Staff Picks

Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s take on the Judy Garland classic is the top favorite around the globe

Israel Kamakawiwo’ole carried a deep mana, a Hawaiian concept for spiritual energy, which shone through his captivating singing. His musical journey took off when he and his brother enchanted a crowd at a graduation with their old ukuleles, marking the start of his legacy as a Hawaiian folk hero.

His most famous work, a seamless blend of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and “What A Wonderful World,” was recorded almost spontaneously late one night and shot him to global fame. Despite his large size, Kamakawiwo’ole’s kind nature won over those in the recording studio, where he recorded this memorable medley in just one take, sitting on a large steel chair designed for him.

This medley, part of his second solo album in 1993, won the hearts of listeners all over, making its way into various commercials, movies, and TV series. EMI noted that Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” became the most requested, even more so than Judy Garland’s beloved version. His unique take, with altered lyrics and melody, brought a new life to this evergreen song.

Kamakawiwo’ole’s untimely death in 1997 at 38 from respiratory issues was a massive loss. His stature in Hawaii was such that he was honored at the Hawaii Capitol Building, and his ashes were spread into the ocean from a traditional canoe, with a moving tribute from the people of Oahu.

In Hawaii, Kamakawiwo’ole is remembered not just for his music but also for his stand on Hawaiian rights and his cultural impact, all underpinned by his powerful mana. Globally, his voice in “Over The Rainbow” continues to touch hearts, leaving a lasting imprint of his legacy. Milan Bertosa, the engineer for that fateful recording, summed it up: it’s easy to get lost in the music and simply smile, overlooking any imperfections.

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