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The Conversation

Israel Kamakawiwo’ole's Famous Medley Added to National Recording Registry

israel_kamakawiwoole_facing_future.jpg
Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole/Mountain Apple Company Hawaii
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On Thursday, we celebrated the 62nd birthday of the late, great Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole, better known to many of us as Bruddah Iz. The legendary Hawaiian singer and musician left an indelible mark on fans, and the Hawaiian music industry.

While nearly all of his songs are treasured by the people of Hawaii, one song in particular brought him worldwide recognition. That 1993 song, "Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World," is a medley of the Judy Garland and Louie Armstrong classics, but still it's distinctly Iz.

The song was first recorded in an impromptu 3 a.m. session with Milan Bertosa, who was at the end of a long day in his Honolulu recording studio.

As NPR reported, Bertosa told a client connected with Bruddah Iz that he was shutting down, call tomorrow. But the client insisted on putting Kamakawiwo‘ole on the phone. "And he's this really sweet man, well-mannered, kind. 'Please, can I come in? I have an idea,'" Bertosa remembers Kamakawiwo‘ole saying. He arrived in the next 15 minutes.

"I put up some microphones, do a quick soundcheck, roll tape, and the first thing he does is 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow.' He played and sang, one take, and it was over," Bertosa said.

The next day, Bertosa made a copy and filed the original recording away. Then in 1993, Bertosa wound up working as an engineer for Mountain Apple Company, a long-established recording house, where Kamakawiwo‘ole was making what would become the best-selling Hawaiian album of all time.

This year, the song received the distinction of being added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry along with 24 others recordings "worthy of preservation for all time based on their cultural, historical or aesthetic importance in the nation’s recorded sound heritage."

"Taken from Iz’s album “Facing Future” — the first Hawaiian album ever certified platinum — this single was an international hit, and it has had a sustained life through its use in motion pictures, television programs and commercials," the National Recording Registry said.

The Conversation set out to understand the meaning of the honor. Here are the highlights from an interview with Matthew Barton, the curator of recorded sound at the Library of Congress--edited for length and clarity.

On how pieces are selected for the National Recording Registry

The recording registry has been an ongoing effort close to 20 years now to assemble 25 recordings at a time annually, not simply a hall of fame, but a continually growing body of recordings that represent, not simply great moments, but great moments that really speak to us in music--but also in poetry and speeches and broadcasts. If you go through the list, you'll see that in addition to all these musical performances, there are radio broadcasts, great moments in sports captured on the radio, and recordings of nature.

They all reflect, in many ways, on an American experience. And that's true for something like Iz's "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," which has now been heard by countless millions of people. And it's true for recordings that are very obscure and haven't been heard by a lot of people, but they're nonetheless very significant. When these lists are released each year, something to consider is that there are famous recordings on there, but look at both sides of it... think of the recordings on there that you might not have heard of or ever heard, as on the same level as the ones that are known to millions.

On the significance of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World"

That one is so widely known, but that alone is not enough. It's the first and, for many people perhaps, still the only song by Iz that they've ever heard. It had a huge impact on the mainland. So it was a recent instance of the way that Hawaiian music has reached the mainland. Gabby Pahinui and Sol Ho?opi?i were two artists who did that in earlier times. So it was really kind of added to the national soundtrack. In addition to it just being such a wonderful performance, I think it's a good addition in that the other recordings represent the two great guitar traditions of Hawaii, slack key and steel guitar. And Iz is representing the great vocal traditions of Hawaii and also the ukulele.

On including Hawaiian musicians in the Library of Congress

In addition to having the largest collection of books, we have the largest collection of recordings. Absolutely, Hawaiian musicians are represented. I'm not going to say we have every single one. There's been a lot more Hawaiian recordings than a lot of mainlanders may realize, but we have a strong collection of Hawaiian recordings--but by no means is it complete. If you went back, you would find on our shelves great artists like Gabby Pahinui, for instance. He's on the registry now. We have other Hawaiian artists going back to very early times, the early 1900s.

On the conscious effort to include a diverse selection of sound recordings

It goes through several stages: there's the National Recording Preservation Board, and anybody can make a suggestion, a nomination online at the library's website. We're always looking back and saying, "What's not here yet, who's not here?" If you get to a certain stage with it, but all the recordings are from the same 25- or 30-year period, it's like, "Okay, something's wrong here. We gotta open this up." So that is always a consideration.

On how the public can listen to the library of recordings

Things are accessible in person, although the library is basically closed to the public right now because of the pandemic. There are, however, a lot of older recordings online at loc.gov/jukebox. There's a page we call the national jukebox which is about 15,000 recordings made from the 1890s to 1925 and includes actually a lot of early Hawaiian recordings there.

On the record "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" at the very beginning he dedicates it to Gabby Pahinui. It's like, they're both on the registry, they're both talking to each other in that way.

This story appeared on The Conversation on May 20, 2021.

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