It’s about the song, but maybe not the one you’re thinking of. When stations like KCCN and KINI excitedly sent “Hawai’i 78 Introduction” out over the air, with its spoken word narrative of personal and national destruction and redemption, the locals loved it. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole was back, literally the biggest and most loved member of the Makaha Sons, which had been thrilling fans for over a decade, Now the opening track to his new album, Facing Future, was inhaling the past Pakalolo-style and breathing out beautiful bliss and talking story, kissed by ‘ukulele and gentle strings and gently haunting backing voices.
But that’s not the “Iz” song that you’re probably familiar with, from Israel’s second full length, if you’re a mainlander. The medley of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World” is the chicken-skin-inducing licensing marvel that KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” helped make ubiquitous in the other 49 states and beyond, from the glorious opening humming to the fumbled but velvety lines about “I like the dark” to the way its simple ‘ukulele-strummed but snug in spartan production brings you near the huge man’s voice like a naked surfer to a midnight bonfire.
The “Rainbow/World” medley has “sold cars, clothes, greeting cards, banking, and deodorant,” and was a huge part of the initial branding success of AOL dot com and eToys. You still hear it played whenever almost any film now needs to establish a sense of tropical bliss, particularly when it’s about the world of its singer, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.
When I first began reading Dan Kois’ elegant but tenacious kit and caboodle documentation of the creation of Facing Future, and the monumental story of the massive, beloved performer-troublemaker who channeled Hawai’i through it for his people and the world, I didn’t even know I’d heard “Rainbow/World.” It was Kois’ incredible descriptive flair that forced me to go out and purchase the album, and after I listened to its fourteenth track, I realized I’d been listening to the Judy Garland/Louie Armstrong reinvention since at least the late 90s, or at least the sonorous melody the track is introduced with. Now it’s my song, too, just like it is for all those other haoles who worship its sensual exoticism, otherworldly pining, happy ghost dance of universal love for night, and spirit walking day.
But “Hawai’i ’78,” in both its spoken word autobiography of Iz, and the full song epilogue that finishes the record, reminds casual listeners of both the pride and power of the islands and its enormous singer, drawing from a past steeped in poverty, depression, and addiction problems to inspire young people to take back what is theirs.
As a child in school, Israel would admonish teachers to teach the history of his people, the least affected by miscegenation of which were mostly cowboys on Ni’ihau, the only place the original tongue could still be found. The Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau sang protest songs, island love ballads, happy haole standards, anything to entertain and educate crowds since they’d formed in the mid-7os. But when Israel found himself 700 pounds and deathly in a hospital in 1993, living on welfare and terribly in debt, he knew it was time to break out on his own. His serendipitous hook up with lawyer Robert Ferrigno and producer Jon de Mello of Mountain Apple Records helped him not only get the right guidance and encouragement his prickly, “Hawaiian-time” personality needed, it helped him gift the world with an album full of his love and ideals and joys and dreams.
Facing Future may not be the most cohesive, stylistically suave statement from an artist of major importance to the world, but Israel’s beautiful voice,and the diversity of material found from full band single (and yet another cultural phenomenon) “Maui Hawaiian Sup’pa Man” to standards like “Ka Hiula Wai” and “Kaulana Kawaihae” make it thoroughly enjoyable throughout. In terms of protest, Israel slides in the spirit of Phil Ochs via John Denver into his cover of “Take Me Home Country Road,” which may not have aged well in terms of synthesizer-playing and production, but has many fascinatingly regional surprises and jokes laced within to discover.
Israel Kamakawiwo’ole was deeply passionate about the history and future of Hawai’i, and Facing Future the album will convince you of both his and his culture’s beauty and relevance. Kois’ book challenges our feelings about the creation of important music outside the realms of the rock mythology, about how much importance we put on the music in our lives and whether or not we truly care about the people who make it, and even regarding the worth of poor overweight people who can change the world. The mystical forces that were brought together to keep Israel alive long enough to make the perennially adored Facing Future is proof that some things created here are more than myth, and that hope may be more than an oasis.