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You may not know the name of this singer (let alone how to pronounce it) but you will most certainly know at least one of his songs or rather his rendition of it.
Unless you lived under a stone for the past 10 years you must have come across the simple yet chilling version of Over The Rainbow. It has been used in movies (Meet Joe Black, 50 First Dates, Finding Forrester), television programmes (usually when someones dying e.g. Dr Mark Greene in E.R. and there wont be a dry eye in the house) and adverts across the world. You know the song I mean, the one with just one man singing accompanied by a solitary ukulele.
I cant remember when I first came across that particular version but I always liked it. It was different from the Judy Garland version, not happy and uplifting but chilling and haunting to listen to. It can make my hair stand on end and go all goose-pimply.
There are a number of really sentimental, tear jerking songs used over and over on TV and in movies, most of which you start to detest of after the 20th use in a death scene Im talking the likes of Jeff Buckleys Hallelujah I never get tired of this particular rendition of Over The Rainbow.
I never knew much about Israel Kamakawiwo'ole and had to look him up on the Internet to find out more. The problem was, I didnt know his name, only the song. But it didnt matter, the name of the song and movie or TV programme you heard it and you get results, loads of them.
Israel was part of a music group for most of his early career and only in the early 1990s released solo albums. Facing Future was released in 1993 is said to be his best album.
Israel was morbidly obese and died in June 1997, age 38, from a weight related respiratory illness, his weight topping 340kg (750 pounds/53 stone) at times. He is only one of three people on Hawaii who had the honour to have their body lay in state. His ashes were scattered into the ocean.
It may not be your kind of music. It's raw, stripped down to basics, not manufactured generic pop pap but if you keep an open mind and try it, you might like it.
Facing Future contains 15 songs, some in English, others in Israels native Hawaiian tongue. There are also some that are mixed and he seamlessly moves from one language to the other and back. I must say, I do not understand a single word of the Hawaiian language but it has not actually bothered me that I cannot understand what the songs are about. The voice of Israel makes up for it more than you can imagine.
For a moment you might think you are listening to one man and his ukulele. Very rarely will you find more than just those two ingredients in the songs. Does it matter? No, not at all. Most of the time you wont even realise that there are no other singers or instruments/orchestra. You will just concentrate on the warm voice that sings all these songs where you may not understand the lyrics. When he sings songs in his native tongue you can easily conjure up images of a Hollywood version on Hawaii with girls in hula skirts dancing on the beach. To be honest, the few songs on the album with full orchestration and background singers I feel are the weaker ones. It distracts from the actual beauty and simplicity of the rest of the songs and the voice of Israel. I un-ticked those songs so my mp3 player automatically skips over them.
I will list all songs on the album at the end of the review so that it will not distract from the songs that I particularly like or dislike. The songs I mention are not in any particular order and reflect my own personal opinion only.
The album starts and finishes with two slightly different versions of the same song Hawai'i '78 While the first one is in most parts a homage to his father, speaking about his fathers life and death from a heart attack while only singing the chorus, the closing version is more political and talks about the change and modernisation of the Hawaiian Islands:
All of the fighting that the king had done
to conquer all these islands
now there's condominiums
How would he feel if saw Hawaii now
Both versions of the song are beautiful but the version at the end of the album is by far the more haunting one, sung like a warning to people not to take everything for granted.
Of course the song most people will already know from this album is Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Its just beautiful, one man, one voice and one ukulele and look what can happen. Israel manages to combine two songs, not only the aforementioned Somewhere Over The Rainbow but also the song What a Wonderful World. Both songs are so beautifully matched that you do not even realise when one finishes and the next one starts. A lot of people will know the lyrics and if you are singing along, you might not even realise that there are two different songs together as one.
If you are only interested in the song Somewhere Over The Rainbow without the second one woven in then you should try another version, I can recommend the version from the album Alone in IZ World. There is a third version on the album KaAnoI but its with full orchestration and my least favourite of the three.
There are two songs I dislike, they are Maui Hawaiian Suppa Man and a cover version of John Denvers Take Me Home Country Road. Both songs are fully orchestrated and while the first of the two is just too commercial for my liking, I never particularly liked John Denver and not even Israels version of the classic country song (with Hawaiian twist) cant change my mind. These two songs unfortunately get skipped over every time I play the album. But who knows, other people might like these two songs much more and could even count them amongst their favourites.
There is only one more song title in English White Sandy Beach Of Hawai'i, in the same mould as the ballads with Hawaiian titles but just as beautiful.
The rest of the songs, all with Hawaiian titles and I dont know the first thing of what they mean, could be classed as typical music from the region, traditional Hawaiian ballads or songs you would expect when arriving on one of the islands airports and be greeted by a group of Hawaiians wearing traditional clothes singing happy songs to get you in the right mood for you holiday. Israel could be making strong political statements and I would not know but then again, I like to sit back and relax and this music allows you to kick back and start daydreaming.
My personal favourite of the songs is "La 'Elima", dont know why, maybe its just the spoken English bit at the end that makes the song special. In a few words Israel explains that the song is about a tragedy that happened to a fishing village. But it does no distract from the simplicity of the song and how it is sung.
Whether its a ballad sung in traditional Hawaiian tongue or a modern version of a classic song in English, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole is able to command attention all the way through the almost one hour album. While there are some weak songs on the album, it does not distract from the power in the voice. Its just amazing how a person who seemed to ill at times due to his weight problems was able to sing with such a beautiful voice.
I bought Facing Future on the strength of the one song everyone seems to know. I am glad I did.
Versions of Over the rainbow by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole can be found on iTunes World music top 100 at number 1, 2 and 6. They also have 5 complete and one partial album to buy and download.
Downloading could be the best option for anyone interested. Not a lot of shops stock the albums, neither do amazon.co.uk and they charge a lot for the pleasure of getting it for you.
Facing Future is available to download from iTunes Music Store for £7.99 or to buy as CD on amazon.co.uk for £11.99 with a delivery time of up to two weeks.
There are other music download sites as well as online and offline shops to purchase music from and all outlets I mentioned should be taken as examples and possible price guidelines only. All prices are subject to change.
I can only recommend buying this album, even if its for the song Somewhere Over The Rainbow only. It is money well spent. I keep a copy in my car and on long journeys often put it on to calm me down. I tend to suffer from road rage on occasions. It has just the same effect on me as one of my favourite classical CDs.
Track list for reference:
1. Hawai'i '78 Introduction
2. Ka Huila Wai
4. Panini Pua Kea
5. Take Me Home Country Road
6. Kuhio Bay
7. Ka Pua U'i
8. White Sandy Beach Of Hawai'i
9. Henehene Kou 'Aka
10. La 'Elima
11. Pili Me Ka'u Manu
12. Maui Hawaiian Sup'pa Man
13. Kaulana Kawaihae
14. Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World
15. Hawai'i '78
Dates and biographical information researched and confirmed via a number of Israel Kamakawiwo'ole related websites as well as wikipedia.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Hawaii '78
2 Ka Huila Wai
3 Ama Ama
4 Panini Pua Kei
5 Take Me Home Country Road
6 Kuhio Bay
7 Ka Pua U'i
8 White Sandy Beach Of Hawaii
9 Henehene Kou 'Aka
10 La 'Elima
11 Pili Me Ka'u Manu
12 Maui Hawaiian Sup'pa Man
13 Kaulana Kawaihae
14 Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World
15 Hawaii '78