“Why did you buy a ukulele if you couldn’t play it?”
“I’ve always wanted to learn,” Gwen admitted, shifting to the much easier C chord. “It was only $20, it was on sale. It’s not the world’s best ukulele ––”
She shifted into F, followed by A-minor, but the latter chord had a rogue note stuck into it. Gwen held out the uke to observe her fingers.
“I see that” Eleanor commented.
“That was me,” Gwen said, referring to the note. “Maybe if I can curve my thumb around under the neck…”
Gwen figured out the fingerings, and the A-minor chord came out freely. She continued strumming. “Okay, let me try this,” she said, focusing. Quickly, she strummed in order: C, A-minor, F, C, F, C, G, A-minor, F…
She reached out to scroll down the page on her laptop. “I think that’s all the chords I need,” she said.
“To do what?”
“This.” Gwen sat back, with her eyes on the screen. She began strumming in rhythm, through a series of familiar chord changes. Then, after a moment, she sang.
“Oooooh-Oooh Oooooh-Oooh…Oooh Oooh Oooooh…Oooh Oooh Oooooh…”
Eleanor, knowing what came next, joined in: “Some…where…over the rainbow…way up high…”
“And…the…dreams that you dare to…oh why, oh why, can’t I-I-I?” Gwen sang.
“That’s not the next lyric,” Eleanor said. “Isn’t it, ‘Birds fly over the rainbow…'”
“No, he messes up the lyrics in the recording,” Gwen said. “On the Israel Kamakawiwo’ole version, the slow Hawaiian version. He sings the lyrics wrong.”
“I hate that version,” came the voice from the other room.Both Eleanor and Gwen looked towards the door to Dania’s room.
“Why do you ––” Eleanor began to say, before Gwen stopped her. Tiptoeing over to the door, Gwen paused, then began to strum aggressively towards the door, singing along.
“Someday I’ll wish upon a star, wake up where the clouds are far behind…”
Dania yanked the door open, standing face to face with Gwen. The tense moment lasted until Gwen strummed a final F chord, and sang, “Me-e-e-e.”
“Stop it,” Dania said, uncharacteristically curt.
“Are you actually mad, Dania?” Eleanor asked.
“I just really hate that version of the song,” Dania said. “He gets all the lyrics wrong, he’s playing it like a luau, it’s just super cheesy and I don’t like it.”
“Fair, I guess,” Eleanor said. Gwen had walked back and into the chair, strumming idly. “But that’s his style. You listen to his other songs, it’s a lot of ukulele and crooning – he’s a Hawai’ian national treasure.”
“What’s his name? Oz?”
“Oz would be more appropriate, considering.”
“It’s not all the same,” Gwen said. “If you listen to his album, he varies the songs quite a bit. The backing tracks include synth, guitars, steel drums…not every song sounds like ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow.’ And a lot of it is sung in Hawaiian. It’s definitely authentic.”
“Is it, though?” Eleanor asked. “When he’s got a song from The Wizard of Oz on there.”
“In a very Hawaiian style.”
“I mean, I won’t condemn from ignorance,” Eleanor said. “But when you think about Hawaiian musicians, he is the standard one people think of.”
“Besides Elvis,” Dania added. “Blue Hawaii.”
“Elvis never actually visited Hawai’i,” Gwen said. “Look, I’ll burn you copies of the CD, you can both listen to it. Cool?”
“Fine by me,” Dania said. “But I’m skipping that song when I get to it.”
Gwen smiled. “Then I suppose I’ll have to play it more around you to make up for it.” She strummed the ukulele again.
– – – – –
It was on the “L” Train that Eleanor began listening to Iz’s album Future Facing, which Gwen had shared. The first song, “Hawai’i ’78 Introduction,” began with a distinctly mystical series of arpeggiated chords over a distant, invoking voice. After more time than she expected, setting the mood of the song, Iz’s voice cut in.
“Ua mau, ke ea o ka aina, i ka pono, o Hawai’i…”
Eleanor cocked an ear. She would have no reference or ability to translate the Hawai’ian in the songs, and so paid special attention to Iz’s vibrantly expressive voice. This chanting – harmonized with his own voice – suddenly melted away to the spoken English word.
“I feel free now, you know? I was just confined like, you know? My Mom was born on Ni’ihau. My Dad was born here.”
Iz moved on to discuss his father: an employee of the Navy and PWCA Public Works, who died of a heart attack when Iz was only 10 years old. “But every once in a while, he come
back you know,” Iz assured. “I was on the same course he was going. And he knew that too. And that’s why he came back and tell me – ‘No be scared. There’s people here for help you, brah‘.
“I still believe if he had called me he’d be alive,” he added, as the light arpeggios trailed along unhindered. “‘Cause he died of a broken heart, brah.”
The singing returned, a mournful request to “cry for the gods / cry for the people / cry for the land that was taken away.” And, to Eleanor’s absolute astonishment, she reached a gloved hand up to her eyes to soak away a running tear.
– – – – –
“How did you like Future Facing?” Gwen asked. It was a week or so later, and the trio was on their way to the theatre, when Gwen posed the question.
Eleanor didn’t immediately answer, but let her silence defer the question to Dania.
“It’s okay,” Dania said. “Basically all of it is in Hawaiian, so it was hard to follow what the songs were about.”
“I don’t think that means you can’t enjoy them regardless,” Gwen cautioned. “There’s more to each song than the lyrics.”
“Well, duh,” Dania said. “The whole shtick is the ukulele and his voice. He’s got this big, open voice, it almost sounds like he’s swallowing the words as he sings them. But I will definitely say, the fact that some of the songs have full-on synth was weird.”
Gwen laughed. “Yes, the so-called ‘Jawaiian’ songs, Hawaiian reggae? I enjoy ‘Hawaiian Suppa Man’ particularly, although there’s no getting around the fact that, in a post-Moana world, he’s essentially recapping the plot of ‘You’re Welcome.'”
“Yeah, I noticed that,” Dania said. “Talking about hooking the islands and pulling them up, capturing the sun, so on and so on.”
“As I said, it’s a hugely varied album,” Gwen continued. “You’ve got your traditional Hawaiian folk songs, a few hapa haole songs like “White Sandy Beach of Hawai’i…'”
“That one I liked, it was cute.”
“And then two covers of non-Hawaiian artists, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and the inexplicable ‘Take Me Home, Country Road’ cover.”
Dania recollected the song in her mind – more synth backing, with a chorus of female voices, the only ones on the album. Despite the anomalic presence of the song on the CD, Iz had performed it with all the same passion he had for the album’s other fourteen tracks – though no songs measured up to the passion of the opener and closer.
“I was wondering what he was going to do when he got to the lyric, ‘West Virginia,'” Eleanor spoke up. “But of course he changed it to something more Hawaiian. West Makaha, which I assume is in Hawai’i.”
“It is,” Gwen said. “They have a statue of him there. I looked it up, he actually alters most of the lyrics in “Take Me Home, Country Road” in order to make it not about West Virginia anymore.”
“Wouldn’t he have to?” Dania said. “There’s not a lot of sandy beaches in West Virginia.”
“He could have sung it straight,” Gwen said. “He didn’t technically have to change it.”
“Maybe his lyric changes in ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ are intended, too,” Dania added, crossing her legs. “But it still sounds like him forgetting the words.”
“Maybe,” Eleanor said. “Although, I was thinking about it. I absolutely adore the closer, ‘Hawai’i ’78.’ You remember that one?”
“Barely,” Dania said. “I might have skipped over it, it was kinda slow.”
“Well,” Eleanor said, embittered. “If you listen to the lyrics – just the English ones, I didn’t translate the rest – it’s all about how the island had its culture and government stripped away when they got annexed in 1902. There’s a strange darkness lurking beneath the serene exterior of the song, and that’s even before you get into the father dying in the introduction.”
Dania’s nose wrinkled. “Okay, I definitely skipped that part.”
“Well, listen to it again,” Eleanor pressed. “There’s a lot more there. I admit mocking the strange sort of mainstream success that the album, and Iz himself, as inauthentic. But maybe that’s the point – the songs that got popular as singles sound a bit chintzy and tikiphilic, but the album on the whole is assertively Hawaiian. This is an album where you feel like you grow to know the artist – not just one version of them, but various shades across the songs.”
“Iz himself was a staunch promoter of Hawaiian sovergnty,” Gwen added. “He hated being a state. He would much rather have had Hawai’i go back to being its own country.”
“That makes complete sense, then,” Eleanor agreed. “I wonder what he thought about the enormous success of the album outside of Hawai’i.”
“I see what you mean, though,” Gwen continued. “If you wanted to read full intentionality onto everything on the album, Kamakawiwo’ole’s alteration and nativization of the lyrics to two American classics, one from Hollywood and one from the Appalachian region, could be read as a way of reclaiming sovereignty over his own music – or alternately, mangling an American cultural tradition in the same manner in which Polynesian culture was enfolded into the American zeitgeist!”
Gwen finished the thought, waiting for a response from Dania and Eleanor. None came, immediately, but eventually Dania clasped her hands, bringing them to her chin.
“How long…” Dania began. “…have you been rewriting that sentence in your head for use in this exact conversation?”
“Basically since I gave the CD to you,” Gwen admitted.
Image Source: Ukulele Magazine