Annette Brown, Lifetime The story of June Carter Cash comes to life in the…
- Posted on Apr 29th 2008 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
OK? You might never watch Bollywood movies the same way again. Or maybe even hear music in a language you don't understand. Sure, the Buffalax person behind this bit of work is a genius, but don't be surprised if this sort of thing starts happening spontaneously in your head. If you've seen Woody Allen's 'What's Up, Tiger Lily?' -- arguably the gold standard of this sort of thing -- and then tried to watch a camp Japanese film, you know about that. Speaking (er, writing) as someone who listens to a large amount of music sung in languages he doesn't understand, that is a concern.
Now, there's a discussion going on among international music promoters and boosters about whether it would help draw more fans to some of these acts to have translations of lyrics for non-English-language songs scrolling on iPods or some such. Sure, not understanding something can be a barrier to enjoyment. But at times it seems it can also be an enhancement. There's something in the purity of sounds, something that changes when meaning is assigned to them, whether the real, literal meaning or the Buffalax treatment. And there is certainly a lure of the exotic, enhanced by a sense of true foreignness. Listening to some French pop recently spurred the question as to whether the same thing in English would be just kind of average, while in a breathy en Français chanteuse delivery it's sexy and romantic. Frankly, it's a lure that's not just a matter of the verbal language but musical too.
Which takes this trip from Bollywood to Tokyo to Paris on to a hotel lounge in Honolulu, and back in time about 50 years. Zoom in on the guy in the tropical print shirt. No, not the drunk tourist sipping from a coconut shell. The one on the bandstand, perched behind a vibraphone, mallets in hands dancing over the instrument. That's Arthur Lyman, the Big Kahuna -- or at least co-Kahuna -- of exotica. It's a strange phenomenon. The Hawaii native quickly became, along with original boss Martin Denny, the leading purveyor of the music that for generations evoked the spirit of the islands -- swaying palms, lolling surf, the calls of rainbow-plumed fowl (the latter even incorporated into the music itself via imitation bird calls). Just one thing: The music's not really Hawaiian at all. It's a Denny-Lyman invention, cocktail jazz with applied ornamentations and motifs to make it seem Hawaiian. You can hear it all on new reissues of 18 Lyman albums on a series of nine two-fer CDs just put out by Collector's Choice Music.
This is exotica, not exotic, a simulacrum, a translation, if you will, of an idea of tropicality, an impression of island life into a musical language that really had nothing to do with it, but spoke to those who were not of the culture. Even the album titles ('Bwana Á,' 'Bahia,' 'Isle of Enchantment') and artwork (volcanoes, ocean sunsets) play into that. Truth be told, many of the songs would be more at home in the Caribbean islands than the South Pacific. The 1958 'Bwana Á' track 'Waikiki Serenade' (credited to Lyman and that well-known kama'aina Franz Schubert) has a markedly Latin lilt. But as chow mein, an American invention, came to be "real" Chinese food for many, exotica came to be real Hawaiian music.
"It's a kind of fascinating confluence of time and place and cultures all magically materializing in this music that suddenly becomes the signature sound of something that maybe never really existed," says Collector's Choice senior vice president Gordon Anderson, also the executive producer of these reissues. "It's like the sound of the dream, the Polynesian dream, even though it wasn't really the sound of Polynesia."
From today's vantage point, of course, it's something quite different. Is it possible to think of this as "real" Hawaiian when we've heard real Hawaiian music -- slack key and slide guitars from vintage Sol Hoopii, to the foklier Gabby Pahinui and his literal and figurative descendants, or ethnographic recordings of authentic dance ceremonies? Of course, remember that Hawaiian guitar isn't really all that Hawaiian either, having been derived from music imported by cowboys who came from the mainland to tend herd back in the early 20th century. And let's face it, these musical "mistranslations" exist in pretty much all cultures today, from well-meaning folkloric spectacles to pop and rock appropriations of sounds, yes, exotic. You might not want to put Lyman's exotica alongside ethnographic recordings that have proliferated in the intervening half century. But putting it in proper context can make listening to it a pleasure. And not even so much a guilty one.
And that leaves us with Buffalax's musical question: Who put the goat in there? Was it that rascal Benny Lava?