Israel Kamakawiwo'ole,
Alone In IZ World
(Big Boy/Mountain Apple, 2001)

First of all, it is no exaggeration to say that Alone In IZ World is the most popular Hawaiian album ever issued. It is the first to jump into the No. 1 spot on Billboard's world music charts -- in fact, it's the first independent release ever to do that. To understand why the album has created such a stir, it's important to begin to understand the phenomenon of IZ: who Israel Kamakawiwo'ole was.

IZ was a big man, in more ways than one. He was 6'2" and at one time reputed to weigh 750 pounds. For 18 years, he was a member of the legendary Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau; a giant of a man, dwarfing the ukulele he used to accompany his singing so well, with a pure tenor voice. He died of respiratory failure in 1997 and was only the fifth person to lie in state in the Capitol Building. A crowd of 10,000 filed past his casket. IZ meant a lot to many people.

His music has been featured in movies (Finding Forester, Meet Joe Black, etc.) and on TV (Baywatch, Picket Fences and more) and he has even been honored in the front page of a book (Dean Koontz's From The Corner of His Eye). He raised the profile of Hawaiian music and took it to new audiences, yet still kept true to his people and culture.

This album, sensitively produced by Jon de Mello, friend and colleague of IZ, is a perfect introduction to the man and his music. Many of the tracks are simply IZ, his voice and his ukulele, while others feature tasteful overdubs by musicians who understand his approach to music and life.

Many of the tracks will be familiar to those who have seen IZ perform or bought his earlier albums, but here they are performed in different circumstances. The opening classic song "Mona Lisa" is not the usual studio quality cut you'd expect to hear. Instead, it is IZ alone having fun with a song he likes, followed by a more formal version that takes unexpected turns -- especially when he wonders out loud whether he should call his wife.

The album is sprinkled with gems, many in Hawaiian. There are some songs from the islands, familiar through the work of other artists such as Gabby Pahinui and Dennis Kamakahi, as well as from elsewhere -- a delightful incorporation of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," or a magical interpretation of "Over The Rainbow."

Songs like the moving "Starting All Over," with its heartfelt spoken introduction, are almost guaranteed to stop you in your tracks. IZ, singing with simplicity and humility, has touched something deep and universal. He was only 38 when he died, but his short life had had its complications and problems. His experiences are apparent in the depth of feeling one hears in his voice.

Jon de Mello has succeeded on many levels with this album. It is a tribute to IZ, but also a wonderful example of the man's talent. It's an introduction to a great performer as well as a souvenir to those who already know him. Alone in IZ World is marvelous entertainment and a manifestation of the wonderful music emerging from Hawaii. Based on this album, de Mello's habit of running recording equipment whenever IZ was in the studio can only be praised. This is the first time I have had the opportunity to sit and listen to an entire album by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. Like many, I'm late discovering him, but what a discovery.

[ by Jamie O'Brien ]
Rambles: 30 December 2001

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