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OZ and IZ Over the Rainbow

By Staff | Mar 20, 2014

Legendary Iz performs on the lawn at Whalers Village in Kaanapali, date unknown. PHOTO BY NORM BEZANE.

LAHAINA – There was OZ, and there was IZ. When Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz” sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” it became her signature song for decades. And then came IZ, Israel Ka’ano’i Kamakawiwo’ole, gargantuan in size, gigantic in his influence on Hawaiian music.

The IZ version of the rainbow song is now sung just about every day on stage everywhere musicians on Maui gather.

The IZ rendition, heard on a couple dozen TV shows and movies over the years, has become so ever present in Hawaii that some locals continue to believe IZ, and not Hoagie Carmichael, wrote it.

From the 1950s into the 1970s, when the popular image of Hawaii was hula dancers swaying in glitzy and colorful cellophane, most Hawaiian music was hapa haole. Songs like Don Ho’s un-Hawaiian “Tiny Bubbles” dominated. IZ was in the forefront of the Hawaiian Renaissance, rejecting hapa haole songs and singing protest and other melodies in the Hawaiian language.

“The story of IZ began May 20, 1959, in the final days of Hawaii’s territorial era, three months before the Hawaiian Islands would become America’s 50th state. A baby was born in Honolulu’s historic Kuakini hospital,” wrote Rick Carroll in a wonderful book simply titled “IZ.”

“IZ was the third child of Evangeline Keale Kamakawiwo’ole, a Hawaiian woman born on Ni’ihau, and Henry ‘Tiny’ Kaleialoha Naniwa Kamakawiwo’ole, a part-Hawaiian born on O’ahu. His parents sensed he would be special. They named him Israel Ka’ano’i Kamakawiwo’ole. In Hawaiian, his last name translates to “the fearless eye, the bold face.”

Israel would spend summers where his mother was born in Ni’ihau, Hawaii’s eighth island, where more pure blooded Hawaiians live than anyplace on Earth. IZ listened to and played with Ni’ihau musicians, who sang songs of old Hawaii in wondrous harmony.

According to Carroll’s book published by Bess Press in 2006, Israel had picked up his first ukulele at age six. Already weighing in at 300 pounds as a teenager, IZ made his first professional appearance on a catamaran off of Waikiki. “He then began performing at Steamboats in Waikiki, where his father was a bouncer and his mother was the manager.”

When his parents moved to Makaha, he at first refused to go, enamored as he was of the Waikiki scene and the many bakeries he frequented all to often. IZ was already well on his way to becoming “morbidly obese.”

He would star for 17 years with the Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau, a group led by his brother, Skippy, who would die young (28). The last four years of his life, he went solo.

One of the Sons’ albums, “Facing Future,” featured IZ singing ” Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the protest song “Hawaii 78.” The album has sold more than a million copies and is the top-selling Hawaiian music album of all time.

The “Hawaii 78” lyrics include the line “cry for the gods, cry for the people, cry for he land that was taken away and then yet, you will find Hawaii.”

Ironically, however, the legend of IZ is perpetuated most by his “Over the Rainbow” and its “Oooo” vocals. He had worked to perfect it for months, finally calling a record producer, who was still at work at 3 a.m. He insisted he record it right away. The album has sold more than a million copies.

The last appearances of IZ on stage before he passed away include June 1997 at our very own Maui Arts & Cultural Center. He passed away 75 days later.

Six years earlier, IZ appeared in Waikiki on the NBC’s Today show with Katie Couric, and this appearance along with coverage by National Public Radio helped make him famous nationwide.

Still, he was most popular at home. In his final year, IZ blew up to a weight of 750 pounds. His most comfortable place was the bouancy of a swimmiing pool.

Jon de Mello, impresario of the Mountain Apple Company that has done so much for Hawaiian music, produced many of his last albums. He described IZ as “a humble man; a person of reality with the ability to relate to ALL people.” He maintains a fan website at iz.com.

How popular was IZ? Hawaii accorded him the rare honor of having him lie in state at the capitol. Some 10,000 people came to his celebration of life on a beachfront.

IZ is now over the rainbow.

Columnist’s Notebook: The photo IZ is one of the thousands of photos from my 40 years of clicking away on Kaanapali and Maui recently unearthed during photo sorting. If anyone knows when this was taken, e-mail norm@mauicommuniators.com.