet.

2000: "Young Americans," Fox.

2001: "Gideon's Crossing," ABC; "Made," Artisan Pictures (with Vince Vaughan and Jon Favreau); "Finding Forrester," Columbia Pictures (with Sean Connery).

2002: "Paradena," Fox; "Providence," NBC; "ER," NBC ("On the Beach" segment marked the final appearance of character Dr. Greene).

2003: "Tempted," Lifetime; "Charmed," The WB; "The Big Bounce" theatrical trailer, Shangri-La Entertainment-Warner Bros. (with Owen Wilson and Morgan Freeman).

2004: "50 First Dates," Sony (with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore).

Source: Mountain Apple Co.

For the first time, a documentary on the late Israel Kamakawiwo'ole — Bruddah Iz to his legion of fans — explores the man before the music.

"IZ: The Man Behind the Music" premieres today on KGMB-9. It boasts a couple of firsts:

  • The Hawai'i premiere of Iz's "Over the Rainbow" music video comes at the tail end of the special. The video doesn't show him performing, because the song emerged as his signature after his death. But his familiar voice is heard over visuals that sweetly portray his childlike behavior and his diehard Island roots.
  • Exclusive, though grainy, footageof Iz in concert before a captive audience at the Halawa Correctional Facility in 1993 will be shown.
  • It goes behind the scenes to capture with honesty and revealing clarity some of the private indignities of his struggling life as an obese man who had to be weighed on fish scales, who had to be forklifted onto airplanes, who had tubes in his nose in his last few months, who tried dieting but with little success.

A round of personal recollections from family, friends and colleagues give the documentary its sparkle, painting a picture of a beloved family man: husband, father, brother-in-law, an icon who all found endearing.

He had an aura of his own, says cousin Lin Paia. "People like being around him."

"You can hear his smile," says Roland Cazimero, an entertainer.

"He was the pied piper," says Del Beazley, another musician.

"He was a big man with a big heart ... a teddy bear," says widow Marlene Kamakawiwo'ole.

"He was he most free-spirited person ... the most understanding, the most open, honest and insightful person," says daughter Ceslieanne "Wehe" Kanakawiwo'ole.

They were the best of friends.

Narrated by Billy V, "The Man and the Music" explores the phenomenon of this gentle giant, whose songs — particular his cheerful and plaintive "Over the Rainbow" — have touched others far beyond Hawai'i's shores.

The special notes the current "Rainbow" is not his first version; an earlier, rarely heard rendition with a totally different arrangement was recorded in the 1980s.

"The music has gone much father than Iz (the man)," says Jacqueline Rossetti, also known as The Honolulu Skylark, a radio veteran and Hawaiian music expert. "The music will continue (to live)."

Phil Arnone produced and directed; Robert Pennybacker wrote the special, which was co-produced and edited by Lawrence Pacheco. It's the most complete and enlightening oral and visual history of Iz so far — and would make a valuable DVD release.

— Wayne Harada, Advertiser entertainment writer