101 Strings
Hawaiian Paradise






Hawaiian Paradise (actually titled In A Hawaiian Paradise) is yet another string-heavy incarnation of the same old Hawaiian tunes, brought to you by the 101 Strings orchestra brand, critics might say. Released in 1961 on David A. Miller's Somerset label, it blends inconspicuously with the orchestra's roster of similarly themed albums, among them The Romance Of Hawaii (1969) and the CD compilation The Magic Of Hawaii (1993). Heck, these are surely not the only Hawaii-related albums by the world-famous orchestra. Does an in-depth review of an ephemeral album like this really make sense? To be honest, I would normally shy away from delivering one, but the 101 Strings and their ever-shifting formation of 120+ instrumentalists provide an excitingly large production scope that was seldom found back then and is utterly rare nowadays. So yes, a detailed review is deemed appropriate. Despite the rapid succession of their releases, the branding scheme and the ensuing stale aftertaste, I am nonetheless strangely lured by their productions.


Fans of Alfred Newman's and Ken Darby's melodramatic Ports Of Paradise (1960) will be moved by this particular record in one way or the other as well, for there is also a large mixed choir on board. Another very good reason to review Hawaiian Paradise comprises two unique compositions by long-time collaborator Joseph Kuhn who expands the soundscape with imaginative arrangements; well, imaginative in the narrow sense of the Easy Listening term, but still highly successful to my mind. Hence, a detailed review is applicable to my mind, especially so since there are a few instrument-related surprises on this LP as well.


Charles E. King's Song Of The Islands marks the gateway to the Hawaiian Easy Listening world of the 101 Strings, its biggest surprise being the plasticity of the field recording at the beginning. Gentle ocean waves, a distant ship horn and pizzicato strings that resemble plinking ice cubes in tiki mugs provide a luxurious opening of an otherwise dreamy string-fueled soundscape. Theremin-like Space-Age steel guitars accentuate the syrupy mixed choir. Interestingly enough, the choir is totally in the center, sometimes being the only audible source; beware of the choir if you hate kitsch, for it is truly silky and yearning. Liquedous harp cascades and mellifluous flutes round off the sunny afternoon depiction which ends with a reapperance of the ocean waves.


Another famous tune of King follows which he wrote with Ralph Rainger: the Hawaiian Wedding Song succeeds with the inclusion of a prominently placed vibraphone and a seriously dreamy opening phase in the veins of Les Baxter. Golden-tinged ukulele licks serve as the rhythmical aorta around which the wraithlike orchestra strings and harp twangs gyrate. Skyhigh steel guitars illuminate the already brightly-lit arrangement. Easy Listening by the numbers.


Bill Cogswell's Little Grass Shack merges silky Dixieland-evoking brass instruments in-between vibraphone droplets, rhythm ukuleles plus wafting strings, glinting glockenspiels and eupeptic flutes. The biggest achievement? The cool rhythm shift in the middle which breaks the Easy Listening spell big time and unleashes a frantic hillbilly version of a melody that would be fitting for an Exotica quartet, but not such a large orchestra. The surprise is thus all the greater, and this is probably as far-out as the 101 Strings will get on their Hawaiian themed albums (for there is of course always the psychedelic trip known as Astro-Sounds From Beyond The Year 2000 of 1969).


While Harry Owens' Sweet Leilani features a mixed choir over a saccharine triangle-interspersed string concoction with positively wonky ukulele licks, the traditional Moon Over Kona is particularly legato-esque and moony. Similar in its chords to its close relative Moon Of Manakoora – a tune that is surprisingly neglected on this album –, it features additional lead bass flutes, a wondrous marimba river occasionally crossing the scene, and spectral steel guitars. I am actually quite drawn to this peaceful serenade, probably due to the wider instrumental pool.


Side B starts with a take on Ralph Rainger's Blue Hawaii. In order to get the listener in the mood, a short field recording of rather whimsical waves is placed as a prologue, but the ensuing balm is a kitsch galore. The mixed choir sings overly sugary, which is a pity to me, as the harp notes and xylophone sprinkles are delicious. One ambiguity remains noteworthy, however: the highly intimate rhythmic ukulele is placed next to the choir over large parts of the arrangements, making it a bewildering setting. Short paradisiac flute riffs round off this take. But spare me with the choir!


Up next is a real treat, regardless of the actual aesthetic implications, as the beautifully titled Stars Over Maui is a unique composition by Joseph Kuhn, long-term collaborator with the 101 Strings right from the start of their career. Having already provided a few mildly tropical concoctions on their 1957 debut A Night In The Tropics, Kuhn's arrangement is top-notch and far out in regard to the endemic mirage of Easy Listening standards on here, for Stars Over Maui launches with deliciously clicking sea shells and moves over to xylophone placentas, glockenspiel twinkles and true-fashioned Space-Age strings. The mediation between Hawaiian kitsch and the genuinely beautiful depiction of a beachscape works flawlessly, especially so since the strings are often purposely reduced, with only their rose-tinted aura shimmering from behind. It's a really great piece!


Of course, Johnny Noble's Hawaiian War Chant has to be on this LP. And blimey, the 101 Strings do it tremendously right, in strong contrast to Billy Vaughn's rendition on his terrible album Blue Hawaii (1959). The song is absolutely frantic, with many drums, bongos, timpani, tribal flutes and mysterious wind chimes whirling next to the colorful strings. The many tempo shifts and rhythmic alterations make it a strong interpretation which is definitely not expected. Why were these catchy drums not included on the other arrangements? It turns out that they are, at least in Joseph Kuhn's second and final contribution, the crazy Torchlight which kicks off with the same drums, droning timpani and shifting tempos, but soon unleashes a technicolor maelstrom of spiraling Hollywood strings. These reside again on more experimental grounds given the genre context. Kuhn merges paradisiac dreaminess with carefree ebullience. Especially the steel guitar is a great and unique implementation.


The final Aloha Oe has been a bit too close to the sugar hills. The plinking bells, the harp, the yearning choir and the all too slow tempo make this an overly kitschy take. When the male choir sings the chorus, it is literally haunting… in the worst sense. The singers sound like a group of recently tranquilized bears. Weirdly enough, the soundscape does not differ much from the intrinsic style of the LP. The sugar oozes out of every pore in-between the tones, I'm sorry to say. The best thing on this version? The short inclusion of the opening field recording with the waves and ship horn. Skip this banal finale at all costs!


Hawaiian Paradise is a very good album, but by no means essential. The Exotica listener receives an overdose of orchestra strings – as expected –, two unique cuts by Joseph Kuhn that are virtually neglected and never made a return or proved to be the basis for further renditions themselves, as well as an instrumental pool that puts the focus away from the 101 Strings brand name. Xylophones, glockenspiels, steel guitars, flutes and exotic drums are prominently interwoven, and there are even two to three field recordings in here. Why is this album valuable in this day and age? Naturally, I cannot give an absolute answer, but its large scope might be the best candidate. Over 120 people are involved in the recording process. Such a high number is simply not possible in today's times, at least not in terms of the realization of Exotica material, let alone Hawaiian classics. So even though I might roll my eyes when the choir takes things too far in regard to the oozing syrup of kitsch or when the violins play too effervescently, the sound quality and the -scape are top-notch, the Hawaiian material enchanting. Of interest is the shift from the intimate Hapa Haole sound to a gargantuan orchestra scheme.


The 101 Strings are able to conserve the peacefulness: the orchestra strings are quite often reduced in order to let the ukuleles and steel guitars shine. In the end, I would have wished for a greater use of exotic drums; especially Torchlight, Hawaiian War Chant and Blue Hawaii are prime examples of the drums' impetus, the latter of which puts Billy Vaughn's utterly whimsical drumlets to shame. I recommend Hawaiian Paradise to the Exotica fan who prefers string-focused renditions of Hawaiian classics rather than their ukulele-heavy incarnations as delivered by the many trios or quartets. Take the band's 1969 follow-up The Romance Of Hawaii into account as well. These albums are also available on iTunes and Amazon in digital formats, although in a compilation-kind of way. 


Exotica Review 187: 101 Strings – Hawaiian Paradise (1961). Originally published on Mar. 2, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.