May 20 would be Israel Ka`ano`i Kamakawiwo`ole’s 61st birthday. He died on June 26, 1997. You might know him as IZ, and you definitely know his rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Google chose “Bruddah Iz” as the subject of a Google Doodle in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the U.S. “Through his joyful songs and lifelong advocacy for the islands’ values and culture,” a Google representative wrote, “Kamakawiwo`ole has been widely referred to as the ‘Voice of Hawai`i.'”
IZ was born in 1959 in Honolulu, Hawai`i. He was raised with music touching nearly every aspect of his life, and by the age of ten, he was already known for his talent on the `ukulele. “Israel grew up on O`ahu and was known to all as a rascal,” the Kamakawiwo`ole family told Google. “He was always holding or playing his `ukulele. His roots were on the island of Ni’ihau, which is privately owned and remains the only island with a 100 percent Hawaiian population and cannot be visited without an invitation from a resident. Israel spent his summers there with grandparents learning the life lessons of the early Hawaiians who practiced the ancient ways.”
By his teens, he, his brother Skippy, and three friends formed the Makaha Sons of Ni`ihau. They made contemporary Hawaiian music that became hugely popular. Together, they made 15 records. “Their music resonated with Hawaiians and Hawaiians at heart, and they won the Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards (the Hawaiian music equivalent of a Grammy) year after year,” the family wrote.
But it wasn’t until one night in 1988 that IZ would begin his rise to becoming an international sensation — and it happened in just over two minutes. That night, in a studio in Honolulu, he sat down with his `ukulele to record “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, originally composed by Harold Arlen and sung by Judy Garland in the Wizard of Oz. IZ’s version, though, was backed by his `ukulele, and it struck a chord with everyone who heard it. Amazingly, he sang the now-famous version in a single take.
“Israel broke out on his own in 1993 (after releasing two solo albums while still performing with the group), and the rest is history,” the Kamakawiwo`ole family explained. “He recorded three solo CDs between 1993 and his death in 1997, which have allowed for four posthumous releases.”
Although he’s best known for that song, he was much more than that. He redefined popular Hawaiian music with his own unique sound and spread love and aloha all over the world.
The concept of the Google Doodle was born in 1998, when Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin played with the corporate logo to indicate their attendance at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. The idea morphed into something that celebrated notable people and events. This isn’t the first time they’ve chosen a Hawaiian to honor, either. In May of 2019, they celebrated Eddie Aikau’s 73rd birthday.
This particular Doodle was directed by doodler Sophie Diao. “The foundation for the entire Doodle was the amazing phone call that we had with Jon (Israel’s producer) and Marlene (Israel’s widow),” Diao said. “They were able to share their favorite stories about him and give so much context about who he was and what he was all about – even down to his favorite flower (plumeria).”
From that call, Diao was able to incorporate places that meant something to Israel: “The sunrise at Diamond Head, Makaha Beach, the Palehua vista, the flowing lava and volcanic landscape of the Big Island, the black sand beach at Kalapana, the Wai`anae coast,” Diao explained. “We wanted to visit these places and see Israel’s drum in person, but then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, so I relied on the Internet, photos from Jon and Marlene, and memories from previous trips to Hawai’i. I also read a couple of books on Hawaiian history and legends for context and perspective.”
For their part, the Kamakawiwo`ole family is happy with how the Doodle turned out. “The Kamakawiwo`ole `Ohana (family) remains overwhelmed by the worldwide reach of Israel’s music and the reaction of everyone who hears his voice, a voice that instantly touches your heart,” the family wrote. “Having Google create a Doodle for his 61st birthday gives us all reason to again celebrate his life and impact on millions worldwide.”