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The life of Hawaiian singer-songwriter Israel Kamakawiwoʻole is easily romanticized, especially by ...
2019-06-17 10:00:00

The Double Life Of Israel
The Bittersweet Tale of a Hawaiian Musician

Illustration by Cyryl Lechowicz
The Double Life Of Israel
The Double Life Of Israel

Although he sang about the rights of his disadvantaged countrymen, Israel Kamakawiwoʻole only registered in the general consciousness as the ‘gentle giant’ who played the American standards.

Read in 6 minutes

Israel Kamakawiwoʻole is one of the symbols of Hawaii. One can argue about the artistic significance of his work, but one can also see the difficult history of the island nation reflected in the fate of this musician, as if peering into the waters of the Pacific Ocean. This history speaks not only through his life story and lyrics. The way Kamakawiwoʻole’s songs were received – so strongly correlated with the nationality of the listener – also says as much about the fate and misery of the Hawaiians. Considering that these two perspectives on the creativity of the artist, who died in 1997, cannot be reconciled, one could say that he warranted two biographies: the local and the global; the prosaic and the Hollywood. One of them could have been written by the left-wing historian Howard Zinn, the second could have been filmed by Howard Hawks in between shooting scenes for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It is easy to guess which would hold more truth; it is easy to guess which would be more popular.

What a Wonderful World

In the Hollywood version, Israel Kamakawiwoʻole assumes the role of ‘gentle giant’. This nickname allows them to give the Hawaiian’s story the feel of a family film, and, moreover – let’s be honest – it’s much easier to pronounce than his real name. The musician is indeed a proper size. He weighs in at just under 350 kilograms, which makes it hard for him to move, but it’s best not to emphasize this. At a push, as a comedy gag, one could show how he is lifted onto the stage by a special crane. But it is worth underlining the cheerful disposition of this giant – his affection for his family and his warmth towards strangers. A disposition like this, of course, comes from communing every day with nature in the idyllic setting of Hawaii.

Although the Giant loves his family, he often overnights in the local bars. He drinks cocktails from coconut shells, gorges himself on delicacies, and when the alcohol starts to make him sentimental he takes out his ukulele and plays his doleful Hawaiian songs. Because of the language, the songs can’t be understood, but we can be sure that they tell of the ocean, of palm trees and of the alluring hula dancers. All the same, lyrics in a foreign language can be irritating, so it’s worth highlighting that the Giant’s favourite songs are actually “Over the Rainbow” from the musical The Wizard of Oz, and the famous “What a Wonderful World” from the repertoire of Louis Armstrong. Better already, isn’t it?

His knowledge of pop culture is a great help to the musician, but, obviously, he still wouldn’t have made it without the help of an American. The American in question is Milan Bertosa, a man who runs a Honolulu recording studio. He has just moved from Chicago and, for want of any better contracts, he is recording a musical with the winners of a wet T-shirt competition. The ladies aren’t doing too well with the singing, so when the phone rings late one night, Bertosa isn’t in the best of moods. A local musician, whose name the American cannot pronounce, is on the line. The stranger wants to record two songs in the studio. It’s inconvenient for the studio owner, but eventually he agrees. Later, in interviews, he admits that he only did it because the Giant asked so nicely. A civilized man.

Not hard to guess then that, during the short night-time recording session, the musician records cover versions of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World”. The recordings gather dust in Bartosa’s drawer until five years later he once again helps out the Giant. When the latter is working on his solo album, he decides for some unfathomable reason to sing mainly in Hawaiian, which almost no one can understand (and certainly not the Americans). The big-hearted owner of the studio spots this rookie mistake and visits the producer of the album, Jon de Mello. During the meeting he hands over the forgotten recordings. And thus, these covers, sung by the Giant, make it onto his album, Facing Future.

The whole-hearted Hawaiian was certainly grateful for the support he received, but for reasons that remain unclear he would sporadically perform these two songs during Hawaiian concerts. The audiences that crowded into these concerts also preferred to listen to other songs. So, all the signs were there that this story wouldn’t really end well – if not for the Americans coming to the rescue once again. This time it is radio presenters, who seem to want to promote the two songs of the “gentle giant of Hawaiian song”. Despite the obvious barrier of the musician’s surname, the covers promoting the heavenly vision of an idyllic Hawaiian paradise sell like hot cakes. Their popularity soars even further after the Giant’s sudden and untimely death. Sad, but exegi monumentum! The Giant’s work lives on in toy advertisements and Hollywood romcoms. And if this argument isn’t convincing enough, in the final scene a quote from the musician appears that is the quintessence of his gentle disposition: “We Hawaiians live in two worlds. When my time comes, don’t cry for me.” In the background, “What a Wonderful World” or The Beach Boys’ “Luau” might be playing, a joyful hit about hula dancers with a rather becoming Coca Cola product placement. Yes, I think the Beach Boys would be best.

Hawaiʻi ’78

However, one could picture Kamakawiwoʻole’s story very differently. In this case, the starting point would be another song recorded for Facing Future. The title, “Hawaiʻi ’78”, probably refers to events from much longer ago. That’s why, therefore, this second, less-Hollywood biography of the musician would begin back in 1778 when James Cook and his crew land on Hawaii. As we now know, the meeting doesn’t end well for either party. Hawaii ultimately ends up under the dominion of the US, and the explorer himself fares no better, dying during a skirmish that erupts when he tries to kidnap a local king. If later American-Hawaiian relations are less stormy, this is in large part due to the imbalance of power between the two sides. Fast-forwarding to modern times, we see that now the US is represented not by missionaries or politicians, but above all by businessmen. First the plantation owners, who take the land from the indigenous people to grow pineapples and sugar cane. Then come people from the tourism industry, who build endless hotels and apartments all over Hawaii. As a result of this boom, property prices soar and the locals end up on the streets. By the time Kamakawiwo’ole appears on the scene, homelessness among the Hawaiians is at epidemic levels.

If a director with the sensitivity, say, of Ken Loach were to film this, we would observe how the indigenous inhabitants of the archipelago struggle with similar problems to the native Americans or Alaskans. These nations are tormented by the same demons: alcohol dependence, poverty, homelessness and obesity. On the one hand, this comes from many years of persecution, on the other, from their inability to adapt to the culture and lifestyle imposed upon them. And the diet. Because while Israel Kamakawiwoʻole is of course exceptionally heavy, obesity itself is nothing unusual among his compatriots. This is confirmed both by macro-sociological studies as well as his family history. He forms his first band, The Mākaha Sons of Niʻihau, with his brother. But Skippy Kamakawiwoʻole dies in 1982 at the age of just 28. The cause of death is heart disease linked directly to obesity. The father of the two brothers doesn’t make it to old age either, which Israel refers to in his piece “Hawaiʻi ’78 Introduction”. Again, we could consider this an unusual accumulation of tragedies, but it is quite simply statistics. According to research from several years ago, 16% of Hawaiians die before the age of 45.

In the songs that are most popular with his countrymen, Kamakawiwoʻole raises the subject of Hawaii’s difficult fate. On the album Facing Future, in “Hawaiʻi ’78”, the song immediately after the famed “What a Wonderful World”, he sings about the civilization that has destroyed his homeland. During the song, which could be playing during the credits of this depressing film, he imagines a visit by the historic king and queen of the archipelago. The rulers cannot come to terms with the motorways and railway lines built over sacred sites, nor with the total marginalization of their people. In the chorus, Kamakawiwoʻole sings: “Cry for the gods, cry for the people / Cry for the land that was taken away”. And although, unusually, he performs this in English, the song doesn’t do very well in the US. It’s hard to say why.


Translated by Annie Krasińska

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