Bruddah Iz – A Look At Ukulele Player Israel Kamakawiwoʻole

Bruddah Iz is one of the most iconic ukulele musicians who provided a resurgence in this unique instrument’s sound and influence in modern music. He was a famous Hawaiian singer, songwriter, musician, and Hawaiian sovereignty activist.

Bruddah Iz is famous for his fantastic performances of Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World. He is one of Hawaii’s most famous icons. His unique style included his beloved ukulele for playing Hawaiian music, folk, and traditional themes, which are still heard all around the world today. In addition, Iz dabbled in reggae, jazz, and even country as he incorporated his ukulele skills beyond the borders.

Although you can find five variations of the ukulele today, including soprano, concert, tenor, baritone, and bass, Bruddah Iz favored his Martin T1 Tenor ukulele. Some have said that he cradled his beloved instrument the day he died.

Iz included the Low-G tuning in his music while enabling him to use an extra five bass notes. Because this instrument only has four strings, this unique tuning provides an additional sound that is not available otherwise. 

Somewhere Over The Rainbow, His Classic Song

Bruddah Iz is often the first person that comes to mind when you mention the ukulele song, Somewhere Over the Rainbow. This iconic rendition combines Over the Rainbow, written by E.Y. Harburg, and What a Wonderful World, written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss.

On an impromptu recording session back in 1988 with Milan Bertosa, Bruddah Iz played and recorded this classic song. Although Milan did not want to keep the Honolulu recording studio open any longer, he agreed to a client’s phone request of allowing them to drop in. Within only 15 minutes, to Milan’s surprise, Iz completed this feat at 3 am, in only one take.

This single sat in a desk drawer for the next five years until Bruddah prepared a solo album. It ended up being part of his Facing Future album released in 1993, on the recommendation of his producer, Jon de Mello. He felt that adding a simple melody that Iz enjoyed playing for fun would be a unique perspective. As it turns out, this mashup of these two songs that Bruddah Iz played gave him much notoriety outside of the Hawaiian borders.

Bruddah Iz’s rendition of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ gained momentum in 1993 after featuring an excerpt in a Toys “R” Us commercial. Since then, his version has made appearances in many other advertisements, movies, and television shows.

Earlier in 2021, the song Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World joined the Library of Congress (LOC) for the National Recording Registry. Not only does this piece give the LOC an iconic piece of recording history of a song that millions have heard, but it also exemplifies the Hawaiian culture and talent from the mainland.

This song was featured in the 2014 Pixar short film Lava and used Iz’s rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and his life as partial inspiration.

What Is Bruddah Iz’s Real Name?

Bruddah Iz’s real name is Israel Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole and is pronounced Ka-MA-ka-VEE-vo-oh-lay. His last name in Hawaiian means’ the fearless eye, the bold face,’ or ‘the fearless-eyed man.’ He is the youngest child of his parents, Hank and Angie Kamakawiwoʻole, who had another son, Skippy.

Where Is Israel Kamakawiwoʻole From?

Israel Kamakawiwoʻole was born May 20, 1959, to Henry Kaleialoha Naniwa Kamakawiwoʻole Jr. and Evangeline Leinani Kamakawiwoʻole at the Kuakini Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. He was raised in the Kaimuki neighborhood of Honolulu. Both of Israel’s parents were native to Hawaii.

While in his early teen years, his family relocated to Mākaha, where he continued his studies. It was here he met three other gentlemen who would eventually make up the rest of the Makaha Sons of Niʻihau group with Iz and his brother Skippy.

Unfortunately, Israel’s older brother, Skippy, lost his life in 1982 from complications due to obesity at the young age of 28.

Iz’s Historic Rise in Music

Israel came from musical roots, as his uncle, Moe Keale, was a notable Hawaiian musician himself. Consequently, Iz’s other cousin, Bill Keale, is also a musician. Bruddah Iz learned to play the ukulele at the young age of six, and it became a common element of his life as he grew.

At only 11 years old, Iz began playing and singing music with his older brother and his cousin, Allen Thornton. Together, they performed in public and on tourist catamarans.

Because both of Bruddah Iz’s parents worked in an establishment where there were talented musicians, such as Don Ho, Peter Moon, and Palani Vaughn, exposure to music was abundant. Together with his older brother Skippy, cousin Allen, and three others, including Sam Gray, Jerome Koko, and Louis Kauakahi, they formed the Makaha Sons of Niʻihau and became part of the Hawaiian Renaissance.

It did not take long for the group to become popular throughout Hawaii and the rest of the United States. Creating 15 studio albums, the Makaha Sons of Niʻihau made music that blended contemporary and traditional Hawaiian sounds that were true to their heritage.

The band continued to play and entertain until Skippy joined the Army in 1971 and Allen left for the mainland. Israel decided to continue with his musical career, and many are thankful for that choice.

A Hawaiian musician, Del Beazley fondly remembers the first time he heard Bruddah Iz perform at a graduation ceremony. He makes mention of how his voice could grab the attention of everyone in a room.

Although Bruddah Iz dropped out of school as a teenager and dabbled in substance abuse, his love of music prevailed. It brought joy to many and opened the conversation for Hawaiian heritage and identity as a whole.

How Much Did Bruddah Iz Weigh?

Bruddah Iz’s weight was also a common feature of conversation for many who spoke of him. His larger-than-life-size matched his personality, leaving a great impression on anyone he met. Although he stood at an impressive 6 feet, 2 inches tall, he suffered from weight problems and obesity throughout his lifetime.

Even as a teenager, he was hundreds of pounds, a trait that his brother and other family members also carried. They all shared a thyroid condition that contributed to excessive weight gain. Sadly, Iz’s father asked him to break the cycle of family obesity that was prevalent, only to have himself suffer as well during his life.

At one point, Bruddah Iz’s weight topped at 757 pounds, consequently measuring a 97.2 body mass index. Because of his massive weight, he was plagued with chronic health problems, including respiratory disease and cardiac troubles. Thus, this obesity required him to seek out hospitalization on several occasions.

During his final years, Bruddah could not perform and required an oxygen tank with him wherever he went. He had problems standing on stage and took up swimming as a way to try and maintain movement even with his severe weight.

Who Was Bruddah Iz’s Wife?

Bruddah Iz married Marlene Ah Lo in 1982 when Iz was 23 and Marlene was 20 years old. Together, they remained husband and wife for 15 years until Iz’s death in 1997.   

Marlene Kamakawiwoʻole and Israel had one daughter together, Ceslieanne ‘Wehi’ Kamakawiwo’ole, born in 1983. As of 2021, Ceslieanne has married and has five children of her own. These grandchildren of Iz’s know their grandfather’s legacy even though they have never met him.

Marlene continues to live a quiet life as a widow. She has remained away from the spotlight and media attention since the passing of her husband.

Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s Death And Funeral

Israel Kamakawiwoʻole's Death And Funeral


Israel entered the hospital in Honolulu in June for medical issues and regrettably passed away from respiratory complications due to obesity on June 26, 1997, at the young age of 38 years. The death of Bruddah Iz touched thousands of people in the state of Hawaii and the world, along with his grieving widow and child.

The state of Hawaii flew its flag at half-mast on the day of Israel’s funeral. This gesture was a high honor that the capital recognized only two older individuals in this way, and both were members of the Hawaiian government.

His koa wood coffin was hand-made by 50 friends and relatives with materials from all the islands. He sat in ‘lay in state’ within the state capitol building afterward. This rare honor allowed thousands of fans who wanted to pay their respects to a man who brought so much to Hawaiian culture and heritage.

Approximately 10,000 people attended the funeral of this iconic man, each waiting hours for a chance to pass by and offer flowers, photos, and gifts to the ushers. His wife, Marlene, and daughter, Ceslieanne, sat beside the coffin under a 50-foot Hawaiian flag and a giant portrait of Iz having his hair brushed by Marlene.

Later that day, a celebratory concert began to honor Bruddah Iz’s life and continued into the night.

Days after, Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s body was cremated with his beloved vintage Martin ukulele that he used to record the iconic Somewhere Over the Rainbow song. A Hawaiian voyaging canoe then carried his ashes, a tradition of his heritage. His wife, Marlene, producer Jon de Mello, and longtime friend, Del Beazley, were among the passengers on board.

His remains then traveled to his final resting place on the west side of O’ahu, at Makua Beach. As they scattered the ashes in the waves of the Pacific Ocean just a few yards from shore, cheers and splashing from those in attendance ensued while Marlene dived into the water for one last swim with Israel. Other family members and friends soon followed.

Hundreds of vehicles lined the highways of the coast, passing by and honking their horns to pay homage to the great man who is known as ‘the Voice of Hawaii.’ These sounds echoed through the surrounding mountain ranges as a tribute to Bruddah Iz’s life.

Each year, on the anniversary of his death, Marlene and family members and friends began a tradition to swim with Israel at his final resting place.

The Bruddah Iz Statue

Hawaii recognizes Israel Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole as a state treasure. Consequently, in 2003, Hawaii revealed a bronze bust statue to commemorate his life and legacy left behind. Hundreds of family, friends, and fans came out to its unveiling.

Sculptor Jan-Michelle Sawyer created this 200-pound memorial sculpture that sits on a cement pedestal in the Waianae Neighborhood Community Center on O’ahu. It is a reminder of what a significant presence Israel was for Hawaii and its residents.

Sawyer included a fishhook that hung from his neck to symbolize the magic hook of Hawaii legends. Maui, the ‘Hawaiian Sup’pa Man,’ was foretold to use this magic hook to pull up the Hawaiian Islands, which Israel covered in one of his hit songs. Consequently, shortly after the statue’s unveiling, someone stole the hook. Jan-Michelle promptly recreated it and welded it to the figure so it could not be stolen again.

Donations poured in from all around the world, which helped cover the costs for this impressive piece of work. So much more, in fact, that contributions were excessive enough to have money leftover to forward to talented musical students going to college. The Friends of Bruddah Iz organization also purchased and donated 15 hand-made ukuleles for the Nanakuli Boys & Girls Club. 

Bruddah Iz’s Achievements and Accolades

The achievements of Bruddah Iz stretched across his musical career. Anyone who met Iz was instantly captivated by his mild manner and breathtaking voice. 

In 1990, Israel released a solo album, Ka ‘Ano’i, bringing him the Best Contemporary Album of the Year award from the Hawai’i Academy of Recording Arts. Consequently, they also bestowed him with the Male Vocalist of the Year during that time.

His Facing Future album in 1993 rose to achieve platinum status as the first Hawaiian album to do so. With such a quick rise to popularity, in 1994, Bruddah Iz was declared the Favorite Entertainer of the Year. Facing Future is still one of the highest-selling albums of any Hawaiian artist of all time.

In 1997, Bruddah Iz put forth his E Ala E album, which would bring him numerous more accolades. These recognitions included:

  • Album of the Year
  • Island Contemporary Album of the Year
  • Male Vocalist of the Year
  • Favorite Entertainer of the Year

Although Bruddah was continuously battling health problems, he continued to make more music that his fans received wholeheartedly. In 2001, Iz released Alone in Iz World, and it debuted as #1 in the Billboard’s World Chart. This impressive feat coupled with being #13 in the Top Independent charts, #15 in Top Internet Album Sales, and #135 in the Top 200. This album was certified gold as it gained momentum.

During his solo music career, Israel Kamakawiwoʻole released four studio albums between 1990 and 1997. Four compilation albums followed after his death, between 1998 and 2011, which continues to bring joy and music to people worldwide, even after he has passed. 

NPR (National Public Radio) named Israel ‘The Voice of Hawaii’ in 2010, even long after his death, as part of their 50 Great Voices series. Then in 2011, the Echo Music Prize, the German national music award, was awarded to him, which was accepted on his behalf by his music managers, Jon de Mello and Wolfgang Boss.

In 2020, Google created a doodle featuring Israel Kamakawiwoʻole to honor his birthday and recognize Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the United States. So, of course, the artist Sophie Diao collaborated with Israel’s wife, Marlene, and his producer, Jon, for how the doodle should portray Iz. So naturally, his widow spoke of his love for life and the happiness of the world around him.

As Bruddah Iz’s music continues to reach the far ends of the earth, there is no telling what other accolades will come in the future.

Bruddah Iz, a Hawaiian’s Independence Rights Activist

Bruddah Iz was more than a Hawaiian musician. He was incredibly proud of his Hawaiian heritage and saw a need for more music that resembled this element as a positive reflection of his culture. Unfortunately, at the time, much of the Hawaiian music that outsiders associated with Hawaii did not include this. So Iz strived to change this perception.

He continuously championed Hawaiian sovereignty, and his music reflected this in many ways. His interest in using political lyrics within his songs became a theme for many of his albums, making them popular with the locals. In addition, many fans identified with his need for sovereignty and finding their identity and culture.

Because of the high tourism industry, Hawaiian citizens were often seen as second-class citizens, and Iz fought to change this perception. For example, Israel used the state motto in his songs to help gain attention for independence and cultural identity.

Political songs like Hawai’i ’78 portrayed lyrics describing how their ancestors would not be happy with the current changes in their land. In addition, he was known for urging environmental issues to the forefront and respect for the surroundings while warning about dangers from freeways and other economic development in the area.

Bruddah Iz, Final Thoughts

To this day, Hawaii and its residents consider Israel Kamakawiwo’ole as having one of the biggest impacts on the music industry and Hawaiian culture. He brought attention to the people’s heritage, their love of life, and their struggles.

His love for the ukulele and including this instrument with various music niches has brought widespread popularity to his homeland and this tool for beautiful melodies. With his grace and talent, more people listen to his music each year and entertain the notion of learning to play the ukulele.

Although Bruddah Iz sadly passed away before he got to see the height of his fame, he still remains one of the top influences for Hawaiian music and ukulele fans everywhere.