Israel Kamakawiwoole’s fame was such that, when he died in July of 1997, all the flags in Hawaii flew at half mast. He was among the Hawaiian musicians who managed to achieve fame on the islands and on the mainland, and his rendition of Wonderful World charted on Billboard. His influence on Hawaiian music was such that a statue was dedicated to his memory on the island of Oahu and he was the recipient of the Male Vocalist of the Year and Contemporary Album of the Year awards from the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts. In 1994, Israel was the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts Entertainer of the Year.
Israel began his career with the band Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau. The band began their recording career in the mid-1970s and continued recording together until 1991. The Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau was a popular band, sticking to their traditional roots while enjoying some success in the mainstream with albums such as Ho’oluana and Hoola. Israel himself was a ukulele player, known for his excellent technique and tone and his ability to cross genres with the instrument to great effect.
Israel was also known as “Iz or Braddah Iz” in everyday life and is generally considered one of the most important Hawaiian musicians of the last two decades. His most well known track, surprisingly, was not a Hawaiian melody, but a medley of "Wonderful World" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". The song allowed Iz to showcase his mellow voice and his very advanced abilities on the ukulele in a pair of songs so widely known that they raised awareness of this Hawaiian musician beyond the fans of traditional music. This medley track was, and is, widely downloaded and remains the recording for which Israel is the most famous.
The medley appears on the Israel Kamakawiwoole album “Facing Future”. It is credited with exposing more people to Hawaiian music, as it provides a reason for people unfamiliar with the music of the islands to purchase an album by one of the greatest representatives of Hawaii’s traditional sound. The track was used on one of the most popular television shows of the 1990s, ER, and on multiple movies, which led to it selling still more copies, eventually becoming the track that would acquaint most people with Israel Kamakawiwoole and his distinctive sound. The intimacy of a performer and his ukulele and the sincerity of the rendition are largely credited with its great success.
Israel Kamakawiwoole was more than a musician to many of the people of Hawaii. He was a staunch advocate of Hawaiian Sovereignty and was deeply connected to the traditional Hawaiian culture that he was so proud of, as well as other Hawaiian's. (Including myself!) A song entitled, "Hawai'i '78" and "E Ala E", speaks just about that. This, combined with the fact that he managed to break out and achieve some popularity in the mainstream, have made Israel Kamakawiwoole one of the definitive Hawaiian musicians of the 20th Century and have provided many people with a way to learn more about, and to appreciate to a greater depth, the musical heritage of Hawaii. A big man, with even a bigger heart!