Arthur Lyman
The Legend Of Pele






Rising fame changes the perception of the people. A famous, or worse, infamous incident can spoil any good name or product. This has happened to Pele as well. But which Pele do I mean? People of the 50‘s would have either shrugged their shoulders or would correctly point to the direction of Pele, the fire goddess who, as the legend goes, was born in Kawaihealani before she settled in the crater of Kilauea, Hawaii and left it regularly. During one of her journeys to Puna, while she was asleep in the disguise of a beautiful woman, she heard distant drums and soon encountered Prince Lohiau who saw the sparkle in her eyes and fell in love with her.


They were happily married, but all too soon, Pele left, as her true home was Puna. Lohiau died of grief, and Pele felt a sense of guilt and sent her younger sister Hiiaka and her best, most beautiful friend Hopoe to the spirit of Lohiau, then residing in a cave among the cliffs. Hiiaka reunited Lohiau‘s soul with his body. When he felt strong and nurtured enough, Lohiau decided to search for Pele. While on his search, Lohiau, however, fell in love with Pele‘s best friend, Hopoe. Pele, waiting back home for the three to arrive, got to know through the trade winds that Prince Lohiau fell in love with Hopoe. In rage, she teleported herself to Lohiau and threw him over the cliffs. Dead again, Lohiau cried after Hopoe, who threw herself over the cliff, and both Lohiau and Hopoe were transformed into cliffs in the sea of Kahalekai where they can be seen up to this day. Pele, now a widow, returned to her role as a fire goddess and taught her slaves a lesson by causing a gargantuan eruption of the volcano, showing herself in full glory – as seen on the above front artwork – and becoming the most venerated but also most feared goddess.


So now you know it. I‘m not talking about Pelé, the legendary soccer god. And Arthur Lyman didn‘t either. But say what you will, his 1959 album The Legend Of Pele is something special due to a fourth column in the usual symbiosis of Exotica records. Normally, the front artwork, the music and the titles form a meaningful whole. Let‘s say the front artwork of an Exotica record shows a beautiful beach. You then expect the music to be either dreamy or Surf Rock-like. Finally, the album and track titles may support your expectation by containing certain signal words that link back to beaches, places, adventurous or romantic things.


On The Legend Of Pele, Lyman adds a fourth element: a story arch, making it the first true concept album of the Exotica genre! The above – and admittedly shortened – legend of the fire goddess of Hawaii is told via music, mainly of already known compositions that still work in the given context even though they weren‘t written with the fire goddess Pele in mind. Arthur Lyman‘s group, consisting of John Kramer, Alan Soares and Harold Chang, tries to capture romance and amour, mystique and adventure, but also jealousy and wrath in 12 songs, the latter moods being highly uncommon additions in Exotica records; heck, I‘d even argue that they are contrapuntally devices that could potentially deny the record any affiliation with the Easy Listening genre. Is this the fiercest, most frightening Exotica record of the 50‘s? Let‘s see if it comes to this.


Pele, the title track, begins with nervous birds, energetically played finger cymbals and swirling piano notes. A tribal 4/4 rhythm is added next to Pele chants, and Soares‘ piano play is a gorgeous complemental device to the reduced setting that is only slightly enhanced by a few marimba notes played by Lyman. This dark setting is illuminated by Lyman‘s vibes in the second half, but the melodies are still surprisingly complex. Pele is an unexpectedly dark anacrusis that has all the signature instruments and birds of the Lyman group in it, but is structured much more eclectically.


Fire Down Below offers another surprise: while the banging rhythm and the marimba-vibraphone combo of the first half evoke the Calypso genre, the second half is equally joyful with supplemental piano backings. Very catchy, highly effervescent, a great tune overall and a top pick of mine due to its sunny mood. Hana Pele interweaves the Far Eastern flavor of Chinese gongs with exemplary piano and mallet instrument keys. Once more, the interplay is convoluted and upholds the convergence of mystique with the story arch of the legend. The Far Eastern flavor might be a bit strange at this point and on this album in general, I find it refreshing. On the short Cumana, Lyman‘s group goes Mambo.


Their rendition of the 1947 classic by Barclay Allen, Harold Spina and Roc Hillman is especially focused on the ambience and its various birds. It is without a doubt the most dreamy song offered on this album. The reduced, low-level use of the instruments only adds to the flavor. The perfect song for hammock Sundays. While the traditional Ye Lai Sian is a percussive, ever-morphing track with a tribal rhythm, opaque piano backings, glistening vibraphone interludes, Hana Maui is the song with the fastest pace that exchanges the tropical feeling with a Latin style that becomes particularly apparent in regard to the piano style of play. Another great plus is the gorgeously vivid percussion sequence that lasts nearly 2 minutes and is basically a battle between Kramer and Chang. The winner is the listener.


Side B starts with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov‘s Scheherezade, and though its name implies an Oriental flavor, it is not to be found on Lyman‘s rendition because it is belittled by short marimba droplets and dusky piano accompaniments. This version does little for me, and while it is refreshingly complex, it is too humpy and unmelodious for me to follow the several threads. My problem!


The following Magic Islands, originally written by Ken Darby, is a swinging tune that is realized without brass instruments. The marimba melody is gorgeous, the piano chords are silky in the first half and are put into the limelight in the second half. One of the best Lyman renditions overall, and I have to admit that I don‘t even know the original yet. Up next is my favorite track of the release: Fascination is pure bliss and ambience. Gentle ocean waves, extremely mellow mallet instruments and gentle piano backings put this on par with my other Lyman favorites Whispering Reef Lullaby and Beyond The Reef. The second half is exhilarant by featuring bird noises and louder vibraphone tones. The dreamy mellifluousness, though, is maintained.


The super-energetic Cubana Chant is loaded with high-pitched percussion instruments plus polyphonous mallet-piano combos that play an especially cozy melody, while Tropical is the unofficial continuation of Fascination with an equally dreamy lazy afternoon setting and a stronger focus on piano counterparts. Especially well-made is the quavering sustain of the vibraphone notes and orchestra bells. The final 76 Trombones is a huge disappointment, both on its own and in the given context of the storyline. Instead of a bubbling vulcano eruption, the listener is fed with a quick, exhilarant military march. It‘s unfortunate that this song was chosen as the conclusion, although Arthur Lyman and the marketing guys of High Fidelity Recordings were fully aware of it as they explain their on the back of the LP cover: "Other tune titles such as the closing one, 76 Trombones, are not appropriate to the story, but the music itself surely is, since it depicts the happy abandon of Pele who, though unfortunate in her romantic life, at least has left for herself her fire goddess career, which after all is the more spectacular and satisfying to her." Erm … okay.


"Is this the fiercest, most frightening Exotica record of the 50‘s?" This is the very question I‘ve asked in the second paragraph. The bold answer is: no. In fact, the whole potential of this project hasn‘t been delivered by the Arthur Lyman Group … not in the slightest. While the start of the album is surprisingly – and best of all: fittingly – dark, Pele‘s legend isn‘t transformed into music very well. First of all, the material played by the group consists entirely of interpretations. Each song is either traditional or by a big composer. I don‘t mind this fact, as long as each song can be linked to a sequence of the plot with a bit of good-will. However, while at the beginning of the record, the symbiosis between story and music is sustainable, not much later the careful listener gets the feeling that the whole concept is just an illusion.


The album could have been named differently, and it would still be a great record with Far Eastern, Calypso, Mambo and military march styles. But this melange doesn‘t work when you see The Legend Of Pele as a concept album. And blimey, the listener is asked to receive the album as such due to the elaborate exemplification of the legend on the back cover and the beautiful front artwork. It is true that the guys from High Fidelity Recordings put this perception into perspective by stating that "most of the tune titles are appropriate to sequences of the legend", so they clearly state that this is not the case with all of them, but still, The Legend Of Pele could have been so great as a real concept album. But it isn‘t. It is a concept album, but one with a lackluster implementation. However, as a normal Exotica or Lyman album with the usual 12 tracks, it is successful, and I especially dig its darker undertones as well as the mellow ambient tracks like Fascination and Tropical.


Fans of the Gene Rains Group should be especially pleased with this release, as Arthur Lyman‘s complex compositions are equally sophisticated. Lyman‘s album clearly remains in Exotica territories, but has left the Easy Listening genre, for many a composition is harder to digest than expected, and while everyone can enjoy this album without any problem, the ideal listener already knows a few other versions of the presented tracks in order to compare and rate them. He or she should also be familiar with or willed to experience complex songs whose beauty isn‘t apparent after the first listening session only – as is the case with the majority of Exotica tunes –, but grows on the listener whenever he or she returns to the song. In the end, I recommend this album, but don‘t expect a change of formula or a successful intermingling of a textual legend with appropriate music.


Exotica Review 059: Arthur Lyman – The Legend Of Pele (1959). Originally published on Apr. 21, 2012 at