The legendary Hawaiian singer would have been 61 today.
On what would have been Israel Kamakawiwoʻole's 61st birthday, let's look back at the Hawaiian singer whose warm voice and disarming ukulele established his legacy early on as the voice of the Hawaiian Renaissance.
His magnetic covers of "What a Wonderful World" and "Over the Rainbow" now border on cliche as a result of the countless movies and TV shows they've soundtracked. While Google honors his legacy–and that song–with an adorable doodle and short film today, Kamakawiwo'ole's career was incredibly more expansive than just those two covers.
The singer's four studio albums offer a wide collection of excellent songs that experiment with rock, reggae, and jazz. From the minimalist harmonies of "Mona Lisa" to a quirky cover of Gilligan's Island theme song, here are some of his most overlooked gems as we enjoy Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month.
Starting All Over Again
When placed in the context of the current social climate, "Starting All Over Again" plays like an eerie ode to 2020's pandemic summer. Kamakawiwo'ole ditches his signature ukulele in favor of funky percussion and slow-building synths, with harmonious background singers that elevate Kamakawiwo'ole's already soulful voice.
The song opens up with a powerful monologue from Kamakawiwo'ole as he speaks on the death of his mother, brother, and sister, meditating on his own demise, and how he believes all this to just be a phase of a bigger journey. "Starting all over again, it's gonna be rough," Kamakawiwo'ole sings. "It's gonna be slow, but we're gonna make it."
Take Me Home Country Road
Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's cover of John Denver's country classic is bolder than the original. Backed by a full band, Kamakawiwo'ole slaps an electric ukulele with the force of a rock and roll superstar. With the help of his signature background singer, the overplayed drunk jam is elevated by a splash of reggae that reworks the track into an unexpected summer hit.
Theme From Gilligan’s Island
The sound of Gilligan's Island theme song is already incredibly dated and borders on cringy, but Kamakawiwo'ole's cover of the signature track is bursting with quirky charm. His full-band rendition adds an exquisite amount of '80s funk to Gilligan's theme, and he somehow revitalizes the track into something hilarious and spectacular.
A Hawaiian Like Me
"A Hawaiian Like Me" is Israel Kamakawiwo'ole at his most braggadocios. Upon first glance, the song's tranquilizing melody and moving strings disguise the track as a charming love song. In actuality, the song is Kamakawiwo'ole flexing his chops, as he reminds his former lover: "It's a warning, to say aloha, 'cause you'll never find another Hawaiian like me." His soothing voice makes it easy to overlook the song's slightly concerning verses, such as: "You may go, I'll let you go, may God bless you, you'll be mine, wherever you may be."
White Sandy Beach of Hawaii
Thanks to the current pandemic, those annual summer vacations feel particularly elusive this year. On "White Sandy Beach of Hawaii," Kamakawiwo'ole's narrative voice and enchanting ukulele are particularly transporting. "The sound of the ocean soothes my restless soul," Kamakawiwo'ole croons. "Those hot long summer days, laying there in the sun." The lyrics on this easy-going jam are so nostalgic this summer.
"Mona Lisa" is a fantastic lo-fi ukulele love song that encompasses Kamakawiwo'ole's biggest strengths: his ear for uncanny pop melodies, his easy-going strums of the ukulele, his soaring voice. Throw in that slight lo-fi crunch of a record player, and it establishes Alone In IZ World's intro as an underrated standout. As the heartwarming two-minute diddly fades out, Kamakawiwo'ole's voice can be heard asking a friend to get his wife on the phone as he laughs. The song is a perfect indicator of how warm and Kamakawiwo'ole's presence was.