LIHUE — A stone ukulele is missing from a monument in Nawiliwili Park dedicated to the memory of Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole.
“Somebody stole ‘em,” Kau Madeira said. He discovered the ukulele was gone on Wednesday morning when went to clean up the area around the memorial.
“I clean the grass, and I say, ‘Oh my god! It’s gone,’” Madeira said. “All I seen was the two studs.”
Two threaded metal rods that once held a hand-carved stone ukulele protrude from a rock that sits under a tree planted shortly after Kamakawiwo‘ole passed away in 1997. A bronze plaque is set into the rock.
It reads as follows:
“IN MEMORY OF “BRUDDAH IZ” ISRAEL KAMAKAWIWO‘OLE KE OLA NEI ME KE ALOHA.”
The Hawaiian words inscribed on the plaque do not translate precisely to English. Like much of the Hawaiian language, the phrase is possessed by something intangible. Simply put, it means, “living with love.”
The memorial was erected in the year 2000. For 19 years, the ukulele stood above the bronze plaque commemorating the life of the world-famous Hawaiian musician.
“It was like one big ukulele about this big,” Madeira said, holding up his arms a few feet apart. “And somebody yank ‘em off.”
Madeira talked about the memorial and the meaning behind it on Wednesday afternoon. He sat at a table near the memorial in Nawiliwili Park, and as he spoke, his face and tone switched back and forth, alternatively expressing a kind of wistful happiness and general disgust.
“It’s like stealing from the aina,” he said. “It’s a stolen artifact, brah. Swear to god — stolen artifact.”
When Kamakawiwo‘ole died tragically at age 38 on June 26, 1997, more than 10,000 people attended his funeral. His koa wood coffin lay in state at the capitol building in Honolulu.
“Bruddah, not even one president in the whole United States of America had that many people come see ‘em,” Madeira said. He grew up near Kamakawiwo‘ole on Oahu — “I lived down the road from him. Noholio Road, third dip.” He was among the thousands who gathered on Makua Beach after Kamakawiwo‘ole’s funeral to watch as his ashes were poured into the ocean.
The celebration of Kamakawiwo‘ole’s life spread across Hawaii, and Kauai was no exception.
“Everybody here on the island love his music,” Madeira said. “He was looked at as one ali‘i.”
In 1997, Judy Lenthall was executive director for the Kauai Independent Food Bank, and helped organize a local memorial service that would eventually inspire the plaque and the stone ukulele.
“It started as a tree-planting ceremony. Then the whole thing exploded because everyone in the community wanted to get involved,” she said. “When Bruddah Iz died, the whole state cried.”
The tree was planted on November 1, 1997 in Nawiliwili Park and still stands today, but the celebration continued long after the ceremony.
“It had a life of it’s own,” Lenthall said. “It just grew. It just grew and grew.”
Three years later, the food bank raised funds for the plaque and placed it beneath the tree along with the stone ukulele. Lenthall said she struggles to remember exactly how things unfolded but speculated that at least part of the delay was due to the amount of time it took to carve the ukulele.
The artist was Kawika Cutcher, an Anahola resident who then worked at the food bank. Lenthall had heard he could do stone work and asked him to carve the ukulele. Cutcher told her he had never done anything like it before but agreed to give it a shot.
“This was breaking ground. Nobody had ever made a stone ukulele before,”Lenthall said. “So it took him a long time.”
When it was finally finished, Lenthall said Kamakawiwo‘ole’s wife and daughter came to Kauai to watch it get set in place.
For nearly twenty years, the sculpture stood as a quiet tribute to Kamakawiwo‘ole. It stood inconspicuously under the tree, often half-covered by the low bushes and grass that grew to surround it. It may have been missing for months before Madeira realized it. Now Madeira says he hardly cares who took it or why as long as it is returned.
“I don’t know, but I would love to get it back though,” Madeira said, sighing. “Sure would like to get it back.”
Lenthall said the same thing.
“Just give Bruddah Iz back his ukulele,” she said, asking anyone who knows where the carving is to bring it to the museum or the police station. “This is a treasure that’s been stolen. This is something special.”
Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.