In life, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole (pronounced "Ka-MA-ka-VEE-vo-oh-lay") was a giant, a man of more than 700 pounds who could make the little ukulele sing as sweetly as his own falsetto. In death, he has emerged as the Bob Marley of Hawaiian music, a gentle ambassador who presented himself as informally as a lazy island afternoon but was as emotionally incisive as the deepest bluesman.
"Alone in Iz World," his posthumous album, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's World Music Charts, collects unreleased, alternative takes of some of Kamakawiwo'ole's biggest island hits. It serves as a fine introduction to his work, which consists of only three complete studio albums and a live recording. These versions, in fact, are far more intimate and, therefore, sometimes better than the originals. The best are small miracles, built only of four strings and Kamakawiwo'ole's enchanting falsetto.
Raised in the Hawaiian ki ho'alu slack-key guitar tradition, a style that survived the Americanization programs of the early 20th century to become the predominant island genre in the '70s and '80s, Kamakawiwo'ole also mastered the hapa-haole standards, well known to Waikiki tourists. Later, he added a reggae-influenced "Jawaiian" style and a repertoire of AM radio standards beloved by island audiences. What set him apart from the crowded island scene were his ballads, soulfully voiced in the kind of silken, heavenly tones that could make the most hardened hearts weep.
"Alone in Iz World" (Mountain Apple) demonstrates all of these sides. There is a languid take on the slack-key classic "Hi'ilawe," a love song set near the waterfalls of the royal Waipi'o Valley, and a playful version of the hula standard "Henehene Kou 'Aka." The covers are as unlikely as they are beguiling, given Kamakawiwo'ole's distinctive twist. A pidgin-English-inflected version of Collin Raye's country hit "In This Life" soars. In spirit, Mel & Tim's R&B "Starting All Over Again" is recast in the mold of Marley's "Rastaman Chant," as Iz celebrates the lives of his deceased brothers, even meditates on the survival of the race.
By design, Kamakawiwo'ole's gracious desire to please his audience always overshadowed his strongly pro-native politics. His gorgeous medley of "Over the Rainbow"/"What a Wonderful World," from 1993's "Facing Future," was mainstream enough to become a favorite of public radio jocks and, eventually, advertisers and music supervisors, who used the song to infuse depth into dot-com commercials, teledramas and big-screen movies. (Only "Over the Rainbow" is reprised here.)
But for many natives, his message was clear. Hawaiians call a song's hidden meaning its kaona, the subtext. Against the backdrop of a popular movement for self-governance and return of the land, many native Hawaiians understood the kaona of "Over the Rainbow" as an allusion to the still-unfulfilled promise to restore their political sovereignty, ripped away in 1898 when the United States annexed the islands.
Kamakawiwo'ole's singular ability to represent all things to all people made the gentle uke player the most popular Hawaiian artist in recent history. When Kamakawiwo'ole's heart stopped in 1997, the state government took the unusual step of flying Hawaiian flags at half-staff and allowing his body to lie in state in the courtyard of the capitol. Tens of thousands of mourners came to pay their respects. Across the islands, graffiti on the walls read, "Bruddah Iz, N Dis Life we wuz blessed by you." "Alone in Iz World" is a fitting tribute to the mid-Pacific legend, a voice that will not soon be forgotten.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8182.)