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A late night for recording "Rainbow"
By Wayne Harada
Milan Bertosa was a struggling engineer in 1988, when he moved to the Islands from Chicago. Little did he know that late one night, he'd have an up close and personal perch at musical history: the impromptu session at which Israel Kamakawiwo'ole put down those simple tracks for his iconic "Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World" medley.
"Basically, I was running my own studio, Audio Resource Honolulu, which was located on the second floor of the Century Center," he said. "I was working on a horrible dance music project, from 6 p.m. to 1 or 2 a.m., trying to make a singing group from winners in a Shorebird wet T-shirt contest, with girls who couldn't sing," he recalled.
By 2:30 a.m., he was exhausted and eager to go home. Then his phone rang. Someone muttered that he was hanging with Israel Kamaka... (Bertosa couldn't remember, much less pronounce Kamakawiwo'ole's last name) and the entertainer had an urgent need to lay down some tracks.
"I didn't know Iz, but he got on the phone, and when talking to him, he was a sweet guy, really polite, and he explained he had to record," said Bertosa. "It was the way he said 'please.' His manners," he said.
"I told him you have 15 minutes to get here, and half an hour to do demos." He was stunned by the man who arrived. Kamakawiwo'ole wore slippers. And an oversized shirt. And carried his trusty 'ukulele.
"Literally, Iz was a house carrying an 'ukulele," Bertosa said of the musician's size at the time - perhaps at the 450-pound level. "We had these floating floors, separated from the mainboard, and I felt the floors move when he walked."
Bertosa summoned security to fetch a steel chair so Kamakawiwo'ole could sit.
"When he started singing, I said to myself, 'Oh, this is what I'm supposed to be doing for a living.' He did 'Over the Rainbow' and 'What a Wonderful World' in one take and 'White Sandy Beach.' Then a cowboy song, which was incomplete and so was never released. Then it was over, in 15, 20 minutes."
Bertosa recalled the notable gaffes - the incorrect lyrics, the chord changes - that went over the head of Kamakawiwo'ole's fans but irritated the music publishers when the song snowballed years later. "It was just full of mistakes, but that didn't matter," he recalled. "Israel changed the melody; he dropped a piece here and there. But you don't stop (recording) that stuff. It was my job to capture it."
He said he gave Kamakawiwo'ole a cassette file of the session and saved the original on a digital file. And as a favor to a client, Kamakawiwo'ole was not charged a dime for the session.
Bertosa was personally haunted by the sweet innocence and purity of the big man with the big voice and the catchy uke strumming.
"The 'oooos' just came out - that's the way he played 'em," said Bertosa, who loved the tracks so much, he shared them with his family once.
"Because I was privy to the performance, my sense of it included hearing Israel breathe; so much of his work involved his breathing. The guy was large, managing to make music above and beyond the constant effort of being, of staying alive. One thing hit me: he could make music."
Bertosa didn't see Kamakawiwo'ole again until 1993, when the musician was parting company with the Makaha Sons and beginning work with Jon de Mello at the Mountain Apple Company on "Facing Future."
"By then, Israel was a lot heavier, he had a heart attack, and he still had breathing (issues)," said Bertosa. "I told Jon, I got something you have to hear, but you have to promise that Israel gets it all (rights). This is what he can sound like," he said, retrieving and sharing what would become the sound that defined Israel's legacy.
'From the heart'
"Every time he performed it, it was slightly different," said Jim Linkner, a veteran recording engineer who worked with Kamakawiwo'ole in the studio - on his solo "Ka "Ano'i" CD, which was an album Iz did after departing the ranks of the Makaha Sons and before he released the Mountain Apple CDs that would become his golden rainbow. That solo album included a reggae-fied "Rainbow/World" medley, which preceded the popular version on the "Facing Future" CD, but offered clues about his modus operandi.
To no one's surprise, that version contained different lyrics from the one the world knows, sings and embraces today.
If nothing else, Iz's wrongdoing - which included mispronunciation of some words ("chiminey" instead of "chimney") and consolidation of lyrics - made his renderings personal, however flawed.
"That's why a source at EMI (which owns the rights to "Over the Rainbow") asked us to have Iz re-record the tune," said Leah Bernstein, president of Mountain Apple. No can do, of course, since he'd died - but the source hadn't known that.
"He sang all the words wrong - it was so typical of him, to go into a studio, unprepared, letting the spirit move him," recalled Jacqueline "Skylark" Rossetti, a longtime friend of Kamakawiwo'ole's and a veteran radio deejay who's played his music for years. "That lack of preparation used to frustrate Skippy," said Skylark of Iz's deceased brother, who was a co-founder of the original Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau. "Others practice; Iz always sang what he remembered. The problem was he remembered wrong; but that's the innocence and beauty of him; it all comes from the heart."