Dan Kois begins with the night Israel Kamakawiwo’ole* met engineer Milan Bertosa in the middle of the night in 1988, recording ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World’, wasted, massive and sweet-voiced. Most of Facing Future was recorded in 1993, but the story’s the right one to open with, a good distance from the easy-listening audience the song found and also presenting Iz before producer Jon de Mello became part of the story.
Equally significantly, the first chapter opens with a journey along the west coast of O’ahu, and Hawaii is second only to Iz as a major character - though Kois is careful to note that Iz was far from an activist, he was also (to himself and his island audience) very much Hawaiian and presenting a Hawaiian cultural identity. The album includes several mele pana, a tradition of songs about place, and a staggering number of layers of cultural signifiers that tie it to Hawaiian culture which are deftly explained throughout the text and also track by track in the middle section of the book.
Iz, though, takes the foreground. The book follows him from childhood, a kid who took to music easily and didn’t much care about school. His parents, uncle Moe and brother Skippy also played, and he was 11 when he began performing, playing for tourists with his brother. Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau formed when Iz was 15, also including Skippy, and they were busy and popular, with Hawaiian pride and sovereignty (pushed by Skippy) and management issues as interesting points for where Iz went next. Skippy died of a heart attack in 1982, and Iz stayed as the frontman (but not the band leader) until 1993, when he left the band and had an attorney sever his relationship with the management. During one of many hospital stays mentioned in the book, Jon de Mello came to visit Iz at the attorney’s request, and on subsequent visits they planned the solo album they’d make on his release. De Mello is a strong personality that has obviously raised the ire of many people involved music in Hawaii, including Milan Bertosa, and his approach to accommodating Iz while recording the album makes for an eventful section on studio time.
There’s a section following Iz’s death on licensing and the continuing business - it’s bizarre and very interesting - and even the album’s tracklist has an amount of marketing strategy behind it. In addition to Hawaiian standards and the cover version that sent sales stratospheric outside Hawaii (and there’s a bit on Iz’s legacy that explains the effect this had on Hawaiian pop), there’s two Jawaiian songs on the album, island reggae. One is a reworking of John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home Country Road’, the other is ‘Maui Hawaiian Sup’pa Man’, and Kois describes how they’re in a sense more specific to Hawaii than the Hawaiian language songs, as Jawaiian music is hugely popular yet sounds extremely cheesy to ears from elsewhere. While the album found a single, specific foothold in the rest of the US and beyond, it hit multiple audiences in Hawaii, two spheres of success both achieved by the same thing.
Facing Future kept sending me back to parallels in Irish culture, not to reduce either by trying equate the two but the questions of cultural nationalism, sovereignty, cultural exports, cultural influences on behaviour and referring to the Mainland made it hard to read at a total remove**. My own fantasy 33 1/3 would be about a (much older) Irish album that has passed through multiple audiences and runs into many of the same questions, so the one thing I was left wondering was the exact demographics of Iz’s fans in Hawaii then and now, but this is more about my curiosity than any omission - one obvious part of an answer is Kois’ description of how hard local men were hit by Iz’s death because they identified so strongly with him.
The book is excellent, but it also sent me listening to the album for the first time…and the second, third, fourth and fifth times. I’m not sure what to do with it, but it’s sincerely affecting and beautiful.
* ‘Iz’ was used so fat-fingered idiots like me wouldn’t balk at ‘Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’, but it’s also expedient.
** Truthfully, the thing I think about most when I think of Hawaii is Jocko Weyland’s The Answer Is Never: A Skateboarder’s History of the World.