Kamakawiwo‘ole: Faces from his future look back

Beth-Ann Kozlovich
On July 4, 2007, Israel Kamakawiwo?ole debuted at No. 44 on the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart with “Wonderful World,” selling 17,000 units. Courtesy Photo

with Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—It has been almost 13 years since Israel Kamakawiwo?ole?s death and the man and album that remain the foundation of his enduring legacy are the subjects of a new biography of both. Written for Continuum?s 33 1/3 series of music books by cultural freelance writer Dan Kois, Facing Future the book is a short non-comprehensive read of 170 pages documenting the making of the now legendary CD and how there is indeed a very fine line between aggressive marketing and exploitation.

While those touched by Iz?s life, voice, and music continue to be devoted to him, there are concerns over his international legacy. Kois says everyone he interviewed needed at least ten minutes of praise and personal connection talk before getting to substantive issues. Particularly, not all are happy with how Kois has chronicled Kamakawiwo?ole or those in charge of the body of work he left behind, specifically Mountain Apple Company producer Jon de Mello.

Calling the book ?carefully crafted flattery,? de Mello maintains he has done what he promised and is proud of Mountain Apple?s work to bring Iz?s music to an ever-widening audience. That it meant doing whatever necessary to market the music was okay, he says. Iz both saw and approved of how his music was being managed.

?Iz was a bright, intuitive individual who knew exactly what he wanted and that was to take care of his family,? de Mello says.

Kois heartily agrees that de Mello?s promise to do just that is at the base of de Mello?s drive for Iz?s posthumous success. De Mello says he made the promise to Iz in 1993 while Iz was recovering in Queens Hospital—and he says, he will continue to make good on it. Mountain Apple has released just as many Iz CDs following his death as those Iz completed in life.

In part, the book is a validation of what de Mello set out to do: create escalating income for Israel?s family, which he says, receives the lion?s share of profits. Childhood friend and Iz attorney Robert Ferrigno, also interviewed for the book, initially contacted and courted de Mello for his client. Ferrigno says he supports de Mello?s outcomes if not all his methods.

?Jon is doing just what we wanted him to do,? Ferrigno says. 

Whether everyone is comfortable with Mountain Apple?s tactics, the net result is that Iz is more popular and recognizable by a mainstream and world music audience after his death. Licensing agreements for movie music, even the defunct online Napster file sharing service brought “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” into households worldwide. De Mello is unapologetic about Mountain Apple?s aggressive marketing stance and active search for new opportunities to place Iz?s music.

None of this has done Mountain Apple any harm, Kois charges, but all the attention and energy to keep producing Iz albums to grow his fan base may be doing unseen harm to the current Hawaiian music industry. The enormous focus on remixing, re-orchestrating, and refining more music from Iz?s catalogue, he says, is inhibiting local musicians, taking them off the radar and is ?doing a disservice to what is uniquely Hawaiian and particularly native Hawaiian about Israel?s life.”

The lingering question is the nature of Iz?s activism.

?Everyone I talked to who did not work for Mountain Apple was very clear that Iz had very strong pro sovereignty beliefs,? Kois says. That is not the story de Mello tells.

De Mello claims in the conversations between the two of them, Iz pointedly said he was not an activist.

?Iz was someone who wanted to help people, all people,? de Mello says. Citing the 100th anniversary of the overthrow in 1993, de Mello says Iz was ?writing songs as current events.? De Mello concedes that Iz frequently departed from what they discussed prior to performances, but that Iz knew how to ?cast a net and reel them in.?

If someone wanted to label Iz an activist, de Mello says it would be one for kids. In Iz?s 1996 Na Hoku Hanohano awards speech, de Mello recalls all he talked about was ?how kids needed to clean up, make a difference, be educated, and that they needed parents.?

Kois is unimpressed: ?It is in Jon?s interest from the most mercenary standpoint possible to maintain Iz as a character who is as appealing as possible to as broad an audience as possible. That doesn?t mean Iz wasn?t a political activist.”

Kois and Ferrigno say songs such as “Hawaii?78” clearly show Iz was not only trying to make a wonderful world, but a more just, accurate, and equitable one for Hawaiians. De Mello says “Hawaii ?78” is just a musing of what the kings and queens might think had they seen the Hawaii that had come after them—but it should not be construed as a call to action. Kois and Ferrigno say that?s a sanitized view.

?Iz was first an artist who then used his stature for an activist?s platform,? says Ferrigno. ?Iz was all Hawaiian and became an example of what a Hawaiian would do. He was 100 percent fully behind the sovereignty movement, but he wasn?t mean-spirited about it.?

Unkindness wasn?t part of the package, according to de Mello: ?Iz was about love, humanity, and people of any race.?

And, at least on that point, fans, Ferrigno and Kois can agree. 

Dan Kois and Robert Ferrigno spoke to Beth-Ann Kozlovich last week on Town Square; Jon de Mello was interviewed prior to airtime. The entire interview can be heard on the Hawaii Public Radio archive at www.hawaiipublicradio.org