Fri, 5 December 2014
For a period of over 30 years – from the 1950s through the early 1990s – there was little interest in the style of music known to many as “exotica” – a type of music that combined elements of jazz and percussion with high drama and the taste of a (perhaps mythical) South Pacific island. Although the sound was invented on the mainland by bandleader Les Baxter, it was made most famous by two Hawai`i locals – Martin Denny (for whom the style was named for his debut LP, Exotica) and Arthur Lyman (a graduate of Denny’s band who went on to great fame in his own right). The music was wildly popular in the 50s and early 60s but then almost just as quickly died. In the 90s, however, the “exotica” style of music was lumped into a larger category of music from the era – including the cool jazz of George Shearing, the large Latin orchestra of Juan Garcia Esquivel, and the lounge pop of The Three Suns – that was aimed at the Mad Men crowd, the type of music that evokes images of lava lamps, leather settees, and walls upholstered in shag carpet. The new category was dubbed Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (or SABPM), and a new generation of record collectors paid outrageous prices for long out-of-print copies of records by these artists in any condition.
Enter Rykodisc, a then independent record company who found gold in mining and rereleasing the catalogs of Elvis Costello, Frank Zappa, and David Bowie. They cashed in on the SABPM craze by licensing the entire Arthur Lyman catalog from his previous label home, Hi-Fi/Life Records. And one of their earliest releases was Lyman’s holiday album, Mele Kalikimaka. The Internet was still in its infancy in 1993, but Rykodisc producer David Greenberg took to the SABPM message boards in search of the album’s original cover which Hi-Fi/Life did not have in its archives. They accepted my offer of the album cover from my personal collection, and after several conversations with Greenberg, Rykodisc asked me to consult on the remaining Lyman releases because of my intimate knowledge of his music and his role in Hawaiian music history. I agreed, and the next thing I found in my mailbox were the original session notes from every Lyman group recording session – a veritable treasure trove of minutia that only a collector would appreciate.
As Rykodisc began work on the Christmas release, the first comment I made about the process was to be my last. I mentioned to Greenberg that most of the titles of the Hawaiian songs would have to be corrected on album covers and in liner notes. When he asked why, I indicated that the albums’ original producers were not too careful about the spelling of these Hawaiian titles, and in an era where we know far more about the orthography of the Hawaiian language, it would be insulting to the Hawai`i market not to use its language correctly. The problem was that this represented work to Rykodisc who had hoped to use original album artwork and liner notes exactly as they had found them on the original LP releases. This work would cut into the profits of the few copies of the CDs that they could hope to sell, and so they ignored my advice, and ultimately they ignored me – to the extent that they did not even use the original album cover art for Mele Kalikimaka that I had already provided by Fed-Ex (at my expense). They opted for something that would appeal more to the SABPM crowd – not the foil-wrapped picture of the Lyman group you see here, but a picture of an attractive woman in a skin-tight elf suit – and Rykodisc renamed the CD version In A Christmas Vibe. For my troubles, Greenberg sent me a Rykodisc poster featuring its prestigious roster of artists – everybody, that is, except Lyman.
My role in the re-release notwithstanding, it is not the cover art that made Mele Kalikimaka great. It was the imaginative Lyman’s unique approach to this music. When I listen to Lyman and his group perform “We Three Kings,” I am traipsing across the desert with gold, frankincense, and myrrh in tow (and I don’t even know what those are). When they do “Sleigh Ride” at those break-neck tempos, I can feel the wind in my face and the snow up my nostrils. Even with their percussive Polynesian spin on these tunes, Arthur Lyman and gang have truly captured the essence of the holiday for people anywhere and everywhere. And this is why Mele Kalikimaka ranks among Ho`olohe Hou’s 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i.
You can hear the entire joyous album on Spotify, Rhapsody, and other streaming music services or purchases the MP3 version from iTunes, Amazon.com, and practically anywhere MP3s are sold.
Next time: #20 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i…