Israel Kamakawiwo’ole had a big mana. Mana is Hawaiian for a person’s energy. It comes out in talking, singing and playing music. It reflects both the natural order (the Earth, your sky, your ocean, your God) and all that we contain in ourselves. Hawaiians say that Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s mana always came through in his beguiling singing voice.
The first time Israel sang in public was when he and his older brother took beat-up ukuleles to a graduation party. He started singing and left everyone speechless. Encouraged, teenaged Israel soon formed a band. He was on his way to becoming a folk hero in Hawaii. You can hear Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s most popular recording in the video below:
The acoustic medley of Somewhere Over The Rainbow & What A Wonderful World was added as an afterthought to Kamakawiwo’ole’s second solo album (1993). The remarkable story of the late-night 1988 recording that would make Kamakawiwo’ole an international star began with a 3am call to Honolulu recording studio. Milan Bertosa was closing up but Israel was sweet and well mannered on the telephone. Fifteen minutes later, the largest person that Bertosa had ever seen walked in the studio door.
6ft tall with the girth of a sumo wrestler, Israel waited while the studio found a big steel chair. He sat down with his Ukulele and recorded the track in one take. Five years later, Bertosa was working as an engineer at the studio where Israel was recording. When he heard the finished album he thought it needed something extra. He remembered the late-night recording and suggested it to producer Jon de Mello, who agreed. The iconic medley has featured in commercials, in films and tv shows.
According to EMI, Kamakawiwo’ole’s acoustic take on Somewhere over the Rainbow is the most requested version of the song by far. Younger generations are more likely to know his interpretation than the long established Judy Garland version from The Wizard of OZ movie. That an impromptu, stripped down recording has redefined such a classic song shows the impact of Kamakawiwo’ole poignant ukulele version. Never mind that he got the words wrong and changed the melody.
Israel Kamakawiwo’ole died of respiratory failure in 1997 at the age of 38. He was so popular in his home State that his body lay in state at the Hawaii Capitol Building. After cremation, his ashes were taken to sea in a traditional voyaging canoe. All down the coastline, truck drivers honked their horns in salute. It was as if the entire Island of Oahu was saying goodbye.
In Hawaii, Kamakawiwo’ole is remembered and loved for his music, his lifelong commitment to Hawaiian sovereignty, his contribution to Hawaiian culture, his larger-than-life presence, and for his mana, which was manifest every time he sang.
Outside of Hawaii, Kamakawiwo’ole is known for Over the Rainbow. Milan Bertosa has commented that, listening to the historic take that he captured when Kamakawiwo’ole was taken by a late-night urge to record, you can sit and count the many mistakes or you can just listen to the song and smile.