101 Strings
The Romance Of Hawaii






Who brought the strings into the Exotica realms years before the genre's name was even coined? Les Baxter of course! He was able dozens of times to come up with a lush blending of exotic percussion and colorful strings, creating either romantic or mysterious moods. However, there is one string ensemble – or rather: one brand – that consisted of way over 100 (!) players, thus coming up with a sheer overload of shimmering strings.


Since no studio was big enough for the 101 Strings who consisted of skilled players from all over Europe, they had to record their interpretations of well-known classics in concert halls. The conductors changed during the years, among them Les Baxter and Easy Listening maestro Nelson Riddle, but one thing never changed from 1957 till 1981, the time span of the ensemble's existence: the overwhelming power of the stringed instruments. Due to the fact that the 101 Strings even outnumbered larger orchestras, this meant that every mood was multiplied and enlarged big time. On each LP, romantic songs turn into overflowing maelstroms of saccharine hooks, swinging pieces deliver a voluminous impetus and jungle vistas morph into whole island areas. Quantity beats quality in this case, and once you accept or actually embrace this fact – for it is the 101 String's signature trademark –, you can have a lot of fun with the instrumentals.


I have chosen The Romance Of Hawaii for the moment because it is torn between the changing times: I don't need to mention the various implications of the release date of 1969, but even apart from this year, times got rougher for the 101 Strings brand in particular and the Exotica genre in general. Such being the case, this album is still part of the wider family of Exotica releases due to its Hawaiian theme and the 10 renditions it contains. The album title and the selection of songs already suggest the inclusion of less upbeat and more romantic songs, and since there are ukuleles and xylophones added, the string-heaviness is oftentimes reduced, as you will see below.

The first entry of the album is a richly texturized rendition of the classic Sleepy Lagoon and shows the problematic approach of the string brand on this particular song. The vastness of the strings destroys the mystical, introverted aura of the title-giving lagoon and substitutes it with overly romantic but joyful and quite attractive string washes. The setting is hyper-schmaltzy, but again, the selling point of the 101 Strings offerings is rooted in the quantity of the involved players and instruments. Also of importance are the short harp strings at the very end of the song. Since this is my favorite Western string instrument, I am quite fond of its fitting inclusion.


Moon Of Manakoora is a much better tune and rectifies the slight disappointment the first track induced. Xylophones, swirling marimbas and angelic harp strings deliver a great interplay that is faithful in its depiction of a moon-lit bay. The killer inclusion for me is the main melody on the banjo, though. The sustain of the strings is gorgeously warped and it is only after over a minute of runtime that the lush strings make their first appearance. The banjo fends off the stark bits of schmaltziness, to my mind. Paradise, on the other hand, integrates the string ensemble right from the beginning but the players stay in the background, making room for the main melody, again delivered on the ukulele, while occasional glistening xylophone bits appear. The strings swell up in the second half of the song and implicitly refer back to the song title, making this a paradisiac song for string lovers.


The following Pagan Love Song is a song I actually like in the version that is presented here: the ukulele truly shines and is totally upfront, while the strings are especially euphonious and not that clichéd. The only remaining discrepancy results in the string-heavy setting: since when do Pagans meet and play their intimate love songs in an ensemble? Naturally, the question is mean-spirited and doesn't make much sense in the context of Easy Listening, but sometimes it's funny to reflect about the weird interaction between topic and instrumentation, right? South Sea Serenade delivers without a shadow of a doubt the best clichéd feeling of a distinctly Hawaiian style. The sunny and dreamy ukulele melody is so bold that I wonder why that certain aura wasn't perceptible this strongly in the previous songs. The strings are reduced at first and actually fit quite well into the setting. A remarkable first inclusion is the female choir with its short ooh-ooh backing vocals. The best track on the album for sure.

Sweet Hawaiian Kisses is the first song off side B and slows things down: it presents a Hawaiian flute next to gentle percussion and once again surprisingly fitting strings. Their vividness is quite charming, and the song isn't as romantic as one might think. The boldly colored, care-free Hawaiian Bells brings back the female choir in a less dominant way by reducing their status from ooh-oohs to occassional aah-aahs, while Hawaiian Magic is again driven by the choir and additional gentle harp strings, both trembling and bursting marimba sections and beautiful string washes. Maybe it is because my ears have adapted the prevalent sounds of the 101 Strings or it is due to the focus on the female choir, but I am definitely more keen on side B.


Whatever the final reason may be, the mandatory Aloha Oe ends the album with bright xylophone backings, lush harp backings and downspiraling strings. The female choir finally got hold of a few men and sheets of lyrics, for they sing in the most melodramatic and glowing way possible. Even the magic of the strings is secondary. Say what you will about this schmaltzy end, but it does work perfectly in the context of this album and comes up with a huge surprise in the end: the choir can actually sing recognizable bits, and there were singing men involved in the production. Quite a shocker at the end, but a good one!

Think of The Three Suns and multiply their romantic output with the number 34 – you get the idea of the 101 strings. Apart from this mind-boggling picture, the title really says it all: every Exotica listener likes Hawaiian hymns, sure, but you have to embrace or at last partially accept the exuberantly romantic notions created by all of the one-hundred string players as well. Each song paints a cinematic setting in your head, but it's pictures of love films and romantic weekends that come to mind. There is not a single surprise or abrupt outburst of creativeness anywhere; this is Easy Listening par excellence. In contrast to this LP, Nelson Riddle's albums which he released under his own name could be considered experimental Rock albums! I for one don't like this kind of Easy Listening or Exotica, but have to agree about the effectiveness of this music which you normally hear in movies only, but seldomly on its own.


I can recommend The Romance Of Hawaii to die-hard collectors of schmaltz and string music. I very much prefer the versions of other Exotica-related big names, but tried to present the most streamlined and overproduced viewpoint on Exotica I could find. After a few songs, some kind of brain-washing process sets in – no kidding! –, for side B curiously sounds so much better and less clichéd than the first 6 songs. My answer thus always ends with keeping the 101 Strings in mind, and although this won't be the last album by the huge string ensemble I'm reviewing, it is surely the most romantic and sugar-sweet one that is out there. Or is it…?


Exotica Review 050: 101 Strings – The Romance Of Hawaii (1969). Originally published on Mar. 24, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.