Story by Nate Chinen
Photo courtesy Mountain Apple Company
There’s the dedication, more exhaled than uttered. “’Kay, this one’s for Gabby,” he whispers, invoking the Hawaiian music legend Gabby Pahinui. Then a simple chord vamp strummed on an ‘ukulele. And then the ethereal, bittersweet sigh that begins Bruddah Iz’ lilting version of “Over the Rainbow.”
Of course you know it, whether you’re kama‘aina or just visiting. You’ve heard it in movies and on television, or piped through the speakers of an ABC Store. Maybe you saw it played by an American Idol contestant a few years back, ‘uke in hand. The song’s melancholy beauty has made it both a Hollywood favorite and a global hit.
But to Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole and those who know what he believed, the song contains a coded subtext. His “Over the Rainbow” is a hymn of cultural exile and collective longing. In its quiet way, it could even be considered a song of protest.
I first heard it in 1993, as a senior at ‘Iolani School. Like many at the time, I considered it a gorgeous curio, rightly tucked away as the penultimate track on a celebrated album, Facing Future. It wasn’t an instant classic like “Ka Huila Wai” or “La ‘Elima.” For all its haunting beauty, it didn’t inspire the same chicken-skin sensation as the track that opens and closes the album, “Hawai‘i ’78.”
There is no way to fully understand Iz’ “Over the Rainbow” without considering “Hawai‘i ’78,” an anthem of Hawaiian sovereignty written by Mickey Ioane. It begins with a musical setting of the state motto, a phrase carried over from the time when Hawai‘i was a kingdom: Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ‘Aina i ka Pono (officially translated as “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness”). The song goes on to imagine the heartbreak of the kings and queens if only they could see what modern civilization had done to their beloved Islands. “Cry for the gods/cry for the people/cry for the land that was taken away/and then yet you’ll find: Hawai‘i.”
Like most of us, Iz would have heard the version of “Over the Rainbow” sung by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, which opens with the most famous octave leap in popular music. Her Dorothy dreams of bluebirds while standing in a yard full of chickens, of rainbows in a Kansas bereft of Technicolor—an act of pointed yearning.
But Iz goes further. As someone who actually lived in a land of rainbows, he knew its struggles well: poverty and cultural dispossession, especially along the Wai‘anae Coast of O‘ahu where he lived. His version forgoes the octave leap and begins instead with a seventh, the most restless interval in Western music, the one that best expresses its desire for resolution. He uses the song not to pine for a paradise unseen, but for a paradise lost—or more precisely, occupied and annexed: his Oz becoming a Kansas right before his eyes.
Those unfamiliar with Hawai‘i’s troubled history wouldn’t hear the song that way. I can’t help but think of Louis Armstrong, who also veiled his social critiques, bringing all kinds of hidden resonance to a song like “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.” It hardly seems an accident that Iz’ “Over the Rainbow” detours into “What a Wonderful World.” In spite of everything, he seems to say, here is paradise, all around us. That land that you dream of—it isn’t lost, not yet. As it’s been said, there’s no place like home.
Those close to Iz in his last years say that he was concerned with leaving something of beauty behind. When he recorded the medley (on the spur of the moment, at 2:30 a.m., in twenty minutes) he was already in poor health; it’s all too easy to detect his labored breathing on the recording. His weight problem was such that he required an oxygen tube and spent hours a day floating in a pool to relieve the strain on his frame, a strain to which he succumbed in 1997.
Of course in the end, Israel did leave something beautiful behind. Invoking an image of rainbows, he spoke to his people of loss and hope in language they would fully understand.