Paul Mark
12½ Geishas
Must Be Right





Drum rolls, please, for the quirkiest and greatest Exotica album title ever: 12½ Geishas Must Be Right by the Hawaiian organist and pianist Paul Mark. Recorded in Honolulu and released in 1963 on the Sounds Of Hawaii label, the stupendous amount of 14 tracks offers a different take on Japanese Folk songs and classics than Mark’s preceding instrumental LP East To West (1961). Whereas that album is created by a septet and features a truly unique and superb mélange of slick Hammond organ chords, bongo blebs, mystical koto twangs and shamisen backings, 12½ Geishas Must Be Right shares much more similarities with classically symphonic structures. A few twists are nevertheless woven in for good measure. In its center is a choir of three geishas who either provide the lead vocals on the respective material or sing together in a cheerful way.


The arrangements are also superb; they lack the archetypical Japanese instruments, but still succeed via their delivery of the exemplary Asian pentatonicism on both the piano and the organ as well as on the many strings. In all honesty, the first record by Paul Mark is a good deal more extraordinary, exotic, enigmatic and galactic, but the geisha-based successor has its advantages as well: the majority of the songs features lyrics in both Japanese and English, and given the Japan-related craze that reigned all over Hawaii back in the late 50's and early 60's, the pianist made the right choice and a clever move. Whereas all song titles on East To West are in Japanese, they are all written in plain English on the geisha album. Uplifting ditties, tragic lamentos as well as a certain sepia-tinted nostalgia layer are all reunited here, and despite the lack of truly exotic instruments, the LP is very valuable for its tasteful delivery of the material. Only rarely does the orchestra become too smarmy and kitschy, quite an achievement for such a record that should bleed galleons of schmaltz and syrup. Read more about a lesser known Exotica-oid album that must not be missed any longer.


"Konichiwa! We greet you from the temple of stock photography."


The opener is the first of two Exotica classics most listeners know once they dive a tad deeper into the genre. I am talking about the traditional Japanese Folk song called Sakura. It appears as Cherry Blossoms on Paul Mark’s album, has also been considered on the organist’s other album East To West as well as on Arthur Lyman‘s Taboo 2 (1960) and Werner Müller aka Ricardo SantosHoliday In Japan (1958), to name just a few examples. It is a classic tune, distinctly Japanese while accessible to Occidental ears, usually encapsulating a heavier yearning that seems so unlikely due to its emanation of spring. On this album, Paul Mark mediates between this lethargy and an uplifting piano-fueled vibe. Short bursts of orchestra strings underline the mixed Japanese and English lyrics by the three geishas. Rhythm shifts, maracas and glockenspiels make this opener a gracefully tumbling beauty charged with a clear cut Japanese timbre. Arabesques, pentatonic spirals and poeticizing coils are all tastily interwoven. Notwithstanding the omission of kotos, shamisens or shakuhachis, even with perfectly well-known instruments the exotic feeling bursts at the seams.


The same can be said about Lovely White Pikake, otherwise known as Yaraikô, a song about "last night’s scent" and the encompassing nocturnal beauty. Paul Mark reverses the moonlit topos and decides to induce an aura of bliss and wanderlust all over this piece. The lyrics are exclusively delivered in Japanese, one lead geisha sings the complete lyrics. Clicking claves, sizzling shakers, warm airflows of an acoustic guitar, harp veils as well as orchestra string washes create a insouciant mood to sing along to if one can cope with the text.


Song Of The Seashore is next, originally written by Tamezo Narita and better known as Hamabe No Uta. This is a strongly beautiful ballad about the coastline, with all three geishas being reunited in-between string washes, a moist harp glissando and careful piano accompaniments by Paul Mark. The polyphony and rose-tinted tonality should make this a tacky take, but somehow, this is not the case. And Mr. Mark has a delightful surprise in store: he finally brings back the warmly quavering Hammond organ layers from his previous album and places them in a jazzy yet laid-back segue in the middle section.


While the traditional The Lonely Seabird or Wakare No Isochidori has previously been featured as an instrumental on East To West as well and is much more accessible in its carefree incarnation loaded with euphony on the string, harp and organ side despite the tragic story of the singing geisha, Spring Is Here is a swinging take on Haru Ga Kita and henceforth not based on the eponymous ballad by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers. An ode to spring with pentatonic piano tittles, acoustic guitar aortas, mesmerizing string washes, vibe accents and a joyful core that is yet again tasteful and not syrupy, this is another superb hit and appears to be timeless to this very day.


The contrastive Snow Flower (Yuki No Hana) is a slowly meandering ballad which carves out the vocal range of the lead geisha. Harp twangs, Paul Mark’s piano solo and flute washes accentuate the warm sound waves which are curiously devoid of the frosty topic. Side A closes with the second tune a lot of Exotica listeners know and a superhit in the true sense of the word: Hachidai Nakamura’s and Rokusuke Ei's Sukiyaki. It is enormously catchy and consoling, Paul Mark merges symphonic effulgence with piano placentas, the choir of geishas sings cheerfully along. There is nothing more to say about this most Pop-oriented of all tunes. It is the standout track in this regard, less Asian than Western-oriented. No surprise Kyu Sakamoto has had a smash hit with his version which even entered the Billboard Charts. A delightful and often considered ditty in the realms of Exotica. Heck, even Billy Vaughn cannot harm its grace on his eponymous LP Sukiyaki (1961).


Side B is coherent with the material of side A and seamlessly connects, and yet the quality slightly decreases. The melodies are not that stellar anymore, but my presumption is probably fueled by the lesser degrees of euphoria and blitheness. Be that as it may, the medley of Seven Little Crows and Kosaku Yamada’s Red Dragonfly (Aka Tombo) is a hit and surprises with the first appearance of pizzicato strings and dark acoustic guitar slaps which resemble the tonal range of a koto. The well-known Aka Tombo then enchants with plinking piano prongs and augmented hi-hats. During both songs, all geishas are involved in both compositions, and the amicable spirits of these sequences glow from within. The next tune shows the decades that have passed since the recording: Just A Gay Romance would probably be renamed nowadays due to wrong connotations, but is actually quite an important artifact arrangement-wise as it allows the piano melodies a lot of room to breathe. In addition, the liquedous nylon string guitar echoes into the distance, adding a timeless marker to this cautiously string-underlined ballad. This is another corker, not at all clichéd.


My Old Home Town (Furusato) is another one of the better known melodies, eminently nostalgic, but supercharged with happy memories. The nostalgia layering technique is not particularly inventive, as it is based on the same interplay between golden piano chords and sprinkles, whirling string serpentines and their pizzicato brethren as well as gorgeous harp riffs as usual, but the luminous undulation effect is wondrous enough to captivate a strong interest. Up next is Farewell To Tosa which harks back tonally to Paul Mark’s rendition of Oedo Mehon Bashi on East To West, but is actually based on the song Nangoku Tosa Wo Ato Ni Shite. A dichotomous critter that oscillates between crepuscular shades and melodrama, it is the intertwinement between the flute-like Hammond organ, the prominent harp billows and the comparably sophisticated percussion layer that drive the threnody and lamenting sorrow. Not entirely crestfallen and forsaken, the darker scent does the album good, reintroducing the listener to the murkier tonality of the opener Sakura. Clicking claves and vibraphone droplets round off one of the best tunes of the whole album for reasons of variety and the widened pool of instruments alone.


Renato Taki’s Flowers (Hana) ventures into sunlit territories, but this is the first instance, at least to me, where arrangement and atmosphere are clichéd. “Spring is gay and beautiful” lyrics in tandem with their Japanese foils and multitudinous pointillistic strings are too sugar-sweet and swinging for a Japan-themed album. Here, the orchestral setting does not help. But it is the only instance on the album where this is the case. The serious rendition of Tadashi Yanada’s Rains Of Jogashima (Jogashima No Ame) is much more successful and wonderfully japan-oid. Sorrowful harp spirals waft around a lamenting geisha, sanguine aeriform strings float in the distance, the reduced setup is a boon, letting the vocals shine all the more. Glitzy glockenspiels and a gradual shift into tones in major round off the duality, with Paul Mark’s warmhearted chords adding benignancy to the beatless depiction of the natural phenomenon. The closer is embracingly joyful and positive: Evening Flower finishes the blooming sub-theme with an ooh-oohing geisha choir, a sunset-colored loftiness with heavier strings, the most scintillating vibraphone driblets and piano specters in higher tone frequencies. This closer shows in a nutshell what is so great about 12½ Geishas Must Be Right: the successful merger of a jazzy aura with symphonic structures.


12½ Geishas Must Be Right is a superb album that is camouflaged as an Easy Listening artifact, but much more meaningful. The array of compositions is largely based on traditional material that is both eternal and timeless, but contemporary hits such as Sukiyaki are on board as well. The meaning and true reason of existence behind the album can be found in the mutual international understanding. Recorded in Honolulu, exclusively comprising Japanese tunes with lyrics in both Japanese and English, Paul Mark’s orchestra and his geishas want to give the North American audience a closer insight into these melodies. Standing in the tradition of albums such as The Tokyo Serenaders‘ Holiday In Japan (released in the latter half of the 50’s), the material is of a strongly didactic nature. The English portions of the lyrics are equipollent foils to their Japanese parts, and rarely are there exclusively Japanese cuts such as Lovely White Pikake, so everyone is allowed and invited to sing along to the compositions, provided that the voice somehow matches the geishas’ vocal range. And even if this is not the case: what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Side A gathers the better material, side B is only slightly inferior, but much more serious in its undertones.


High-quality material comes in the shapes of the exceptionally catchy Song Of The Seashore, The Lonely Seabird, Sukiyaki of course as well as Farewell To Tosa, but given the amount of 14 tracks, there is no real dud on this album and something on here for everyone. 12½ Geishas Must Be Right lacks the sitars and bongos off East To West, but keeps the Hammond organ washes and features strings and pianos aplenty. The 2012 reissue by Sinetone AMR is good, but not stellar. Some vocals sound distorted, the master tapes were clearly not used during the process of digitalization, but all in all, the sound is good enough to capture the plasticity and the meaningful impetus of the work, even though the beautiful original artwork is replaced by stock photographs of various geishas. How innovative. Egad, 12½ Geishas Must Be Right is totally recommended to fans of Japanese music with a symphonic focus and great otherworldly additions.


Exotica Review 243: Paul Mark – 12½ Geishas Must Be Right (1962). Originally published on Jul. 27, 2013 at