Last night at hula class my Fun Fact was about Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, more commonly known as Iz or Bruddah Iz.
We are learning a new hula, to the tune of "Papalina Lahilahi" (Dainty Cheeks), as sung by the Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau. When I listened to the music I thought I recognized a certain angelic voice. Sure enough, it was Iz. He and his brother belonged to the Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau before Iz went solo in 1990. Of course, he is now best known for his rendition of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow/Wonderful World," which he recorded in one take one night in 1993. It catapulted him from local to international fame.
He was born on O'ahu in 1959. His family name, Kamakawiwo'ole, literally means fearless face or fearless eyes. He was named Israel for reasons I don't know. At first I thought perhaps his parents had given all their children biblical names. Then I learned that Iz's big brother was named Skippy.
There is no Book of Skippy in the Old Testament.
When Iz was about 10 the family moved to the town of Makaha, on the leeward side of O'ahu. Iz was sitting on the beach one day playing his 'uke when he met a few of the guys who would one day become members of the group he and Skippy formed when Iz was 17. The group was together for 15 years and during that time recorded 10 albums.
Iz and Skippy's mom was from Ni'ihau; hence the name of the group. Both brothers struggled with obesity. Iz kept vowing to drop a few hundred pounds or so, but he kept getting bigger and bigger. At his maximum weight, he tipped the scales at 757 pounds. He was 6'2". Complications of obesity claimed Skippy in 1982 when he died of a heart attack at age 28.
Iz lasted 10 years longer than that, dying at age 38 in 1997. Toward the end, he had to be raised on stage by a forklift and breathe oxygen from a tank. He left a wife and 14-year-old daughter. His body lay in state in a koa wood coffin in the State Capitol. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.
In his earlier years he had been addicted to drugs, but he managed to beat that. In fact, for a while he toured schools to deliver a "Say No to Drugs" message. My 'ukulele teacher remembers seeing him when he visited Hilo High School, where she was a teacher. That was before he was famous and she didn't know anything about him. She said she took one look at him and said, "Ho! Dat guy really big, yeah!" She said he said to the students: "Hey, kids. You no do drugs, 'kay?" And then he began singing and playing his 'ukulele.
On YouTube videos of him I am always amazed to see him cradling that tiny instrument against his leviathan body and then making heavenly music, accompanied by his angelic voice.
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