Today marks the 50th anniversary of Statehood -- Hawaii’s official admission to the Union. My father was a senior in high school then (McKinley, for all you locals), and he remembers it fondly. But from our current vantage, commemoration is bittersweet, as even a casual student of Hawaiian culture can attest. Here’s a version of a paper I presented at a recent EMP Pop Conference, which covers some of this ground through the lens of popular music (one song in particular).
This is the lilting solo version of “Over the Rainbow” recorded by Israel Kamakawiwo`ole, the Hawaiian music legend also known as Bruddah Iz. There’s a decent chance that you’ve heard it somewhere. On the soundtrack to a Hollywood star vehicle like Meet Joe Black, Finding Forrester or 50 First Dates, perhaps. Or during a pair of emotionally charged scenes in the NBC series ER and Scrubs. Or in one of untold thousands of earnest YouTube montages. Or during the seventh season of “American Idol,” when it was performed by a popular contender, complete with ukulele.
In any case, the ballad reaches straight for the heartstrings, as it was clearly intended to do.
But Kamakawiwo`ole, the Hawaiian music legend also known as Bruddah IZ, brought some coded context to the song that most listeners don’t begin to recognize. As an outspoken advocate of Hawaiian sovereignty, he knew the deeper shading of a song about longing for another place, where skies are still blue. His “Over the Rainbow” is a hymn of exile as well as longing, rich in metaphorical suggestion. Its impact has reached far and wide, eclipsing its veiled intentions. But those intentions tell us much about the world in which Kamakawiwo`ole lived, and the one that he never lived to see.
“Over the Rainbow” was composed by Harold Arlen with lyrics by Yip Harburg, and first recorded on an MGM soundstage in 1938. Kamakawiwo`ole would surely have known it by its movie pedigree: a barnyard, a gingham dress, a Cairn terrier named Toto.
As sung by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, the song opens with the most famous octave leap in popular music -- an assertion of the tonic, a laying down of the groundwork. Her Dorothy is rooted, so to speak, in a specific place and time: rural Kansas, a place apparently bereft of all felicity, to say nothing of Technicolor.
“There’s a land that I heard of,” she sings achingly, “Once in a lullaby.” There’s a world of yearning compressed in that famous couplet, which combines the whimsy of a bedtime story with the faintest stirrings of maturity. The fabled land in the song is a place where troubles melt, and the “dreams that you dare to dream” crystallize into truth.
At the onset of the bridge -- “Someday I’ll wish upon a star / And wake up where the clouds are far behind me” -- the melody yoyos between a perfect fifth and a major third, and then the fifth and the fourth. And it doesn’t take much interpretive energy to understand that the song is a cry of disillusionment with present circumstance. Would Dorothy really need an Oz if Kansas weren’t such a wash? One could pose a similar question to the generations of Judy Garland fans who recognized this alienation, claiming the rainbow as their banner ideal.
But there’s a nonpartisan power to this performance: who hasn’t wished for bluebirds while standing, metaphorically speaking, in a yard full of chickens? It’s not for nothing that voters polled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts chose “Over the Rainbow” to top their Songs of the Century list -- though, it should be noted, that was a referendum on the 20th Century.
In the 21st, it may actually be the case that Arlen and Harburg’s evocative anthem would best be carried not by this petite warbler from Middle America but by a 700-pound crooner from the middle of the Pacific Ocean. As recently as 2008 it made Billboard’s Hot Digital Songs chart, just missing the Top 10. When I spoke with Jon de Mello, who was essentially the Rick Rubin to Kamakawiwo`ole’s Johnny Cash, this is what he had to say:
And why not? Kamakawiwo`ole was someone who had actually resided in a land of rainbows. With his version he managed to make the song both sweeter and sadder, using it not to express longing for a paradise unseen but for a paradise lost, or more precisely, occupied and annexed: an Oz becoming Kansas, right before his eyes.
On the inside cover of Facing Future (Mountain Apple) -- his landmark 1993 solo album, and the one that introduced his take on “Over the Rainbow” -- Kamakawiwo`ole printed an original inscription in verse form. This is how it begins:
FACING BACKWARDS I SEE THE PAST
OUR NATION GAINED, OUR NATION LOST
OUR SOVEREIGNTY GONE
OUR LANDS GONE
ALL TRADED FOR THE PROMISE OF PROGRESS
WHAT WOULD THEY SAY....
WHAT CAN WE SAY?
Those sentiments spill over onto “Hawai`i ’78,” the anthem that bookends the album, originally recorded by his landmark group the Makaha Sons of Ni`ihau.
The song begins with a musical setting of a meaningful Hawaiian phrase, “Ua mau ke ea o ka `aina i ka pono O Hawai`i” -- “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” King Kamehameha III spoke those words in 1843, to mark the end of a five-month British occupation. Two years later they appeared on a coat of arms adopted by the sovereign Kingdom of Hawai`i. And after a forced annexation by the United States at the turn of the century, they were emblazoned on the Hawaiian territorial seal.
Israel Kamakawiwo`ole was born on May 20, 1959: three months almost to the day before the ratification of Hawaiian statehood. The youngest of three children, he spent his adolescence in the town of Makaha, on the Waianae coast. Then as now, this was a poor community: in the 2000 U.S. Census, it was determined that roughly 20% of its population was below the poverty line. More recently, addressing what it acknowledged to be an epidemic, the State opened multiple homeless shelters there.
Such problems were already painfully present in the 1960s, when Kamakawiwo`ole came of age. A decade later they were addressed by a group of activists and artists that engendered what’s known as the Hawaiian Renaissance. Theirs was not just a cultural resurgence but also a political movement, intended to subvert the hum of a tourist economy and counteract the polyester charms of Don Ho and Hawaii Five-O. The original movement, at least at its core, was less explicitly concerned with revolution than with reclamation, a proud and willful embrace of native culture and traditions.
Accordingly, the heroes of the Hawaiian Renaissance were those who preserved native language and folklore, and especially homegrown music. They were artists devoted to ki ho`alu slack-key guitar and leo ki`e ki`e falsetto singing -- people like Gabby Pahinui, whose name is invoked at the start of IZ's rainbow revision. And it was in keeping with this impulse that Israel and his older brother Skippy formed the Makaha Sons in 1976, finding some success with the first version of “Hawai`i ’78,” which was written by Mickey Ioane.
His “Over the Rainbow” carries no inherently clear pang of protest, but its implications are clear enough in context. It’s the penultimate song on Facing Future, preceding the reprise of “Hawai`i 78,” and its placement feels deliberate. While Kamakawiwo`ole never performed “Over the Rainbow” in concert, he did sing “Hawai`i 78,” many times, along with “E Ala E,” which means “Stand Up.” (The message, like the title, is plainly evocative of Bob Marley’s call to rights.)
Kamakawiwo`ole was known for lecturing local audiences about Hawaiian pride, and for warning against the dangers of gangs (which he had seen up close) and drugs (which he had suffered firsthand). But in the spirit of the islands, he always took care to soften his tone, usually with a dollop of humor. And he was well versed in the native Hawaiian tradition of communicating in symbols and signs.
It helps to remember that tradition when considering “Over the Rainbow.” Ke Anuenue is the Hawaiian term for rainbow, a sacred presence in many Native American cultures. The term also refers to the goddess of rain, who according to legend once bestowed her blessing on a young chief named Makaha, naming a valley in his honor. Obviously this story would be familiar to someone who named his first group the Makaha Sons of Ni`ihau.
Of course there’s a broader, more casual significance of the rainbow in Hawaii, as anyone who has played tourist there can attest. Rainbows are everywhere: not just shining over Makaha Valley but also emblazoned on license plates, and plastered on store windows. For many years, it was the symbol of all University of Hawaii athletics.
That changed in 2000, when UH, increasingly sensitive about the association of rainbows with the gay rights movement, overhauled both its logo and its image. This was felt most dramatically with regard to the football team: almost overnight the Rainbows became the Warriors, attired not in verdant green but a severe, martial black.
The team’s rituals evolved too: suddenly it came to include the ha`a, an intimidating chant of solidarity that got the team penalized at least once for unsportsmanlike conduct. Kamakawiwo`ole would have savored that irony -- brotherhood mistaken for brutishness -- just as he would have exulted in the Warriors’ undefeated season in 2007. Certainly he would have been touched by the surge of Hawaiian pride sparked by the team’s success. When the Warriors finally played their ill-fated Sugar Bowl, the only thing that went right was the halftime show, which found the UH marching band taking the field with two emblematic numbers: “Over the Rainbow” and “Hawaii Five-O.”
Kamakawiwo`ole brought a similar duality to his performance of “Over the Rainbow,” a sense of anguish braided with uplift. He recorded the song in medley form, paired with “What a Wonderful World,” the Louis Armstrong vehicle that had recently enjoyed its boost from Good Morning, Vietnam. His segue is clearly intended as both a salve and a spur: here is paradise, he’s implying, all around us. That land that you dream of -- it isn’t completely lost, not yet.
Those who were close to Kamakawiwo`ole in his last few years say that he was concerned with leaving behind some beauty. In discussing the medley, de Mello pointed out that he was in poor health at the time: on the recording, it’s all too easy to detect his belabored breathing. His weight problem was such that he required an oxygen tube, spending hours each day in a swimming pool to relieve the strain on his frame.
He recorded the medley on the spur of the moment, calling a studio at 2:30 in the morning and begging the engineer to stay open for another hour. As it happened, he was done in less than 20 minutes. The take was ultracasual, true to form. As a self-taught musician, adept in just a couple of keys, Kamakawiwo`ole took liberties with melodies and lyrics. Some older Hawaiian artists would refer to a song as having been “Israelized.” Others would simply say that he made mistakes.
In this case, he drops “A land that I heard of,” skipping straight to the “dreams that you dream of” line. Then he shortens the second verse, moving on the bridge, where he sings an open fifth, leaving out the business with the third and the fourth. Recordings tend to codify mistakes: when Jason Castro, the “American Idol” contestant, paid his homage, he was doggedly faithful to the Israelized melody. So was Jon de Mello, when he arranged an orchestral background for Kamakawiwo`ole’s voice on the posthumous 2007 album Wonderful World (Mountain Apple), which briefly cracked the Top 50.
Kamakawiwo`ole makes his simplest and most ingenious revision in “Over the Rainbow” right up front, when he sidesteps Arlen’s famous octave leap and begins instead with a seventh: the most restless interval in Western music, the degree of the scale that best expresses its desire for resolution. There’s a kind of yearning here that even Dorothy couldn’t touch, a rootlessness that resonates on a few different levels.
Before there was really an outlet for Warrior pride, there was this bittersweet melancholy. Kamakawiwo`ole knew what he was doing when he summoned it, and probably had a few thoughts rattling around his mind: notions of sovereignty and occupation, notions of the land -- the sacred `aina -- being exploited and commodified.
The second half of the inscription in Facing Future reads as follows:
FACING FUTURE I SEE HOPE
HOPE THAT WE WILL SURVIVE
HOPE THAT WE WILL PROSPER
HOPE THAT ONCE AGAIN WE WILL REAP THE BLESSINGS OF THIS MAGICAL LAND
FOR WITHOUT HOPE I CANNOT LIVE
REMEMBER THE PAST BUT DO NOT DWELL THERE
FACE THE FUTURE WHERE ALL OUR HOPES STAND
It’s a passage made all the more poignant by time and recent events: the 50th anniversary of statehood, and of Kamakawiwo`ole’s birth; the installment of a United States president who used hope as his bulwark, and who spent his formative years in Hawai`i.
Of course in the end Israel did leave something beautiful behind. Invoking a mental image of rainbows, he spoke to his people in language they alone would fully understand. So it is that with promise and sadness, and a measure of quiet indignation, one phrase bears repeating one more time: There’s no place like home.