BY Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
The best-selling Hawaiian music album in the world, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's "Facing Future," is now included in a series of books that offers fans a detailed look at individual works and the artists who created them.
"Facing Future" by Dan Kois (Continuum Books, $10.95) joins the 33 1/3 series, which has examined more than 70 albums from artists as diverse as Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and ABBA.
Kois, a 35-year-old culture critic and freelance writer from Arlington, Va., said the album offers a window into "the uneasy way that Hawaiian culture intersects with and interacts with Mainland culture."
The first half of the book is a detailed look at the making of the album and straightforward biography of Kamakawiwo'ole, who died in 1997 from complications related to his massive weight.
The rest of the 168-page book examines the success of the album since his death and at times includes rather blunt descriptions of the record label Mountain Apple Co.
Released in 1993, the album was made at the lowest point in Iz's career and would jump-start his success. To date, it has sold nearly 2 million copies. Its best-known song, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World," has been licensed for use in more than 100 movies, TV shows and ad campaigns.
"His life had a lot of peaks and valleys," Kois said. "In one career, he went from being loved and respected to broke and on welfare to fabulous success, and then he died. It was a roller-coaster career."
Kois fell in love with Hawaiian culture in 2000, when he and his wife lived in Honolulu while she worked as a law clerk in federal court. He was a literary agent who thought he was well-versed in music culture until he found the album in his local music store just before moving to the Islands.
Hawaiian music caught him by surprise, Kois said.
"I didn't know anything about Hawaiian music," he said. "I didn't know there was such a thing. It was vibrant and had so many strands of history going through it."
The 33 1/3 series had never done a book on an album from the world music category, Kois said.
But "Facing Future" found broad appeal, even though it exists as both a treasure and a curio, he said:
"He made an album that is intensely local and yet appealing to Mainlanders who never set foot in Hawai'i."
Love it or hate it, the marketing credit goes to Mountain Apple producer Jon de Mello, a longtime friend of Kamakawiwo'ole, said Kois, who described de Mello as "a fast-talking, opportunity-seizing producer" whose eccentric fashion sense "is that of a tiny guru from space."
Kois said a common complaint among Hawaiian musicians he interviewed is that de Mello has licensed Kamakawiwo'ole's music so much that he has "devalued" everything that made it special.
Yet, the popular singer was almost certainly a smart businessman, Kois said.
"It was a canny marketing move to make Israel as appealing as possible to as wide an audience as possible," Kois said. "But the more I looked at it, while Jon is shellacking Israel's personality, he is not doing anything Israel didn't do himself. He had a lot of interest in the last years of life in appealing to as wide an audience as possible."
De Mello said he found some of the book's conclusions "irritating" and feels the author took jabs at him that were unnecessary .
"Everybody has a different point of view," de Mello said. "I know, though. I was there. I lived through it."
Kamakawiwo'ole, who left behind a wife and daughter, wanted financial security for his family, and de Mello promised the singer he would ensure that.
"I made my promise to Israel," de Mello said. "I made my promise directly to his eyes."
The book is available at Barnes & Nobles and on www.Amazon.com, but Kois has been promoting it through a blog called Facing Future (www.facing-future.com) an idiosyncratic site in which he has also created images of President Obama reading the book.
Kois is happy with the book, which he said benefits from the fact that he is an outsider who is unafraid to take a hard look at the circumstances surrounding Iz and his legacy.
"I try to be thoughtfully critical of the company, in a way that I think it has been hard for people to be in the past," he said. "I am not trying to pretend I know more than I actually know. And I am trying to be upfront about the things I don't know."