Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole

Sometimes I wonder what is point of people re-recording songs. If there is a definitive recording of a song that millions of people love then why bother record it again. Often covers of song only work off the fact that we love the original version so much and not on the quality of the performance itself.

Sometimes however a cover song says something different, something surprising, and something fresh about songs that we already know. These songs are like revelations that change the way we experience the original piece of art and creates an independent piece of art building off our prior experiences with the original recordings to create something unforgettable.

One of the best examples of this is “Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World” by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole.

Israel (often referred to as Iz) is one of the most beloved and respected Hawaiian musicians. He was a master ukulele player who melding traditional Hawaiian styles of music with jazz and reggae. He started his career as a member of Makaha Sons of Ni'i a which was the most popular Hawaiian group through the 1980s. In 1990, Iz started his solo career and in 1993 he released his second album Facing Future that featured “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World.” This album was a critical and commercial success not only in Hawaii but also beyond as the first Hawaiian album that was certified platinum

Iz died in 1997 due to issues relating to his severe obesity. When he died, the Hawaiian state flag was flown at half-mast. Iz was only the third person in Hawaiian history to receiver this honor and the only non-politician. Over 10,000 people attended his funeral and people mourned him throughout the island.

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” is a medley of two of most beloved and well-known songs in American culture. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow" written for the film, The Wizard Of Oz and sung by Judy Garland is considered by the some the greatest American song ever written. It is quintessential “I Want” song and speaks reflects the hopes and dreams of Americans across generations. Dorothy, facing a dust bowl tormented Kansas farm during the 1930's, wishes for something better. In reality, we all know that the story of her character probably only faced more struggle and heartache. This hope in the face of hardship is a remarkable characteristic we all strive for.

"What A Wonderful World" a song made famous of Louis Armstrong, one of the greatest Jazz musicians, was created in response to the politically and racially charged climate of the 1960s. Louis Armstrong, an artist with cross-racial appeal, seemed like the perfect artist to remind American that even at the worst of times there is beauty to be thankful for. This song is a reflective statement reminding us of simple everyday joys in life that we so often for granted.

Both of these songs feature unique and remarkable singing voices: Judy Garland with here 17-year old country accent and Louis Armstrong with his gravely charm. The originally recordings of these songs also feature beautiful orchestra arrangements. These performances include a wide array of instrumentals artfully arranged. And it these two distinctive musical elements that Iz changes to add his own personal meaning to these songs.

Iz’s voice is remarkable. It feels Hawaiian in the way that his voice is airy and the slight bounce with the way he sings each note. He glides effortless through the notes dipping into a rich dark chest voice while floating up to higher brighter tones. Iz’s voice is like the arms of a grandmother holding a newborn grandchild. There is strength, softness, care, joy and love is those arms. Iz’s voice holds us making us believe in a way that only a grandmother can.

Musical instrument evolve and develop within styles of music. A darker, angrier style of singing would sound silly with an acoustic guitar but works perfectly with a distorted electric guitar sound. Iz’s voice, gentle and soft works so well with the ukulele because it’s a lighter and gentle sound does not overpower Iz’s voice. Iz’s ukulele playing works around the same basic rhythmic pattern. He uses different arrangements of the same chords to bring out different notes in the harmony. Iz’s playing creates a relaxed rhythmic groove that draws the listener in and prepares them for a beautiful artistic experience.

Iz makes a few change to the each of the songs. One of the things that he changes in “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” is the first two notes. Iz does not sing the longing leap that make people instantly recognize “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” but instead stays on the same pitch. We instantly realize that this is a more reflective and less longing rendition of the song.

In “What A Wonderful World” he ends the first verse of the song on an unresolved pitch on the word “world.” On that word, he also changes the chord adding a darker color before resolving this harmony in the beginning of the next phrase. He seems to end the phrase with a question mark, which brings more momentum into the next section while Iz flows through harmony with his rising vocal line. By asking us if we are in a wonderful place, he brings us into a reflective state to truly enjoy what we have to be thankful for.

This song takes the optimism of the "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and takes it a step further. It’s saying that even though things are great, we still can hope for more. It’s not ungrateful but more a reflection of reality of our world.

I know that the world will never be perfect. I know there will always be people on this world who will not have their basic human needs met. I know even if everyone is as lucky as I am to have what I do that some people will be still be in great pain. But I believe we all want everyone to be happy, to have their dreams fulfilled and to reach that place over the rainbow. We do live in a wonderful world, but they should not make us complacent. In dreaming about a better world we can’t forget to be grateful for the things that we have and in thinking about all that we have we can’t forget that there is something better we can always strive for in our world, in our relationships and in ourselves.


  1. I really like this approach--see how the songs differ from the originals. I think you did a great job of bringing out how the changes make the songs more meaningful. And I really do love this song...

  2. I looooooooove this song. That is all.