Twenty years Facing Future

Date
Text Will Caron

Just over twenty years ago, Israel "Bruddah Iz" Kamakawiwo'ole, already an important part of the Hawaiian renaissance and a famous entertainer in the islands, released his first album with Mountain Apple Company. The record, Facing Future, is still the best-selling record of all time by a Hawaiian artist, and introduced to the world both Iz and contemporary Hawaiian music.

Israel was a champion in the struggle to preserve Hawaiian music and culture. Even after he passed away in the summer of 1997, he remained an inspiration, beloved by the people of Hawai'i. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Facing Future in November 2013, Summit sat down to talk with Mountain Apple Company's Jon de Mello about the seminal work and the incredible musical talent and indelible influence that was Bruddah Iz.

Summit (S): What made Israel so special as a musician and as a cultural icon?

Jon de Mello (JM): Israel was very concerned with humanity. He loved people, especially children. He was a kid magnet. And he loved doing his craft for those people. A common comment I'll get is, "When I listen to Israel's music, it hits my heart first and then I hear it after." And he does have one of those mellow, just beautiful, resonating voices that connects to individual people.

I think that's really his key: the love of people. He could speak to people and they could hear it and understand the meaning behind it, even if they couldn't understand the language he was speaking to them in. I think that was one the greatest things about him.

S: Israel began playing music at a very young age. Then in the late '70s and '80s he was with the Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau before going solo with your help. What was his impact on contemporary Hawaiian music during his career, both in terms of the music itself and also in terms of popularizing it as a genre?

JM: He was from a very musical family. Everyone played an instrument, from piano to bass fiddle to 'ukulele to guitar. They didn't have toys or games or the big TVs we have today, so after dinner they would go in the parlor and play music together. So as a very small kid, he started absorbing. And at about 5 years old they gave him an 'ukulele and he never put it down; it was like welded to his body.

Then, because his parents worked there, he would hang out at Steamboats—a very famous club in Waikīkī—and he would just be around these masters. Eddie Kamae and the Sons of Hawai'i, all these great musicians. They probably thought he was just some punk kid in the corner, but that punk kid in the corner was paying attention to what they were doing. He would try to imitate them, which is what we all do until you get to a certain stage and launch your own spaceship. In only about 10 years, he was skilled enough to do that, and joined the Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau.

Skippy, Israel's older brother, was the leader and the conceptual developer of that group, and they had these very smooth three- or four-part harmonies—very traditional, but with an increasingly contemporary edge. At the time, everybody was doing that—it was part of the Hawaiian renaissance, which Eddie Kamae and Gabby Pahinui started in the late '40s—and it just morphed into this new kind of Hawaiian music. But the Makaha Sons had an enormous impact, and Israel really changed Hawaiian music forever, even before he branched out on his own. And at that point, when he really wanted to produce and organize his own music, he came to me.

S: So how did you become the producer for Bruddah Iz?

JM: Well, Israel and I knew each other quite well, since we were kids. He would come to our Lei Day concerts with the Brothers Cazimero at the Waikīkī Shell and we would talk from time to time. Then there came a period when Israel was turning up in the hospital about three times a year. During one of his stays, I got a call from Israel asking me to come over and talk to him because he wanted to leave the Makaha Sons and go solo.

So I get to the hospital and there's a crowd of people—standing room only—stuffed into his room and pouring out into the hallway. He was propped up in his bed, no shirt on, playing an 'ukulele and everyone was listening.

We probably met for four or five hours, and I spent the first two trying to convince him to change his mind about leaving the band. Because, again, the effect the Makaha Sons had on Hawaiian music was astounding. And also because it's just hard for an artist to come out of a group and become a giant on his own—it doesn't happen all that often. But he knew what he wanted.

He could be stubborn at times, but he was also pliable. He would listen to my opinion, and I would help guide him. His premise was that he wanted to tap my experience, but make some of the important conceptual decisions for himself. So that was the summer of '93, and by November we had released Facing Future.


Jon de Mello founded Mountain Apple Company in 1974. | Jimmy Edens

S: You have an interesting way of recording artists—you'll often sit in the recording booth right in front of the artist as they record. Why is that important, and how did it influence the dynamic you had with Israel?

JM: Yes, I'll do that with a lot of different artists, even today. But I would tend to sit about 2 feet in front of him so I could help him with words or chord structures or whatever he needed, and he became accustomed to that. In fact, sometimes he would have trouble with a song—and he used to call me Yoda—and he would say, "Yoda, come in here, I can't do this," and I would go in the booth and sit and, sure enough, then he could do it. He would always close his eyes and tilt his head back when he would record. We would never use a click track: always free time. I actually tried putting a click track against him, but his music became very boxy and restricted.

And a lot of times, especially in the old days, I was acting as both the engineer and the producer on a track. So Israel and I would be sitting right next to each other and I would have my hand on the transport. I'd say we need one little bar adjusted and he'd try it again, and while he's trying it out I'm already pushing record. So by the time he thinks he's ready to record, I've already got what we needed and we can move on. So it was a way to be more symbiotic as well as quicker during our recording sessions.

The first day of recording, I brought him a blank notebook and I told him to go home that night and write down every song he'd ever sung, ever thought about singing and ever wanted to sing. I told him to write down lyrics, ideas—everything. And he did. He practically filled that notebook up with wonderful ideas about the music he wanted to make. So he really got into the preparation and brainstorming involved in making an album, which was part of putting as much decision-making in his hands as possible. He would be the first to say, "I'm not doing this alone," but I was really trying to just steer him in the right direction rather than tell him what to do. Our mantra was "Keep it simple, keep it Hawaiian," and we pretty much accomplished that. It was a lot of work, but a lot of fun at the same time.

S: Where did the name Facing Future come from, and what did it mean to Israel?

JM: At that time I had a house and a studio up in Palehua, about 6 miles above Makakilo, above what is now the Ko'olina resort in forest reserve land. It was at about 3,000 feet above sea level; looking down on Pearl Harbor and Diamond Head is like a postage stamp. On a perfect day you could count the islands all the way to Hawai'i because of the height. It was 10 degrees cooler up there, and it was just a great place to release creativity.

Israel stayed up there with me for about a week to do some recording, and one beautiful, sunny day in the middle of the week I said, "It's time to take some photos for the album cover." So I had him do all the classic poses and looks for album covers: I ended up taking 87 different photographs. If I knew then what I know now I would have taken 887 photographs, but this was before digital cameras were available, so 87 felt like a lot of photos to develop.

So about half way through the shoot, I had this giant pahu—and it is giant. I can't lift it; I had to roll it around. It's probably 3 feet across at the head, 3 and a half feet tall—looks like a little drum when Israel would stand next to it, but it was a big pahu drum. I had him pose with it, and while he was playing the pahu, standing around it, just trying different things, I told him to turn around and face Diamond Head and took about six different shots of him from behind at different angles.

Once we got the film developed, we started looking at what we had. And we had some beautiful photos of him. His skin was this beautiful shade of brown because he spent multiple hours each day in the pool getting as much exercise as he could. An absolutely gorgeous tan, and these 87 photos captured that wonderfully. And when we got to the shots of him facing Diamond Head we paused. I said, "You know, it looks like you're facing something—perhaps it's your future. Maybe that's the name of the album: Facing Future." And he went, "Wow, that's cool."


Summit interviewed de Mello in the Mountain Apple recording studio on Ala Moana Blvd. | Jimmy Edens

S: The album is both happy and sad. You've got playful songs like "Henehene Kou 'Aka." You've got interesting cultural fusions like "Maui, Hawaiian Sup'pa Man." You've got songs of longing like "Kaulana Kawaihae," and even completely tragic songs like "La 'Elima." Where did that diversity of emotion within the album come from, and does it represent, to any extent, Hawaiian culture coming out of the renaissance?

JM: It certainly does. It certainly represents the Hawaiian culture in his life. The song collection was really based on a narrative of his life. Some of the bumps and depressions along the road, but also some of the things he loved and had fun with. He had a great sense of humor. Del Beazley, the writer of "Maui, Hawaiian Sup'pa Man"—if those two got together you'd best stand back because the jokes would be flying back-and-forth. But yeah, there are really playful, fun songs on the album and there are really deep, heavy songs as well, often representing specific moments in his life.

It really represents the scope of his love for his fellow Hawaiians. He was truly someone that loved his brothers and sisters. And to him—he didn't see racial or ethnic lines as important—so to him Hawaiian could mean more than an ethnicity. I think he thought that if you were amalgamated or assimilated into Hawaiian culture and you shared a respect for the land and the values of Hawai'i, you were Hawaiian, regardless of your ethnic makeup.

We all have our own playlists, right? We remember where we were in our lives the first time we heard a really meaningful song. These three-minute vignettes we call songs are the soundtrack to our lives. Facing Future was Israel's: happy, sad, intense, light-hearted.

S: His medley of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow / What a Wonderful World" became a huge success and contributed a lot to the album's wide reach. Ironic considering it was a last-minute decision to include it at all, correct?

JM: That song was number 13 out of 14 on the album. It was also recorded several years before I even began working with Israel, during a late-night session. Israel called an engineer and said, "I've got this idea and I need to record it." And the engineer was tired already—he'd been recording all day—but he said, "Israel, if you can be here in 10 minutes I'll give you some time and we can do it." So Israel walked into the studio, did one take of the medley and walked right back out.

S: And that cut is the version that's on the album?

JM: Yep, that's the one. At the last moments during our production of Facing Future, that same engineer handed me the cut they had made and said, "This is Israel's song and you need to listen to it." So I did, and then I played it for Israel and he was kind of indifferent about it. He thought it was kind of cool, but I had to sort of talk him into including it on the album. I think he felt like it was old material and he wasn't, initially, very excited about it. He was also the first to point out that he wasn't singing the right words or using the right chords in some places. But I told him that didn't matter because it was his version of the song, and it was really good.

His musical abilities were fantastic. For a big guy, he had relatively small hands, and his 'ukulele strumming was classic; he would just get in a groove and lock in on it. And that night he was just in the right moment and—boom—one take and he had this amazing song.

S: In the past 20 years, how far has that song spread across the world?

JM: It really took about a year for it to catch on at first. His initial big hit from the album was "Maui, Hawaiian Sup'pa Man," and then there were a few others too that got radio play before "Over the Rainbow" did. But it's gone completely around the world in the past two decades. We get cards and letters from Third-World countries that are still discovering him. For a long time people abroad didn't realize he had passed.

S: Really?

JM: We'd get letters from people about to come vacation here asking how they could make sure to get a chance to watch Israel perform live. And we'd have to write back telling them that he wasn't with us anymore.

But it's been in all kinds of movies and commercials all around the world. People hear that opening strumming and they instantly know it's Israel. It's the all-time biggest carrier of Hawaiian music across the globe. It's also the golden goose for the music publisher in New York, EMI Music [founded in 1931 as Electric and Musical Industries Ltd]. At one time it was the most popular song in the world according to the Guinness Book of World Records. And we met the lady that takes care of the music for that song in New York, and she told us that Israel's version of the song was, by far, the most requested piece of music for licensing in movies and commercials that EMI has ever had. She said that in one more generation, no one will remember Judy Garland. Everyone will think that Israel did it first.

Courtesy Mountain Apple Company

S: "Hawai'i '78" is probably his most popular song today in Hawai'i. It's still capable of bringing on fits of chicken skin as well as tight throats and teary eyes with its powerful lyrics, which include the state motto, and Israel's commanding delivery. What did people think when they first heard that song?

JM: They were stunned. When we were recording up at Palehua one night—it was probably 1 a.m. and he was about to go to sleep in his bungalow outside the house—but I said, "Listen, there's one more thing I need you to listen to."

Now, one of the techniques I used to use with Israel was I would record after-session conversations between us. I would sit him down and ask him a question and then shut up and just listen to him talk while I recorded it. I would ask him personal things about his father and mother or about Skippy. And he would look at me kind of funny and say, "What do you mean? You knew Skippy better than you know me." And I would say, "Yeah, but I want to hear it from you." So I have probably 60 or 70 hours of him just talking after our sessions for Facing Future. Well, I took all of those stories, cut out specific pieces from them and fit them in the space where the verses of "Hawai'i '78" would normally go.

S: And that's where the intro comes from?

JM: That's where the intro comes from. But he hadn't heard it yet. I did that all on my own. So late that night I turned it on for him. And he needed to hear it then because we had to move quickly to get the album finished on time.

So I pushed the green button and then put my head down to let him have his space while he heard this for the first time. During the last few bars I turned and looked up at him sitting in his chair, and he's kind of trembling. And at first I thought I had freaked him out—or worse, that he was having some kind of a stroke or heart attack—and how are we going to get an ambulance up here at this time of night? Then all of a sudden he looked up at me and he was sobbing. He was wiped out by it, and he said, "Yoda, play it again. I want to hear it again." I must have played it over and over until the sun came up. He was blown away by it.

But it is a very popular song and a very moving song. It has a real mystic aspect to it and makes you really think what the ali'i would think if they came back and saw our current way of life.

Courtesy Mountain Apple Company

S: It's sort of become the anthem for Hawaiian culture and also for Hawaiian sovereignty. Israel's influence on the Hawaiian renaissance was both musical and political. What did preserving Hawaiian culture mean to him? How important was that?

JM: Very important. We tended to keep politics and religion separate from music when we talked, but he did feel very strongly about both. Now, because of his size and his mobility issues he couldn't really go out there and demonstrate with the other Hawaiians that felt similarly in '93, like when they had the 'Onipa'a events at 'Iolani Palace to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the overthrow.

But there were lots of people that he would talk on the phone to try to inspire and encourage to stand their ground on protecting Hawaiian culture. Those people, and Israel too, wanted a say in their own future. I think that's really what Israel was about. Protecting the depth of what Hawaiian people have to offer. And they do have a lot to offer the world.

I don't know that he really thought in terms of sovereignty—actually pulling away from the United States. That was still a fairly new idea. I think Israel, and Hawaiians in general at that time really just wanted a say in the ceded lands and other things that had been taken away from them.

But he was never nasty toward anyone. He never blamed Caucasians living here for the missionaries coming and throwing Hawaiians into the church system. He wasn't bitter about that—to him that was a part of his history too.

S: That comes through very strongly in his music.

JM: It does. He really was one of a kind. A major question I get asked all the time is who do I see as the next Israel and, honestly, I don't know that there ever will be someone else like him. He would say, "I'm full Hawaiian, except for a skoshi bit Japanese." But he was the closest thing to a pure Hawaiian giving a pure Hawaiian message to the world in a simple but powerful way. And 20 years later, the world is still responding to the message he presented through his music on this album.

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