Biography of Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, Hawaiian Musician and Activist

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole

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Israel "Bruddah IZ" Kamakawiwo'ole (May 20, 1959–June 26, 1997) was born on May 20, 1959, in Honolulu on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Most famous for a widely-played rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Kamakawiwo'ole's gentle ukulele playing and hauntingly beautiful voice made him a musical legend in Hawai'i and around the world.

Fast Facts: Israel Kamakawiwo'ole

  • Known For: Hawaiian musician, activist
  • Born: May 20, 1959, Honolulu, Hawaii
  • Parents: Evangeline Keale Kamakawiwo’ole and Henry “Tiny” Kaleialoha Naniwa Kamakawiwo’ole 
  • Died: June 26, 1997, Honolulu, Hawaii
  • Education: Waianae High School
  • Solo Albums: "Ka'ano'i," "Facing Future"
  • Spouse: Marlene Ku'upua Kamakawiwo'ole (married 1982–1997)
  • Children: Ceslie-Ann "Wehi"

Early Life

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole was born on May 20, 1959, one of three children of Evangeline Keale Kamakawiwo’ole and Henry “Tiny” Kaleialoha Naniwa Kamakawiwo’ole. Both of his parents were native Hawaiian, his mother from Ni’ihau, and his father from O'ahu island. He began playing his ukelele at the age of 10 in a pickup band with his brother Skippy and his cousin Allen. Israel was often invited onto the stage at the Steamboats bar at Waikiki beach (where his parents worked) to play with the Sons of Hawai'i, led by legendary slack key guitarist Gabby Pahinu and vocalist Eddie Kamae.

His name is pronounced "Ka-MA-ka-VEE-vo-oh-lay" and it means "the fearless eye, the bold face" in the Hawaiian language. Kamakawiwo'ole's musical styles included the traditional ki ho'alu slack-key guitar tradition, the hapa-haole standards popular with Hawaii's tourists, and Jawaiian, a reggae-influenced style that arose in the late 1980s. 

Professional Musician

A bit of a trouble maker as a youth, he dropped out of high school. While he was in his teens, his family moved to O'ahu's Waii'anae Coast, where he and his brother Skippy would form the Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau band with Louis "Moon" Kauakahi, Sam Gray, and Jerome Koko. Together they made 21 albums between 1976 and 1991. Skippy Kamakawiwo'ole died of a heart attack in 1982, the same year Israel married his long-time sweetheart, Marlene Ku'upua Kamakawiwo'ole. They had one daughter, Ceslie-Ann called "Wehi."

In 1988, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole recorded the most famous song of his repertoire: Israel alone plays his ukulele and sings a combination of two popular songs, the words sung out of order and altered, which some music critics say to speak to his longing for Hawaiian independence. The song would not be released for another five years, but the medley of the popular Harold Arlen / E.Y. Yip Harburg's standard "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz, and the Bob Thiele (as "George Douglas") and George David Weiss song "What A Wonderful World," made popular by Louis Armstrong is almost impossibly beautiful.

Solo Career

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's first solo album was in 1990, Ka ʻAnoʻi, and between that and his work with the Makaha Sons, he was already popular in Hawaii when he burst onto the world music scene in 1993 with his second solo album Facing Future.

The album shot to number one on the Billboard World Music charts. By 2002, the record had sold 500,000 copies—the first Hawaiian produced album to go gold—and was certified platinum, selling over 1 million copies by 2005. In Hawaii, Kamakawiwo'ole became a bona fide star. Facing Future contained the song that would eventually become most associated with him: his medley of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What A Wonderful World." It became known to the mainland in 1999 first through its use in a television commercial for eToys.com (later Toys R Us) and has since been used in many television shows and movies, including ​ER, Scrubs, 50 First Dates, Meet Joe Black, and Finding Forrester.

Israel released two more albums before his death, and three were released posthumously:  Ala E (1995), N Dis Life(1996), IZ In Concert: The Man and His Music (1998), Alone In IZ World (2001) and Wonderful World (2007). Facing Future remains the top selling Hawaiian music album in the world;

Political Activism

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole was a staunch advocate for Hawaiian independence and Hawaiian cultural and environmental issues. Some of his lyrics even spoke on the topic of Hawaiian sovereignty, and imagined what the ancient

Death

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole died in 1997 at the age of 38. He had suffered from morbid obesity his entire life, topping 750 pounds at one point. He died in the middle of the night of respiratory failure. He was laid in honor in Hawaii's Capitol building, and his ashes were later scattered into the ocean. He left behind his wife and young teenage daughter.

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