Alfred Newman & Ken Darby
The Magic Islands






The Magic Islands: The Music Of Hawaii is a ten-track orchestral suite of Hawaiian standards and unique tunes, delivered by Hollywood’s most successful composers and arrangers Alfred Newman (1900–1970) and Kenneth Lorin Darby (1909–1992). Released on Decca Records in 1957 when the Exotica genre was becoming the short-lived force to reckon with as a Jazz lover, it stands in the tradition of symphonic Exotica works such as Morton Gould’s Jungle Drums (1957) and is the forerunner to the duo’s own Ports Of Paradise (1960). Newman and Darby have fetched more Oscars and Grammy Awards than there are Hawaiian islands, and so these prolific audiophiles know a thing or two about paradise as envisioned with a large orchestra and a mixed choir called the Ken Darby Singers.


The Magic Islands is thus a difficult album to worship, as the pompous interstices and humongous arrangements burst at the seams due to the strings, flutes, bass instruments, drums and vocals. Always over the top, crushing the picayune efforts of tropical Jazz combos, the LP is almost torn apart by its own weight… only to then showcase vignettes of superb soothingness. While this is a Hollywood album with the tonalities one typically craves for, there are moments – mirages even – of bliss where Polynesian spirits and wisps float through the jungle. Mysterious, fueled by prayers and sermons, it is these situations of fugacity where The Magic Islands really shines, its high quality material aside. Newman and Darby are thus ahead of their time by admixing various ingredients to an often cinematic but rarely histrionic voyage through, over and beyond Hawaii. Here is a closer look at a heavyweight of an exotic symphony.


The first transcendental stop on Newman & Darby’s island-hopping travelog is called Hāna Maui, originally co-written by Darby with Marvin Wright. And it is a revelation right from the get-go due to its magnanimous runtime of five and a half minutes. This magnitude allows the arrangers time to include a field recording of ocean waves, seagulls and birds of paradise, hopefully recorded on site. A steamer’s signal horn blows over the nearby coast, a sense of holiday is in the air. "Hawaii, island of flowers," the Ken Darby Singers chant amid music box-evoking glockenspiels, vibraphone hazes and verdured double bass helixes. As soon as the strings set in, so does the pompousness; a recurring scheme. Johnny Noble’s take on Prince Leleiohaku’s Hawaiian War Chant is next, and granted, vintage Exotica fans have rarely encountered a similar version. This is normally a benchmark for drummers: every faithful rendition should at least feature a few bongos or related drums, even on Hapa Haole albums. Here, the drums are curiously in the background, but the oomph is realized nonetheless, albeit differently. Cinematic sunset brass eruptions scythe through the mephitic air, sulfurous spurs and other vocal stimuli make this a mightily impressive interpretation showing off the very large scale with pride.


Whereas R. Alex Anderson’s Lovely Hula Hands returns to string-infested aureoles as caused by the – occasionally chintzy – interactions of the choir and the warped sustain of the violins whose Space-Age aorta enlightens the paradisiac scenery, it is Charles E. King’s Hawaiian Wedding Song which is clearly inspired by the setups and arrangements of Webley Edwards, for its overture breathes genuinely Hawaiian traditions due to the chanting preacher. Orchestra bells as well as flute/violin sinews then hint at a Hollywood approach, with the susurrant mixed choir upping the ante in this regard before Elliot Daniel’s Legend Of The Rain closes side A with high-plasticity drum performances during rainfall, with the solemn brass fanfares and mellow strings making this a truly fantastic sapphire. Graceful and gentle, it is on par with Arthur Lyman’s vitreous take as found on Bahia (1959). On Newman’s and Darby’s arrangement, the cheesy vocals actually add a seal of quality.


Side B opens with Ken Darby’s eponymous title track The Magic Islands and comprises of sirens’ wailings, male counterparts, muffled drums as well as towering conga adjuvants. The skills of the singers agglutinate the scattered drums, for Darby’s piece is light on the textures, but heavy on the melody vocal-wise. Arthur Quenzer’s Trade Winds is up next, an unexpectedly melodramatic, almost Gothic performance. The Ken Darby Singers lament, resemble the titular winds and become enmeshed in a reticulation of harp glitters and string washes. The rubicund mood is not maintained throughout the composition, and so the tonality shifts into a more thankful timbre.


Whereas Harry Owens’ standard Sweet Leilani downright enchants with a long-form prelude of gorgeously hollow marimba-like drums, sermonizing chants and tick-tocking claves before the mysterious purity opens up for Hollywood’s string manifestos which deliver the world-famous melody and put the surreal scenery to an end, Ken Darby’s own Love Song Of Kalua provides a soothing and enigmatic diorama of pentatonic jungle flutes, tacky mixed choirs, triangle glitters and drum-accompanied string permutations, with the finale comprising of a medley: Charles E. King’s Song Of The Islands and King’s Serenade are intertwined with Queen Liliukalani's mandatory Aloha Oe. Particularly noteworthy, at least in my opinion, is the resurrection of the string mélange which was wonderfully alienated and mystified over the course of side B. Here, the Occidental tonality is resurrected, the cinematic vibe, the glaring melodies. Instead of an oneiric granuloma, bog-standard ingredients are concocted, making this medley a disappointing end to an otherwise splendidly clandestine island panorama.


What I have written in terms of Newman & Darby’s Ports Of Paradise rings true in terms of The Magic Islands as well: they don’t produce albums like this anymore, a sentence that appears many times in various fields. But there is more to it than nostalgia: not only is this an enormously cinematic album with a gargantuan scope, making this a standout work in terms of Exotica, it is furthermore an LP that does otherwise not match the vintage Exotica fan’s hunting scheme and may fail to gain the appreciation it otherwise deserves. Axel Stordahl’s similarly titled and themed The Magic Islands Revisited (1961) is, I believe, more successful in delivering a truly tropical feeling with its symphonies, especially due to the large amount of drums and vivacious instrumentation. Stordahl has a choir on board as well, and it is equally sacchharine at times. In contrast to his work, however, Newman & Darby really put the synergy to the test, shuttling between stupefying mysteries and orchestral standards.


The genteel flow – despite the orchestral majesty – complete with an encapsulated dreaminess is probably the biggest achievement. If you already know Ports Of Paradise, it is not necessary to own The Magic Islands due to its similarity. Then again, the opposite might be all the more true, and this is a take I favor myself: since these albums are so similar, so outstandingly gigantic in their scope, it is wise to own both of them. The Magic Islands meanwhile has the better field recordings, genuinely Hawaiian preludes and the more exotic material, but whatever your specific opinion is, don’t let the antediluvian choir spoil the fun. The Ken Darby Singers are often ridiculously out of place, but when they hit the right notes and are in sync with the aural islands, enlightenment ensues. The Magic Islands is available on vinyl and a remastered download version.


Exotica Review 347: Alfred Newman & Ken Darby – The Magic Islands (1957). Originally published on Jun. 7, 2014 at