Dead Hawaiian singer charms Germany

By Stephen Evans
BBC News, Berlin

  • Published

He is an unlikely pop star: a dead, very big Hawaiian - 54 stone (343 kg) at one point - accompanied only by his ukulele.

But get in a taxi in Germany and you will more than likely hear his honeyed voice coming from the speakers behind you.

Go into a cafe and it's the same. There he is: Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, singing gently to a nation.

His recording of Over the Rainbow has now spent eight weeks at number one in Germany. It has sold more than 300,000 copies, "going platinum" as they say in the trade.

"Iz", as he was called for short, recorded the song 17 years ago. Overcome by his weight, the Hawaiian singer and ukulele player then died at the age of 38.

Ten thousand people went to the funeral and a video was put up on YouTube, overlaid with his recording of the classic first made famous by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz.

A German record producer was so moved when he spotted it that he negotiated for the rights from a small Hawaiian record company.

The song has clearly spoken to the German people - and also pushed up ukulele sales in the country.

The producer, Wolfgang Boss of B1 Recordings, reckons it's a very beautiful song. All he did was give it the kind of promotion that many songs get.

"It's very emotional," he explains. "I thought, 'If I'm able to show this to a big audience in Germany, they will love it'."

So what's the appeal - and why now? Here's a theory.

Over the Rainbow was written by a left-wing New Yorker called Yip Harburg at the end of the 1930s as the world was coming out of depression.

He also wrote Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? in 1929, when the world was as deep in depression as it could go.

The earlier song is about economic despair, and the second one is about economic hope.

Does the success of Over the Rainbow mean Germans feel the worst is behind them?

Wolfgang Boss thinks it would have been a hit at any time, but maybe more so now.

"It probably fits better in this time than in 2008, when everything was collapsing," he says.

But he adds: "I think it's just an amazing piece of music. It sounds so authentic, which so much of the music produced now is missing.

"The reason why this song is so amazingly successful is that it's so much stronger than most of the music that gets released. It's like a classic masterpiece."

Whatever you think of the economic theory behind at least part of the song's success, it has been an economic boost for one bit of industry: ukulele makers.

In Germany's only ukulele store, sales have gone from one a week to four a day.

Its owner, Harald Truetsch, thinks the record helped boost sales. "I know with the song from Iz there are more customers," he says.

However, he goes on, many if his customers don't realise it's a ukulele that Iz is playing.

The picture of him online shows a tiny instrument on his huge frame. "They think he's so big that his guitar seems small," says Truetsch.

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