Good Music We Can Know

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Paradise Showers on Artficial Flowers: Johnny Spencer and the Kona Koasters - s'Pacifica (1959)


Hawaiiana (as opposed to true Hawaiian music) is often at its best when it mixes freely with the grander abstractions and vague sensory-evocations of broader Exotica, rather than hewing exclusively to Hawaiiana standards.  There are exceptions, of course; in the endless series of Hawaii Calls LPs, Webley Edwards has produced a few albums which disprove my theory, and more than a few which seem, through their blandness, to confirm.  And George Cates' Polynesian Percussion, which hews almost exclusively to old Hawaiiana beaten horses, becomes transcendent through inventive arrangement (and lovely, unusual usage of novachord and celeste).

But anyway, what the hell am I on about? It's a complicated world full of contradictions: some Hawaiian records are boring, some are great.  Some are authentic, some aren't; some are honest about that, others elide their establishment-whiteness by imitating or incorporating Hawaii's folk culture.  Some are ethnic Hawaiians playing what US tourists "want" to hear, some are white musicians inventing their own "Hawaii" because engaging the "real" thing is too hard, to complex, to actually engage with. But any of these modes, on their own or especially in combination, can produce a good record, or at least, a rich record.  Trying to produce a formula by which to navigate the overlapping worlds of Hawaiian recorded music, Hawaiiana, and Exotica is a foolish errand, I cast it aside.

This record is a fascinating case.  A mix of Hawaiian "folk" music, Hawaiiana standards (mainly "War Chant," thankfully not too much else), and all-in-for-fantasy hard Exotica, s'Pacifica is a 1959 opus from Johnny Spencer (of Ohio) and the "Kona Koasters" (about whom I know nothing, and wouldn't it be nice if I did?).  The Hawaiian-ness of this record seems to vary based on the selection.  Some are pretty native sounding vocal folk, others are cool-jazzy Hawaiian-inflected Exotica in the vein of Martin Denny or Arthur Lyman, some are a mix of the two with subtle big band elements.  The great thing though, issues of thrillingly muddled authenticity aside, is that every track is really really good.  By excelling in basically every mode of Hawaiiana – on a single record – s'Pacifica actually ends up exemplifying nearly the entirety of the moment.  What's more, it's stunningly vibrant and unique in its execution of what is, essentially, a packet of some of the most overplayed clichés of all time – and really, that's the crux of what it is to make great Exotica.

Opening with the blowing of a conch shell, the record starts off with a traditional (or "traditional," I don't know which is more accurate) Hawaiian vocal, leading into a cascading Exotica section.  It's wet from the start, lush with sea breezes, bird calls, and lapping waves.  (Throughout, the waves never really stop gently crashing, whether its in the form of sound effects/field recordings or undulating cymbal work.  The bird calls trade between human and nature-recordings and blend indiscriminately.)

The second track is a jazzy adaptation of "War Chant," the all-too-familiar melody interspersed with frenetic Hawaiian vocals and powered by big hammering drums.  Then the waves roll in again for "Drifting Sand," a surf-inflected track reminiscent of the Surfmen's more guitar-inclusive Hawaiian-Exotica. Then the drums and vocals come back for  "Marcelle Vahini," and it seems as though variations on two basic constructs of Hawaii are alternating turns.  The next track bears this out: "Monsoon" is a high point of the record's Exotica inclinations, a wet, sleepy, narcotic dream.  "Sting Ray" and "Temptation" reiterate the more big-band Hawaiian sound, but without vocals.  "Kona Tide" is essentially "Monsoon" part two, equally excellent.  "Se Ulai" strips the big band and just delivers a playful Hawaiian folk vocal, with a huge drum sound, like a hammered hollow log, and ukulele. Alternation continues, and the record ends with a blatant plagiarizing of "Quiet Village" called "Maui Rain."  As is the case with so many derivations from Les Baxter's marvelous composition (including some by Baxter's own hand), it's less a flaw of unoriginality than it is a welcome reference, a familiar embrace from the octopoid arms of Exotica.

In the end, this is probably what you'd get if you just alternated tracks from Webley Edward's Fire Goddess and selections from one or both of The Surfmen's two LPs.  But I think it's even a little better than that, if only for the dewy, evocative production – the aural equivalent of morning rain beading up on the petals of hibiscus, of standing on storm-pocked wet sand in the early hours of the morning and grappling with the unreal experience of paradise, the scenery before your very eyes reflected precisely, if reductively, in the pattern of your rayon aloha shirt.

As is often the case, if anyone has an upgrade, I welcome it.  It would be great to hear a higher-quality version of this exquisite stuff.  Thanks to Sleepy Lagoon, from whom I first acquired this file.

s'PACIFICA (192)