Bwana á/Bahia, Collector’s Choice Records 2008 (Original release date: 1959)
During my last exotica album review for the Freaky Tiki Surf-ari, I briefly touched on the use of sound effects in exotica music. To quote the Wikipedia entry on the genre:
“Additionally intrinsic to the sound of exotica are bird calls, big-cat roars, and even primate shrieks which invoke the dangers of the jungle. Though there are some standards which contain lyrics, singing is rare. Abstract, sirenish ululations, chants, vocalized animal calls, and guttural growls are common.”
The horror connection is rather obvious. How did such sounds make their way into the style? Well, there are a couple different stories on the matter. This says that it all started at a Martin Denny band performance at the Shell Bar at the Kaiser Hawaiian Village (now known as the Hilton Hawaiian Village). During one of the performances, frogs from a nearby pool began croaking and stopped only when the music did. When the frogs started up again, some of the band members began responding with bird calls. Denny knew they was onto something when someone asked about the song with all the animal noises the day after and soon incorporated them into the act. In an interview with Time magazine, Arthur Lyman said that he started doing bird calls after getting a little tipsy during one of the Denny group’s performances and according to the product description here, percussionist Augie Colon started doing calls (which he learned to use while hunting) after joining the Denny band in order spice things up and quickly got the other members doing it as well.
One exotica musician I spoke with while preparing notes for a future review commented on the situation, noting that both men did bird calls for the group and felt that it was a case of spontaneity. He also humorously noted that any arguing over who started the bird calls is akin to “arguing who’s older when you’ve got a set of identical sextuplets.”
In 1957, after several years of working with Denny, Lyman left to start his own band. He released his first album that same year, Leis of Jazz. The CD I’ll be reviewing is a reissuing of his fourth and sixth albums, Bwana á and Bahia.
Those who take a look at the back of the CD case might be surprised that Lyman only wrote a few songs and that the rest are versions of songs written by others. Several of the songs on Bahia were written by jungle exotica master, Les Baxter. However, Arthur Lyman and the group he used from 1957 to 1965 (Alan Soares, John Kramer and Harold Chang) all make them their own.
The first track is “Bwana á,” where drums and vibraphone beats soon give way to a male crying out “Bwana, bwana á,” who is in turn answered by many other “natives.” This gives way to light, happy music, animal cries and the occasional lone native chattering. The “Bwana” call reappears at the end to close the song. It communicates a feeling of power and strength due to the number of “native” voices. The musician that I spoke with about the use of animal calls (who I won’t name in order to build interest in his band’s appearance in the next exotica review) also had an interesting story about the origin of the song. Apparently Arthur Lyman’s bassist (John Kramer) wrote the song as a cheeky tribute to the band’s then-employer, Hawaiian Village owner Henry Kaiser. You see, whenever he’d dropped by, Kramer would call out “Bwana,” the Swahili term for master or chief.
Next comes “South Pacific Moonlight,” a soothing piece which makes great use of the sound of waves. The reproduction of the album’s cover claims that recordings of real waves were used, while the liner notes by Kim Cooper and David Smay (best known for their work in Scram magazine) claim that the effect was accomplished using grains of rice moved atop a drum. I’m inclined to believe the rice version, as the sound effects are close to-but not exactly like-the real thing. If those effects are really from recordings, then I’d say there’s some hissing that ruins the effect. Speaking of effects, I liked clever use of horns to mimic those of passing ships and the magic or “flashback”-style opening.
“Moon over a Ruined Castle” is a traditional Japanese folk song, performed without any lyrics here. Both the original packaging and the modern liner notes point out its spooky themes. After an ominous opening, the sound of wind chimes quickly gives way to a peaceful melody. Said chimes may make some listeners recall the opening of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” Are they there to symbolize magic, dangling metal charms used to keep spirits away or something else entirely? I cannot say for sure. What I can say, however, is that my interpretation is of a person’s initial frightened reaction to seeing ruins at night and gradually becoming more relaxed and enchanted by its moonlit beauty as they tip-toe past.
“Waikiki Serenade” is a reworking of Schubert’s “Serenade” with a decidedly Latin feel, foreshadowing the style of several other songs on the album (and Bahia), and makes nice use of a guiro. For example, there’s “La Paloma” (translation: “The Dove”), although its opening is very similar to the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” and makes much use of the vibraphone. “Otome San” is a Japanese drinking song by Kasuga Hachiro, whose jolly tone is aided by rhythmic clapping and a piano. Interestingly enough, the song’s title is actually “Otomi-san” (translation: “Miss Toni”) and is named for a kabuki show character.
In “Canton Rose,” guest musician Chew Hoon Chang gets to showcase his skills with his unusual-sounding bamboo flute and moon harp after the opening sequence. Similarly, “Blue Sands” allows Lyman to show off his vibraphone skills after the drum-filled opening. “Malagueña” is go-to song for anyone looking for “Mexican” or “Spanish” background music that makes great use of a tambourine (or finger cymbals, I’m not quite sure), guitar and piano. Perhaps guest pianist Paul Conrad was at work here? I suspect the final guest contributor, Ethel Azama, lent her talents to vocal work on “Bwana á.”
Despite the use of bird calls and other exotic touches in “Vera Cruz,” the song’s double pianos (and drum beats) have a rather melancholy tone. In sharp contrast, “Pua Carnation” (Rough translation: “The scent of carnation”) offers a much happier Latin beat after the “character in a TV show having a flashback”-sounding opening. Here, Lyman demonstrates the vast musical range of a vibraphone. The album closes with a rousing performance of “Colonel Bogey’s March,” best known for its use in Bridge on the River Kwai and its being altered into “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball” and the infamous “Comet song.” It starts off light and cheery after a bunch of animal cries and occasionally launches into a bombastic military march.
Although the use of animal calls in the last album was sparse, they return with a vengeance for his Bahia album. Ary Barroso’s “Bahia” shows this quite well, also using maracas and a guiro to form a jazzy Latin beat. This slowly builds up to s pounding piano, which then gives way to a happy beat with occasional shout of something in what may or may not be Portuguese. Bird calls, a piano and a few other instruments take the listener on a merry ride in a “Jungle Jalopy.” “Legend of the Rain” starts off with a bang (thunder) and then uses soft music that’s just as relaxing as real rainfall. Then a percussive crash gives way to a somewhat more energetic (and sometimes “Latin”) tune. There’s also minor use of steel guitar at the end.
Unlike the song of the same name in “The Sound of Tiki,” this album’s “Bamboo” doesn’t have any bird calls that sound like someone retching. The ever-present guiro sounds particularly cicada-like here. There’s a minor, waltz-like part in this and the piano and vibraphone work together to great effect. Latin vibes (get it?) make up Lyman’s take on Carmen Lombardo and Danny Di Minno’s “Return to Me,” as made famous by Dean Martin in 1957. There’s a nice use of cymbals at end. Although several instruments are used in “Caribbean Nights,” the bongos dominate it.
Listening to “Quiet Village” without Don Ho’s singing is like listening to it for the first time. It’s easy to see why the original instrumental version was a smash hit back in the day. Like “Bamboo,” parts of it have a waltz feel to them. The guiro is at its most insect-like here and may remind some listeners of the Kamacuras from Son of Godzilla. “Tropical” is a light and fast tune making use of bells and other instruments, including but not limited to maracas, bongos and a vibraphone.
Horror fans will surely enjoy “Happy Voodoo.” It opens with a low native chant that soon leads to a piercing scream. The usual bird calls are joined by monkey shrieks, native chatter (including use of the word “Bwana”) and the occasional howl. Despite the spooky trappings of the beginning, the song has an undeniably happy-sounding feel to it. “Busy Port” is hard for me to describe. The best I can manage is “Peanuts: Exotica Style.” That’s not an insult, either. Schroeder rules. “Beyond the Reef” opens with the blowing of a conch shell and makes light use of a steel guitar for a mild “Hawaiian” feel. The guitar also compliments the track’s use of a violin. The final track is “Maui Chimes,” whose combination of chimes/bells and piano give it an alternately church and merry-go-round feel.
Sadly, the CD is not without its flaws. Crackling, pops and clicks can be heard in “Moon Over a Ruined Castle” and there are some clicks and pops in “Otome San” as well. Other reviewers have complained about the first album being presented in mono while the second one is in stereo. Judging from the reproduction of the back cover of Bwana á, a stereo version was available but I am not sure if the album was originally recorded in stereo and then “flattened” to create the mono version or if the mono and stereo version were recorded separately as was the case here. It’s a shame, as reading this got me really excited about the CD prior to listening to it. Don’t get me wrong, the CD is filled with great material. It was just disappointing to find such flaws after getting hyped up like that.
Special thanks to Collector’s Choice Records for the review copy!