Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Song of Israel Kamakawino'ole [stealth hit from out of nowhere]

 I'm bumping this post from 2011 to the top of the queue on general principle. Also, it's great music. 

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One of my Facebook friends just linked to a YouTube video of Israel Kamakawino'ole's masterful rendition of "Over the Rainbow." You've probably heard one of his recordings of the song, perhaps the version where he inserts "What a Wonderful World" into the middle, for it was all over the airwaves in the mid-90s.
Here's a piece I published in The Valve a few years ago.
Sometime in 1993 Israel Kamakawiwo'ole called his producer at 2AM and asked him to set up a recording session ASAP. He records a handful of tunes, just his voice and ukulele, one tune after the other, all single takes, and goes home. One of those takes was a medley that inserted “What a Wonderful World” into “Over the Rainbow.” The medley was issued on Kamakawiwo'ole's 1993 CD, Facing Future. In 1998 the medley was on the soundtrack of Meet Joe Black. In 2005 Facing Future went platinum (1M or more units sold), the first Hawaiian album to do so. (Record label site for Kamakawiwo'ole.)

In this post I want to take a look at that medley and its subsequent history. The two songs in the medley are standards - a term of art in discussing pop music of the Big Band era and more recent music of that kind. Judy Garland recorded “Rainbow” for The Wizard of Oz at the height of the big band era, 1938. It became an instant hit and has been recorded hundreds of times. Armstrong recorded “Wonderful” in 1967, when big bands had been thoroughly eclipsed by rock and roll. It became a hit in the UK, but not in the USA. Armstrong's recording got a second chance when it was used on the soundtrack of Good Morning, Vietnam in 1987. Though not the first, Kamakawiwo'ole's cover of the song was one of the earliest.


To a first approximation “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” are similar: both are ballads, both are 32 bars long (divided into four 8-bar sections), and both are wistfully optimistic. That's what makes it so easy to arrange them into a medley.

But Kamakawiwo'ole did more than simply concatenate them; he striped them down and reconstructed them. As far as I can tell, he recorded the medley twice; the 1993 recording is the second version. The first version appeared on his first solo album, Ka 'Ano'I, issued in 1990. On this recording Kamakawiwo'ole is backed by a small ensemble: trap drums, bass, rhythm and lead guitar, and perhaps a ukulele - I can't parse the strings very well.

IZ, as Kamakawiwo'ole known familiarly, opens with a spoken statement - “Woke up early this morning” - then we have a short instrumental passage leading to “Over the Rainbow.” The tempo is medium rather than a slow ballad, as is common with both of these songs. IZ sings the melody straight until he gets to the eighth bar. Instead of holding on the tonic in his lower register, as composed, he improvises a riff that leaves him in the upper middle register when bar 9 rolls around, which requires a repetition of the opening melody. Rather than drop down to the lower register for that melody, however, IZ remains in the upper middle register and re-composes the melody to suit his conception.

While this may seem like a small matter, it is not; it is major. The melody opens with a octave leap from low tonic to high tonic. Such wide leaps are rare in melodies and that leap is “Over the Rainbow's” signature riff. IZ doesn't return to the original melody until bar 5 of the second strain (bar 13 of the entire song).

In bar 8 of the second strain (bar 16 of the entire song) he again improvises a riff where the original melody holds still on the tonic and then moves into the bridge (third 8-bar section). While IZ retains the overall horizontal quality of the bridge, he makes crucial alterations. Where the original melody alternates between two pitches on successive eight notes IZ stays on one pitch. Where the original melody rises gradually through the first half of the bridge, IZ descends gradually. Where the original melody drops back down to pick up the opening octave leap when the bridge is over, IZ remains in the upper middle register and, for the second time, eliminates that signature interval.

He returns to the original melody in the second half of the last 8-bars. On the final bar, once again he improvises an ascending riff and then segues directly into “What a Wonderful World.” While IZ takes some melodic flights in “What a Wonderful World” - especially in the second half - he sticks much closer to this melody than to “Rainbow.” When IZ is finished with the melody the band vamps and the music fades out, with IZ scatting over the vamp.

What IZ did with the melody of “Over the Rainbow” is relatively rare outside of jazz, and even in jazz the melody statement generally doesn't reconstruct the overall shape of the line as radically as IZ has done. The melody he sang is as much his as Harold Arlen's, the original composer. That, the rhythmic reconception, and wedding the two tunes together, take this medley well beyond the normal boundaries of interpretation. Kamakawiwo'ole is deep in composer-arranger territory. And he moves a bit deeper into that territory in the 1993 recording.

As I've already indicated, there is no back-up band in this recording, just IZ's voice and ukulele. That requires that IZ scat sing lines where the first recording has guitar (and-or perhaps ukulele) leads. More than that, however, is the fact that, once IZ has concluded “Wonderful World” he returns to “Rainbow,” but not at the beginning, rather, at the bridge. He sings through the last half of the song and scats on out, first fully voiced tones on “Ooooo” - which he uses for most of his vocal interpolations - and then on a series of more guttural syllables.

The overall effect is much more austere, ethereal, even spiritual, than the 1990 version. It's not only the lighter texture, but also the effect of returning to “Rainbow” at the end. The song's lyrics tell of a world where the sky's blue and “dreams really do come true.” When IZ sings “Wonderful World” he is, in effect, singing from within that world to which “Rainbow” alludes. The medley thus starts in a world where we dream of another world; and then takes us to that world - the other song - and returns us from it by returning to “Rainbow” at the end. This version of the medley thus fully realizes what was only implicit in the earlier version.

Finally, we must consider the phrase IZ utters at the beginning of this version. In the first version he'd uttered “Woke up early this morning.” Here he says “Kay, this one's for Gabby.” The original utterance was a simple observation about a prosaic, if important, event, the transition from sleep to waking. This utterance is a dedication.


I've not been able to discover who Kay* is, but Gabby is Charles Philip "Gabby" or "Pops" Pahinui, a master of the slack-key guitar (a Hawaiin guitar style) who died in 1980. He played an important role in the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance that bubbled up in the 1970s. Kamakawiwo'ole too was concerned about Hawaiin culture. As his career progressed he became increasingly committed to the restoration of Hawaiian culture and he advocated Hawaiian independence.

In dedicating the medley to Gabby Pahinui, Kamakawiwo'ole was enlisting it to the cause of Hawaiian cultural nationalism. Thus Kamakawiwo'ole's radical reconstruction of “Rainbow” and construction of the medley is not merely an act of personal creativity. It was also an action on behalf of his culture, his people; it was a political act.

Once Facing Future was released in 1993 the medley took on a life of its own. According to biographer Jack Boulware:
The familiar melody played in hotels and on rental car radios, in restaurants and bars. Many were moved to tears. If it didn't give you "chicken skin," you were legally dead. The song resonated even more for locals. Some heard its kaona, or hidden subtext, to reflect the sadness Hawai'i felt about having its lands illegally annexed by the United States in 1898. Those who had seen him in concert knew he ended each show with the words, "My name is Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, I am Hawai'ian." Israel was one of only 1,500 full-blooded Hawai'ians left in the world. He was pure, and so was the recording. It bounced around the islands for the next three years.
When Kamakawiwo'ole died in 1997 he lay in state in the Capitol building in Honolulu and the State Flag flew at half-staff on the day of his death.


However important Kamakawiwo'ole was to Hawaiins, that significance would have been invisible to those listening to radio station KCRW out of Santa Monica one day in 1996. Over the next two days Mountain Apple, Kamakawiwo'ole's label, had received over 2000 calls from Californian's who'd been moved by this music by someone they'd never heard of. Over the coming years the medley would be heard on movie soundtracks - Meet Joe Black, Finding Forrester, and 50 First Dates among them - on television programs - ER, Providence, Charmed, and Party of Five, and on commercials throughout the world. Facing Future went gold (500K units sold) in 2002 and platinum in 2005.

If we look at just the medley, it is the most popular iTunes download for “What a Wonderful World,” with Armstrong recordings taking second and third slots (and fifth, sixth and other slots scattered through the distribution). It's the second most popular download for “Over the Rainbow.” The most popular download is Kamakawiwo'ole's recording of just “Over the Rainbow” from his album Alone in IZ World. Judy Garland's soundtrack recording is fourth. Within the world reached by iTunes, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's recordings of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” out-sell all other recordings, including those of the very famous original artists.

The medley is also popular on YouTube. People use it as a sound track over which they place other video clips or pictures. If you look through the videos you will find tributes to the late Steve Irwin, various presentations of friends and relatives, of a trip to Hawaii, clips where the medley is used ironically behind images of war and destruction (as Armstrong's recording of “Wonderful World” was used), the Bellagio Cashiers picnic, a tour of Disney World, and so on. I doubt that many of the people who've made these clips are aware of the nationalist background of Kamakawiwo'ole's medley. They like it because it is superb music.

The sentiments expressed in the music are widespread and deeply felt. We all want a better world. And we all take imaginative journeys to such worlds in our dreams and fantasies, but also through art. But the sense of the lyrics is not itself enough to explain the power of Kamakawiwo'ole's performance. Much of the power is in the sound itself. That is something we are only beginning to understand.

*One of the commenters at The Valve observed that it was probably a truncated form of "OK." Sounds right to me.


  1. Listen to Keola Beamer for more pure Hawaiian sound and slack key. His mother's family preserved Hawaiian culture when it was forced underground. Although Hawaii music doesn't get much attention in the continental US -- with exceptions, such as you note -- the music makes complete sense and rises up everywhere when experienced in the islands themselves.