Israel Kamakawiwo'ole - Biography
By J Poet
Israel Kamakawiw'ole, better known in Hawai’i as Braddah Iz, was the best-known singer in Hawai’i. His album Facing Future (1993 Mountain Apple) was the first Hawai’ian record to ever go platinum. One of the tracks from Facing Future, a medley of "Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World” was used in many film and TV soundtracks and dozens of commercials and has been downloaded almost two million times since his untimely death.
Iz was born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1959, son of Evangeline Keale, manager of the famed Steamboat Lounge. He spent summers with his grandfather on Nihau, the smallest Hawaiian island and off-limits to non-Hawaiians. There he learned traditional Hawaiian culture and songs. He learned ukulele when he was six, playing along with his mother, older brother Skippy, uncles, and Moe Keale of the Sons of Hawaii, the band featuring slack key guitar legend Gabby Pahinui. The Sons of Hawaii played traditional, non-commercial, Hawaiian music and inspired many young Hawaiians, including Iz.
In 1969, he formed a duo with his brother Skippy and played at the Steamboat Lounge and on tourist boats, singing pop hits like Don Ho’s "Tiny Bubbles.” By the 70s, pop culture was on the verge of destroying Hawai’ian music. The Kamakawiw'ole Family moved to rural Makaha, on Oahu’s west coast, where Iz came into contact with the poverty, drug use, and gang violence that plagued many native Hawai’ians. He also met Jerry Koko and with him and his brother Skippy started the Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau to make music that reflected the real Hawai’i. They played and sang in Hawai’ian and became one of the most popular bands in the islands with albums like Na Mele Henoheno Na Makahiki Mua, Helu 'Elua (1979 Poki), a blend of traditional and contemporary songs, Puana Hou Me Ke Aloha (1984 Poki), Ho'ola (1986 Poki) and Ho?oluana (1991 Poki), their best selling album.
During those yeas, Iz became involved in the Hawai’ian rights movement, and became a respected leader in progressive Hawai’ian politics. He also continued gaining weight, ballooning up to 300 pounds, making it hard for him to get to gigs. In 1993, Iz left the Sons of Ni'ihau for a solo career and began blending reggae and traditional Hawaiian music, a genre known in the islands as Jawaiian. His second solo effort, Facing Future (1993 Mountain Apple), remains the best selling album in Hawaiian music history and includes the signature tunes "Hawai?i 78,” “White Sandy Beach of Hawaii,” “Maui Hawaiian Sup'pa Man,” and "Kaulana Kawaihae.” It reached #25 on the Billboard Pop Chart and won Iz the title of entertainer of the year from the Hawai?i Academy of Recording Arts (HARA.) The album topped the Billboard World Music Chart.
In 1995, Iz created his own label, big boy Records for E Ala E (1995 Big Boy), which showed the Hawaiian side of Jawaiian music with a masterful version of “Wind Beneath My Wings” and some outstanding ukulele picking. N Dis Life (1996 Big Boy) was more reggae influenced and won HARA awards for Male Vocalist of the Year, Favorite Entertainer of the Year, Album of the Year, and Island Contemporary Album of the Year. Iz watched the awards show from a hospital bed, unable to move due to his weight of 769 pounds. He died of weight induced respiratory failure on June 26, 1997, only 38 years old. He was laid in state at the Capitol building in Honolulu, the only non-politician ever given that honor.
Unfortunately, Iz didn’t live to see his music appreciated by people all around the world, but Big Boy has kept him in the spotlight with posthumous releases including Iz in Concert (2000 Big Boy), ballads culled from concert tapes made between 1993 and 97, Alone in Iz World (2001 Big Boy), which includes out takes and solo voice and ukulele tracks, the DVD documentary Iz: The Man Behind the Music (2004 Big Boy), and Wonderful World (2007 Big Boy), signature tracks remixed with pop string arrangements.