The prospect of a big band-style vocal Exotica record is always a dubious one. The likes of Norman Luboff and dozens of lackluster Hawaiiana LPs have made me wary, at any rate. The appeal and function of Exotica has a great deal to do with its serving as a more flexible vehicle for fantasy, and so it is better played out in the form of enigmatic instrumentals and soundscapes; on the other hand, a room full of forty white people intoning in church harmonies and literalist language about the beauty of the islands or what have you hardly stirs the romantic in the soul. The latter method, even at its best, doesn't leave enough room for enigma (unless it's something poetic and visionary like Eden Ahbez, which is a whole different kettle of fish anyway).
I present to you today a record that I actually like a lot – despite it having these very drawbacks – by Hollywood A-list legends, Alfred Newman and Ken Darby: Ports of Paradise. A deluxe voyage to the South Seas.
This record is full of Hollywood cinematic bombast and saccharine oversaturation; it oughtn't really work as exotica, but somehow, in its best moments, it sort of does. This must be due to the sterling pedigree of its creators, but you know, it's not as though I sit around listening to Newman and Darby's work on the film scores for South Pacific or The King and I. Regardless, this LP has its moments of wonder: the bookends in particular ("Ports of Paradise" and "To You Sweetheart, Aloha") have the sweeping ambition of Wizard of Oz and the shabby, overblown Technicolor majesty of a lesser (but still fascinating) film like Journey to the Center of the Earth; with relatively interesting lyrics, to boot. "The Enchanted Sea" is another particular highlight (you may have heard it on a Jungle Shadows mix), with its dichotomous structure, attempts made at "native" chanting, and brooding arrangement all managing an effectively mystical atmosphere and an exquisite, original interpretation of a common composition. The similar "Whispering Wind" has a deep sense of ocean-bound longing and evokes a dark night of warm salt breezes and cold stars.
Mavis Rivers, the esteemed Samoan jazz singer, is given two showcases in "Isa Lei" and "My Little Grass Shack"; both vocal performances are very straight-ahead and a little underwhelming in my opinion, but the tracks have intriguing arrangements (the former lush and tinged with darkness, the latter ornamented by swirling strings and an agreeable chanting in the background vocals) and I could imagine them being quite effective in the proper setting. The rest of the selections are a fairly bland, with the odd exception of "Madonna of the Flowers," featuring a lightly gonzo baritone vocal turn from Bill Lee (doing something like Bing Crosby in Christmas mode) that highlights a bit of Hawaiian-style Catholicism and is both bizarre and a little boring, like the Christmas sequence of Three Caballeros. You often see, throughout the history of exoticist works of art, a sort of "return" to Western values, particularly religion, after a period of fetishization of the exotic Other; these moments also serve to underscore the value of Western presence in the colonies, demonstrated by the effects of religious proselytizing. This track is that moment in the album's narrative structure.
This album has more to enjoy than just its songs, however! Indeed! It also comes with a "16 page brochure in full color," which I would love to share with you now, one page at a time:
Like many, many Exotica and/or Hawaiiana LPs, Ports of Paradise was part of an overt, synergistic relationship with aspects of the tourism industry. This strategy is often used to promote specific Hawaiian resorts or package deals offered by travel agencies; in this case, there's some hard-to-pin-down but nonetheless explicit connection to Matson Navigation Company, "whose luxurious passenger liners are regular callers at the Ports of Paradise" (Matson being a shipping company founded in 1882, a major player in Hawaiian popular tourism and the founders of the Moana Hotel and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, among many other things, and to which Ken Darby may have been connected by marriage, though I can't quite tell). The sequence of songs (with regards to their geographic referent) is loosely based on the itinerary of two of Matson's ships at the time, an interesting album structure illustrated on the map above.
Also, a bit of trivia: Darby was the voice of the mayor Munchkinland in the film of Wizard of Oz, as well as the composer of "Love Me Tender", which he actually credited to his wife, a Vera Matson. Is she Vera Matson of the Matson shipping family? I can't tell.
"The Ports of Paradise... faraway islands in a blue, blue tropical sea... and they are only one step away – from shore to waiting ship. One step – but with it, you leave one world and enter another. A bright, beautiful, floating world...."
Ken Darby's purple prose – most evocative of Michener's blockbuster style, but with just a shade of Conrad in Nigger of the Narcissus mode – sets a literary stage for the songs. It's all travelogue escapism (so mythicized it resembles the Odyssey, but without conflict) and fuzzy pop-anthropology with a strong emphasis on primitivism and timelessness.
(I am highlighting certain passages, but you can easily read the rest for yourself if you enlarge the images).
"The land recedes behind your gleaming ship, and before you, in endless moving mystery, lies THE ENCHANTED SEA. You feel it turn and roll beneath a warming sun. Upon its vast, turquoise mirror are caught and reflected the faint echoes of Polynesian voices, until, at last, over the cloud-haloed horizon, rises TAHITI, first Port of Paradise.
Through the twilight air swells a great shout of welcome – awakening in your blood a long-buried racial memory of primitive excitement – and there before you lies your dream, under an unbelievable BLUE TAHITIAN MOON."
Whew! That's just the first section, the first "port." The rest is just as likely to rip your postcolonial bodice, and as such I highly recommend giving it a read. Much like Loti, the absolute king of precisely this sort of exotic prose, Darby can't resist peppering his achingly florid scenic passages with problematic ethnological commentary (later, he describes the Fiji Islands as "only 75 years removed from primitive man"); all the better, as it makes for especially rich and revealing reading, and spruces up an otherwise too-sugary exercise in exoticism with some dark, spicy notes of imperialist bullshit.
The next page opens up to these two exquisite images:
The first, a fern grotto in Kauai; the second, a "fern-tree idol" in Oahu. These two pages fold out to reveal even more imagery and textual delight. First, a wide-angle view of paradise (a "moonlit" beach scene):
Followed by a continuation of Darby's liner notes, which wraps up the voyage narrative:
The next spread details the narrative of the album's production, against the backdrop of Newman and Darby's demanding careers as in-demand Hollywood music personalities (composing "Moon of Manakoora" for The Hurricane, working together on all the Rodgers and Hammerstein film adaptations, etc.), with special emphasis on the two men's shared affinity for vacationing in Hawaii. On the left are vacation photos from "the Newman family album." Newman is described as nearly an honorary Hawaiian; not only did he "win the aid of shy elder Hawaiians," making them "his lifelong friends" ("they gave him their love, and they gave him their islands"), but he also earned himself a Hawaiian name: "Kalani Haaheo (Ken's modesty prohibits translation!)"
"Part of the vast collection of percussion instruments used in this recording"
Anyway, that's the whole package. I hope you enjoyed looking at it with me. Listen to it on your own, let me know what you think.
PORTS OF PARADISE (320)