Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Israel Kamakawiwo Sings Over the Rainbow (Updated)

[Recycle time. This was first posted April, 2007.
This is one of my favorite posts. It comes up in Google searches about once or twice a week. Today I added to it.

Boy am I a nut for YouTube!
This is the same music as the previous video but thanks to Dr. Bob's comment here is the artist who did the singing.
Here's something to watch for: About three-fourths of the way through, I spotted the most poignant image...a ukulele left alone in the forest with no one there to play...followed by the funeral celebration at Makua Beach.

The late Israel Kamakawiwo ("Iz") was one of Hawaii's most beloved singers.
The Wikipedia article is a good tribute.

Throughout the latter part of his life, Iz was significantly obese and at one point carried 757 pounds on his 6 foot, 2 inch frame. He endured several hospitalizations and died of weight-related respiratory illness on June 26, 1997 at the age of 38.

The Hawaiʻi State Flag flew at half-staff on July 10, 1997, the day of Iz's funeral. His koa wood coffin lay in state at the Capitol building in Honolulu. He was the third person in Hawaiian history to be accorded this honor, and the only non-politician. Over 10,000 people attended his funeral. His ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean at Mākua Beach on July 12, 1997.

Jack Boulware's account of this song's first (and only) recording is a must-read.

Honolulu, two a.m. Music producer Jon de Mello is sleeping when the phone rings. It’s Israel, one of the artists he represents for his Mountain Apple record label. And Israel is wide awake. He often has problems at night because his weight upwards of 700 pounds forces him to sleep while hooked up to an oxygen tank. He tells de Mello he wants to record, right now. “You got transportation?” asks de Mello. It’s difficult for Israel to move around, he needs a few people to help him get dressed, get in and out of places. The studio is about 15 minutes away.

“Yeah,” says Israel. “My guys are here.” “Get in the car,” says de Mello. “I’ll meet you over there.” In the car, de Mello wonders what he wants to record. They’ve been discussing a bunch of possibles from a songbook. But it’s Israel, you never really know for sure what he’s going to do. A traditional Hawai’ian hula. A John Denver song. A theme from a TV show. Could be anything.

A young engineer named Milan Bertosa sits in his recording studio, waiting. He was planning to go home, until some Hawai’ian guy with a lot of letters in his name called up and wanted to record something right away. It’s late, Bertosa is tired, but the voice was insistent, saying he only needed half an hour. A knock at the door, and there stands an unimaginable sight. De Mello, whom Bertosa recognizes, stands about five foot two and 100 pounds. Next to him, the largest man he’s ever seen, a gargantuan six-foot-six Hawai’ian carrying a ukulele. De Mello introduces the two, they get Israel situated in a chair, and Bertosa starts rolling tape.

Israel leans into the microphone, says: “Kay, this one’s for Gabby,” and begins gently strumming the uke. His beautiful voice comes in, a lilting “Oooooo,” then slips into the opening words of “Over the Rainbow,” from “The Wizard of Oz.” Bertosa listens behind the glass, and within the first few bars knows it’s something very special. He spends most of his time recording lousy dance music. This is otherworldly. An incredibly fat man, elegantly caressing a Hollywood show tune, breaking it down to its roots, so sad and poignant, yet full of hope and possibility. Halfway through the tune, Israel spirals off into “What a Wonderful World,” the George David Weiss/Bob Thiele hit made famous by Louis Armstrong, then melts back into “Over the Rainbow.” He flubs a lyric, and tosses in a new chord change, but it doesn’t matter. It feels seamless, chilling. Israel plays five songs in a row, then turns to de Mello and says, “I’m tired and I’m going home.” “Gets up and walks out,” says de Mello. “Ukulele and a vocal, one take. Over.” Israel never played the song again.

Actually he did play it again, but never the same way. His later performances and recordings always varied. The music and lyrics came out different each time. He sang as the spirit moved him.

Here is another account from Milan Bertosa, the technician who made the original recording.

"Literally, Iz was a house carrying an 'ukulele," Bertosa said of the musician's size at the time - perhaps at the 450-pound level. "We had these floating floors, separated from the mainboard, and I felt the floors move when he walked."
Bertosa summoned security to fetch a steel chair so Kamakawiwo'ole could sit.

"When he started singing, I said to myself, 'Oh, this is what I'm supposed to be doing for a living.' He did 'Over the Rainbow' and 'What a Wonderful World' in one take and 'White Sandy Beach.' Then a cowboy song, which was incomplete and so was never released. Then it was over, in 15, 20 minutes."

Bertosa recalled the notable gaffes - the incorrect lyrics, the chord changes - that went over the head of Kamakawiwo'ole's fans but irritated the music publishers when the song snowballed years later. "It was just full of mistakes, but that didn't matter," he recalled. "Israel changed the melody; he dropped a piece here and there. But you don't stop (recording) that stuff. It was my job to capture it."

He said he gave Kamakawiwo'ole a cassette file of the session and saved the original on a digital file. And as a favor to a client, Kamakawiwo'ole was not charged a dime for the session.
Bertosa was personally haunted by the sweet innocence and purity of the big man with the big voice and the catchy uke strumming.

"The 'oooos' just came out - that's the way he played 'em," said Bertosa, who loved the tracks so much, he shared them with his family once.

"Because I was privy to the performance, my sense of it included hearing Israel breathe; so much of his work involved his breathing. The guy was large, managing to make music above and beyond the constant effort of being, of staying alive. One thing hit me: he could make music."

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