I remember the bombs falling on Kaho’olawe the summer of 1976. I could see them every night that summer from Ben Keau’s little green plantation-style house in Kula on the slopes of Haleakala Crater.
The air raids lit up the night like the Fourth of July.
Ben Keau was the first person to tell me that the Navy, our Navy, was bombing one of the Hawaiian Islands. I didn’t believe him at first. “It’s true,” he said. “Look tonight.” And we did, and there it was—a time warp rerun of a World War II air battle.
Only 12 miles away from where we sat, drinking cold Bud, on the lanai of Ben and Hilda’s house up in Kula, U.S. Navy planes dive-bombed the island. You could hear the concussions across the sea channel.
I told people in California about the bombs falling in Hawai’i, but nobody believed me; what happened in Hawai’i was of no concern. Nobody in Hawai’i seemed too upset about the air raids, even after an errant, unexploded 500-pound Navy bomb was found in a West Maui sugarcane field—10 miles off bull’s-eye.
That summer, while everyone in America celebrated the nation’s 200th birthday, nine native Hawaiians made the first of many landings on Kaho’olawe to protest the Navy’s use of the island as a bombing target.
Nobody took them seriously, not even when they filed a federal lawsuit charging the United States Navy with violating laws of environment, historic preservation and religious freedom.
Israel Kamakawiwo’ole turned 17 that summer and paid no heed to those festering issues; his mind was on surf, roast pork and rice, a certain girl named Marlene, and music.
He and his older brother, Henry, 22, who everyone called Skippy, had started a backyard band, Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau, which began to attract a local following.
“Israel was young, not interested, and very jokey,” Uncle Charles Maxwell recalled. “He was the one used to talk a lot onstage, and keep the group going, but when Hawaiian issues came up, Skippy really had a grasp of what the issues were about. Israel would make fun of everything.”
That year, 1976, Skippy, caught up in Hawai’i’s emerging activism, began looking for a song of protest to record.
While in Hilo one night for a gig, he met Mickey Ioane, who played in a band called, Da Blalahs of Keaukaha, a Hilo Bay neighborhood.
“And they jammed all night long,” KCCN disc jockey Jacqueline Skylark Rossetti recalled. “Instead of flying home to Honolulu they stayed three more days, jamming with the boys of Keaukaha.”
Moss green velvet reaches down to tide pools on this far shore of Hilo Bay, in stark contrast to the desert like Wai’anae Coast. The O’ahu boys from Makaha were captivated by the Eden-like nature and local hospitality.
Concerned about Hawai’i’s growing social woes, Mickey had written and composed a touching song he called “Hawai’i ‘78,” which he played for the Sons.
“When the boys heard Mickey’s song in one of those late-night jam sessions, they asked if they could record it,” Skylark Rossetti said. “They felt the words addressed the struggles facing our people.”
Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono o Hawai’i
“The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.”
“Hawai’i ‘78” turned Hawai’i’s state motto into a lyric over a traditional pahu beat, followed by a question:
“If just for a day our king and queen/Would visit all these islands and saw everything.
“How would they feel about the changes of our land?
“Could you just imagine if they were around/And saw highways on their sacred grounds/How would they feel/about this modern city life?
“Tears would come from each other’s eyes/As they would stop to realize/That our people are in great, great danger now.”
“Hawai’i ‘78,” became the signature anthem for the Makaha Sons, Israel and a whole generation of Hawaiian activists. The bittersweet refrain still makes all who love Hawai’i weep.
“Cry for the gods, cry for the people/Cry for the land that was taken away/And then yet you’ll find, Hawai’i.”
Uncle Charles recalls: “After they released ‘Hawaii ‘78’ I returned from Washington, D.C., and since I missed my flight to Maui, we went to Chuck’s Cellar, where the Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau were playing. The minute we sat at our table, Skippy said, “Uncle Chaus, this song for you,” and they played ‘Hawaii ‘78.’ We really had a good cry, and when the song was over, he asked me to come up and talk about the Hawaiian movement. I spoke about how we were part of a suit to stop the bombing of Kaho’olawe. It was the first time I noticed Bradda Iz was really listening.”
Smooth as the south swell in summer, their albums kept appearing, one almost every year, each one more popular than the last.
The Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau appealed to a diversity of fans: young and old Hawaiians, kama’aina, tourists, ‘akamai folks who liked traditional Hawaiian music. The island band seemed destined to go on to attract a wider audience on the mainland.
And then the worst thing happened. On October 1, 1982, Skippy died of a massive heart attack at the age of 28. Israel and the Makaha Sons were devastated. Without Skippy how could they continue?
Skippy’s death plunged Israel into grief. “He got lost in himself,” Moe Keale said. Israel and the band took time to grieve and regroup. It would be two more years before they released a new album, Puana Hou Me Ke Aloha.
“After Skippy died, the Makaha Sons became stronger, more determined to continue their music, their sound, carry on,” Skylark Rossetti said.
It was slow going at first. Israel, lost without his brother, was not able to lead the band—book dates, keep dates, sign contracts, give interviews, set rehearsals, arrange travel, pay bills—so Louis “Moon” Kauakahi took charge as group leader, arranger, and composer.
“After Skippy passed away, I noticed Bradda Iz really involved in the Hawaiian movement,” Uncle Charles recalled. “Whenever I would be in the news, or on TV, he would call me and say, “Eh Uncle Chaus, right on.”
Motivated to carry on his brother Skippy’s mission, Israel began to embody the spirit of the sovereignty movement. He turned “Hawaii ‘78” into an anthem and sang it every concert. “Cry for the people, cry for the land…” became his cry.
Inspired by the times, the kolohe kid grew serious about the sorry state of Hawaiian affairs; his music mirrored the mood of the people. He gave voice to grievances, articulated concerns, recited demands for sovereignty, and stood up for his people. His shaka sign sometimes now became a clenched fist.
He sang on the back of flatbed trucks, on the beach at Waikiki. At ease in Tahiti under thatch, he looked uncomfortable in faux Vegas (but loved the buffets). Israel went all around the Islands, performing at baby luau and halau fundraisers, singing in upcountry Maui, on Oahu’s windward side at Patis in Punalu’u.
His favorite venues were Hawai’i-kine places like Makua Valley and Waimanalo, out in the country where roosters crow, pit bulls prowl chain-link fences and the Hawaiian flag flies upside down as a symbol of protest.
Like anyone who goes holoholo and finds the real Hawai’i, Israel came to see the distress welling up in his people. He knew why the Hawaiian flag flew upside down. Land was being sold out from under Hawaiians who found themselves homeless, living under blue luau tents at Makua Beach and Makapu’u while new million-dollar high-rise condos poked skyward.
Fishponds were bulldozed for a new Big Island fantasy resort; ancient burials were churned up for Hyatt Regency and Ritz Carlton beach hotels on Maui and Kauai. Workers bulldozed a woman’s heiau in sacred Halawa Valley to build a $1.4 billion 16-mile freeway that linked Pearl Harbor to the Marine Corps base in Kaneohe. In Wao Kele ‘O Puna rain forest, Oklahoma drillers tapped Pele’s fire pits, with plans to light Waikiki hotels with cheap electricity.
Hawai’i began to change. Waikiki looked like Rodeo Drive crossed with Tokyo’s Ginza. Mom-and-pop stores closed, replaced by Gucci, Prada, Tiffany, and Louis Vuitton.
Beach bungalows became gated mansions seldom occupied by absentee owners. Taxicabs became stretch limos. The Japanization of Hawai’i was underway. Even as Hawaiians began relearning their own language, signs in Japanese appeared on storefronts.
As the centennial of the 1893 overthrow of the monarchy drew near, native Hawaiians, already an impoverished minority in their lost kingdom, began to feel like an endangered species.
He began with a little pidgin patter, some half-mumbled Hawaiian words, plinked his four-string ‘ukulele, and then, in that sweet, clear voice that shivered you, began singing: “Hene hene kou aka…”
In between songs, he paused to goof around, say “‘owzit” to a friend he recognized in the audience, tell jokes, laugh at his own innuendoes, and his rollicking style only added to the freefall jazzlike spirit of his live performances. They seemed more like backyard parties than staged events.
You never knew what Israel might say or do. He was a natural comedian—a kolohe, or clown, in local patois—but he had “one ‘nother” side, too. One moment a jester, an activist the next, he continued in speech and song to urge fellow Hawaiians to stand up for their rights.
“Brothers and sisters, brown, yellow and white/It’s time to do what you know is right/…What’s been taken must be returned/Give our children what they deserve.”
On the eve of the centennial of the overthrow, a “spreading restlessness” came over the people. Marches and demonstrations escalated. Kanaka maoli rallied at Iolani Palace, where Queen Lili’uokalani was dethroned. Demands for sovereignty and independence grew louder. “Last Star On/First Star Off!” t-shirts read.
Israel kicked it up a notch. While he never stopped singing the galvanizing lyrics to “Hawai’i ’78” (“Cry for the gods Cry for the land Cry for the people”), he sang new protest songs in plain and simple English, which used words like “liberty” and “justice” and “free.”
The songs, sung in his soaring voice over a haunting drumbeat, resonated among dissident Hawaiians and became anthems on the march to sovereignty.
With his eye on future generations, Israel sang “Living in a Sovereign Land” as a demand.
“It’s Time To Do What You Know Is Right
“What’s Been Taken Must Be Returned
“Give Our Children What They Deserve.”
His major opus, “E Ala A,” became a rallying cry:
“We, the voices behind the face,
Of the Hawaiian nation, the Hawaiian race
Rise for justice the day has come
For all our people to stand as one.
“We the warriors born to live
“On what the land and sea can give
“Defend our birthright to be free
“Give our children liberty.
The songs were played over and again on radio stations in Hawai’i and beyond, introducing others to the plight and struggle of native Hawaiians. Israel’s clear voice and plain lyrics contributed to the wide and growing belief that a Hawaiian nation might become reality.
In 1992, four native sons of Hawai’i—Israel, Roland Cazimero, Cyril Pahinui, and Henry Kapono—joined their voices in a sad ballad, “Broken Promise,” written by Kapono about the Hawaiian Homelands scandal that kept promised land from the people.
“Broken Promise” won Single of the Year at the 1992 Hoku Awards. With four protest songs, Israel became the voice of the Hawaiian nation—“the Bob Marley of Hawai’i,” a New York music critic called him. MTW