Henry Mancini
Music Of Hawaii






Music Of Hawaii by Henry Mancini (1924–1994) isn't one of those late blooming entries of the Exotica genre when it was released in 1966. In fact, the existence of the album was most definitely a well set up ploy of the marketing people at RCA Records, trying to cash in on a highly contemporary phenomenon: the launch of George Roy Hill's sophisticated film Hawaii with Max von Sydow and Julie Andrews in the lead roles.


Suddenly, the tropical topos of these islands was rediscovered for a short amount of time, causing an ephemeral revival of the Exotica genre. And indeed does Mancini come up with a version of the original Hawaii Main Theme by Elmer Bernstein, while the rest of the album consists of various Hawaiian classics and one unique Mancini composition. To be honest, I'm treating Music Of Hawaii quite unfairly in this introductory description, for the production value is top notch on the one hand, the used choir and silky brass sections offer a glimpse of Bert Kaempfert's style, and the multicolored strings provide a first flavor of the prospective 70's Easy Listening lushness.


On the other hand, the album has a huge (and I really mean it!) problem: the incessant use of a harpsichord. It reminds of the first cautious Funk movements that became equally successful a few years later. Surprisingly enough, this instrument is played in such a wonky honky tonk way that Mike Simpson's Jungle Odyssey of the same year comes to mind on more than one occasion. But this particular instrument is too obnoxious on Mancini’s album. Apart from this, he plays it save and remains in slightly melancholic and all the more opulent realms, making this one of those melodious yet perishable albums at first, but provides a few twists and renditions that are interesting enough to make this a strong poster child of 60's Easy Listening Funk (yay, another genre blending). Still, it's not mandatorily a top pick for Exotica fans as you will see below.

Fittingly enough, the album launches right with Bernstein's aforementioned Theme Of Hawaii, which was at the time a brand-new piece of music, only a few months old and not yet engraved in the collective mind of the listening audience. Bernstein's version is what you might expect from a typical cinematic piece: it's pompous, melodramatic and string-heavy. Mancini, enslaved by the characteristic traits of the album, needs to streamline and limewash the overly loud and coarse sections and decides to deliver an entirely different, superbly technicolored approach with floating harps, sloping ukuleles and a good-spirited choir. Still, even Mancini decides to introduce quieter bridges filled with vibraphone sprinkles, a harpsichord and gentle percussion. The last third sees the increased use of brass instruments and a rather curious final inclusion of the harpsichord that doesn't fit in this new context. But since the Theme Of Hawaii is seldom featured in the Exotica context, my complaint is negligible.


The second song is a surprise … and is yet entirely expected at the same time. Les Baxter's eternal classic Quiet Village – although not strictly tied to Hawaii – is offered in an orchestral setting that is much closer to the original than the various quartet or quintet incarnations of the genre's usual suspects. The rustic piano intro is enhanced by a humming male choir while the golden shimmering string section is accompanied by female singers. Paradisiac flutes swirl in the background, a nylon-string guitar that is mixed way too loud takes over, followed by a warped harpsichord that is actually positively amusing in this setting. Gleaming woodwinds, which again are mixed too loud for my taste, are followed by the complete choir whose smashing performance marks the high point before the punchy brass leads the way to the exit. A very curious version whose ingredients don't seem to fit and are too arbitrarily mixed. Still, if you're up for a unique cut of Quiet Village, this one could please you.

Alfred Newman's composition The Moon Of Manakoora is next, and Mancini better not starts to fool around with the genuine gentleness of the original by featuring yet another harpsichord. Luckily, he doesn't, as the slow exotic percussion is boosted by the cozy washes of harp strings and further refined by a female lead singer who adds mystique and grace. She is later accompanied by the choir together with lavish, glowing strings. The appearance of the brass sections is especially silky. The best thing I can say about this version is that it is faithful to the original and the spirit. However, it also lacks any good surprises or little curlicues that would have improved it to my mind.


Next is Pearly Shells, a waltz-like ditty originally written by Webley Edwards and Leon Pober and presented here with a focus on darkly droning brass instruments that keep the convivial spirit, playful xylophone droplets and the usual spring lushness. What kills this track for me is its waltz architecture and the loud electric piano that puts itself on the forefront. Thankfully, this section is relatively short, but the remaining ingredients cannot capture my heart either, I'm afraid. While Blue Hawaii returns to pitch-perfect Easy Listening lands with cascading harps, brightly-lit violin strings and mellow horns that altogether are merged with the well-known nerve-racking notes of the electric piano for – phew! – only a short time, Mancini's unique skit Driftwood And Dreams marries Funk with Easy Listening in a clear-cut fashion; the brass-heavy string-infused beginning is Easy Listening by the numbers, but the middle section introduces a surprisingly modern spy-theme funk guitar that harmonizes well with the trumpets. The harpsichord follows immediately and is substituted by a choir section. Unfortunately, the melodies don't stick.

Side B continues with the seeming arbitrariness of thrown-in instruments. The pompous 1936 classic Hawaiian War Chant is one of the better renditions with dusky horn sections and their tension-causing foils, louder percussion, Hawaiian guitars and a mystical vibraphone whose sustained reverb merges well with the tribal rhythms. The male choir sings along to the rhythm before the track ends on a solemn note with an effervescent choir-brass mélange. I don't have any complaints this time, it's a catchy, danger-evoking song that culminates into a clichéd but expected ending.


Lionel Newman's Adventures In Paradise is one of my favorite Exotica numbers, and Mancini fails to deliver, as the iconic main melody doesn't work on a harpsichord, damnit! Since it is also played on horns and strings as well as it is sung by the choir, my anger vanishes quickly but resurfaces yet again during the second half when the harpsichord is resurrected. The final seconds of the dreamy harp ambience are really gorgeous but don't make up for the unnecessary Funk flavor. I'm really disappointed, and the same can be said about the interpretation of Jack Pitman's Beyond The Reef which features the unfitting harpsichord once more and merges it with an otherwise phantasmagorically tropical instrumentation.


Tiny Bubbles, the second song written by Leon Pober, is a much-needed success: ukuleles, doo-doo choirs, exuberantly warm strings, mellow flutes and sneaky trumpets mesh aurorally. I don't like the overly joyful approach of this song, but it is skillfully played, and the incessant ukulele makes for a formidable base frame, I have to admit. The Hawaiian Wedding Song is yet again keen on the formula of an incisive harpsichord thrown into a tropical fantasy, and even Queen Lydia Lili'uokalani's final Aloha Oe cannot escape the now infamous treatment. The choir and the solemn mood are really admirable, but again, I cannot cope with the harpsichord, I'm sorry to say.

Did I just pan Music Of Hawaii? I’m afraid I did, and the reasons for this are as frustrating as they remain curious to myself. For one, I really like the instrumentation, the humming choir, the colorful violin string ensemble and the lavish rapture it is able to create. But then again, there are alway instruments that are mixed too loud and sound out of touch even when they're better embedded in the mix. I'm talking about three particular devices: the harpsichord, the electric piano and a curiously punchy string instrument that could be a tweaked harpsichord or of a similar electronic origin. These funk devices are found in many an album at the brink of the 70's, but here they are particularly annoying and simply don't fit in the Hawaiian theme.


If Mancini had chosen an over the top-presentation as Mike Simpson did on the aforementioned Jungle Odyssey, I would have loved the album better. But each and every beautifully soothing vista that is aurally painted is sooner or later destroyed by one of the three above instruments. I may be entirely, horribly wrong and Music Of Hawaii might be a huge favorite of many people, but I simply cannot push myself to listen to it often enough. I've tried over the years to like it and always failed in this regard, which is to this day curious to me as its ingredients are all strong favorites of mine.


As a fan of Cal Tjader, I embrace pre-70's Funk, just take his gorgeous Solar Heat into account where every harpsichord and electric piano sits tightly and never annoys. But here I have to say that Henry Mancini's Music Of Hawaii is a misstep of a man who brought us an endless stream of catchy pieces and themes – and many of the renditions found here are better arranged and orchestrated in Mancini's 1957 Exotica opus Driftwood And Dreams (aka The Versatile Henry Mancini). Music Of Hawaii, however, is definitely not recommended by me. Two good interpretations – Hawaiian War Chant and The Moon Of Manakoora – may be mollifying artifacts, though. If you happen to like it, great. But this is one of the albums that failed to impress me time and again, though every element in it is for itself grand. Oh these dissonances!


Exotica Review 079: Henry Mancini – Music Of Hawaii (1966). Originally published on Jun. 9, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.