Thursday, June 30, 2016

Israel “Bradda Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole - a Hawaiian Superman

EDIT: A lot of people have been hitting this post lately so I re-read it. I thought I should note it was written in response to a discussion about the character Maui in the movie Moana, where some people had objected to the character's body as looking obese.  I wrote up this quick Introduction to Iz post for people unfamiliar with him.  And even though I included several Iz songs, I forgot the one actually about Maui, so here you go.

See any resemblance to the movie Maui?

While talking about Maui on File 770 and elsewhere, I made references to the song Maui Hawaiian Suppa Man that zipped right past people, so I realized I was being obscure and regional and decided to elucidate. Most people are probably more familiar with his cover of Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What A Wonderful World, which he impulsively recorded in the middle of the night when he was having trouble sleeping.

Iz might also relate to the last post, about body shame and Polynesians.  He was a very large man, and I get the distinct impression that his image was factored into the design of the character Maui. Iz was probably not a demigod but he was a mountain among men in ways that go far beyond the physical. He’s one of my heroes.

One of my prized possessions is a personal autograph from him, from the time he played the Marin Civic Center – his only mainland appearance. He sang so hard he nearly cracked the sound board in half. By the end of it he needed his oxygen tank, and he signed autographs for us while the mask was strapped onto his face. 

One thing about Hawai'i musicians is that after the show they will usually sign autographs, even if they are a great big huge deal like Bradda Iz filling up the Marin Civic Center. He had us line up and come on stage and he signed for each of us. It was an amazing show, and that massive voice was so strong and resonant it occasionally overwhelmed the sound board (those devices aren’t meant to withstand that kind of vocal power).
I distinctly remember the first time I heard him. I was in an airport-hotel shuttle van, on my first trip back to Honolulu since my childhood, and “Hele On to Kauai” came on the radio, and I heard The Voice.

I love a singer with a distinctive voice. Adele. Freddy Mercury. Barry Gibb. Tom Waits. Elvis. Sinatra. Stevie Nicks. People who can be instantly identified by a single syllable falling out of their mouth. I recognized that I was hearing one of those singers, so I did what I normally do in that situation – turn my brain into a digital recorder and memorize a chunk of melody and lyric that seems distinctive.  So I can go look it up later, or ask someone who knows.

Now this was back when there were still CD stores, so I found one. And I went up to the cashier and said I want the song that goes “la la la to Hawai’i.” The cashier instantly knew what I was singing about and sold me a cassette of E Ala E, which was a gateway drug.

I got seriously addicted to Hawaiian music. I bought everything by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, on CD, and I got into other artists like Hapa and Keali’i Reichel and Dennis Pavao and Anuhea and on and on and on and lidat. 

But Iz was special. There was nobody like Iz. He was born May 20, 1959, and he grew up in a neighborhood of Honolulu called Kaimuki which is known for deep history and good food. Possibly that’s behind the reason he topped out at over seven hundred pounds. When he was signing my autograph I was in awe because he was over three times as big as me. He was the biggest human being I have ever seen.

There’s debate to the extent to which obesity results from poor personal choices. I was an extremely overfed child, and as an adult I could only maintain a lower size by being very tough on myself – and sometimes that toughness extended my physical boundaries and manifested as judgmentalness against people that were not quite as tough.  So I definitely understand the impulse between not wanting to reward people for self-indulgence, but then I got older. And I started to chill out regarding all that judgmentalness. Partially because of this man’s voice, reminding me where I came from.

As I understood the gist of the fat-shaming controversy in the last post, it’s that we shouldn’t show extremely obese people in media because it glorifies them and makes small children want to be just like them. I think that’s kind of a specious argument, and it erases people. I will note that Iz died at age 38 due to complications related to his morbid obesity. And that his coffin lay in state at the capitol, which is not an honor awarded very often at all. I'm not sure whether that’s glorifying, but I can tell it's a sincere tribute and a great honor.

One of Bradda Iz’s most touching songs is Hawai'i 78.

The song starts out with chanting, the state motto, proclaiming that the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness. Then the singer wonders what the ancients would think of our modern world.

This song came out during what is now called the Hawaiian Renaissance. Local culture was encouraged, after far too many years of being suppressed. Not so much the hard side, with its fighting and stratification and cruelty, but the art side, the dancing and music and food, all tempered with the peaceful side of Christianity via Queen Ka’ahumanu. Embodied by this remarkable looking man with a distinctly bicultural name.

I have a whole extended rant on how rock and roll is just one of the many things that resulted from the Empire’s running up against a wall made of mana when it discovered the South Pacific. There have been many other developments, such as the fact you can now get seared ahi in Kansas City, but I’ll blather about that later. For now I’ll just offer an observation that in this particular culture war, the ideas that lost were the angry and violent ones (from all sides), and the ideas that prevailed involved binding concepts like peace and love (from all sides).

Anyway, I’ll exit out of this Bradda Iz rant by leaving you with my favorite song by him: Henehene Kou Aka.

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