His name was as formidable as his size — and Israel Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole lived accordingly.
Kamakawiwoʻole was the singer-songwriter behind the classic ‘‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World,’’ a medley fashioned after the genteel, peaceful rhythms that fete island life.
The song, released in 1993 as ‘‘Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World,’’ was featured on Kamakawiwo’ole’s album ‘‘Facing Future’’ and became part of several TV programs and commercials; it was also included in music scores for the movies ‘‘Meet Joe Black’’ and ‘‘Son of the Mask.’’
To Kamakawiwo’ole — known popularly as Iz, Big Iz or The Gentle Giant — the entry was much more than a music bed. Its gentle tenor ukulele and Iz’s lovely falsetto marked his music as the expression of native Hawaiian culture he felt was losing its leverage at the hands of the travel industry.
Indeed, Iz recognized as early as age 11 that the modern music of Hawaii was anything but traditionally Hawaiian. What would eventually follow were four studio albums and four compilation entries, with ‘‘Facing Future,’’ his most popular LP, achieving double-platinum status.
All are infused with the sunny, meditative ukulele that fuels stories and anecdotes about life on the islands as reflected in the state motto. ‘‘The life of the land,’’ it reads, ‘‘is perpetuated in righteousness.’’
Obesity would take a toll on Iz’s health; he weighed nearly 1,000 pounds when he died in June of 1997 at age 38. According to WBUR News, Iz once said:
‘‘I guess this is gonna sound kind of weird, but I’m not scared for myself for dying, because I believe all these places are temporary. This is just one shell, because we Hawaiians live in both worlds. It’s in our veins.’’
About 10,000 people attended Iz’s memorial services and cremation. He is the only Hawaiian non-government figure whose body has lain in state at the capital. Even as his life was colossally brief, his memory fuels the musical distinction within Hawaiian culture today.
Are you a fan of Iz? Which one of his songs is your favorite? Let us know in the comments – and make sure you pass this along to your friends and family to carry on his legacy!