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The Many Moods of Arthur Lyman
By Alden Gewirtz

Image: Arthur Lyman Estate
When most of us think of exotica, we think of tiki idols, native women in sarongs, and the music Les Baxter, Martin Denny, or Esquivel. But one of the genre's lesser known musicians, Arthur Lyman, should also be included in the pantheon. Sadly, Lyman passed away on February 24, leaving fans with the legacy of a great innovator.

Along with Baxter and Denny, Lyman helped to create the "exotica" sound—melodic and hypnotizing music built with layers of percussion instruments and sprinkled with unexpected nature sounds, creating the aural equivalent of a tropical island. In fact, Arthur Lyman's ethereal vibraphones and screeching bird calls back Martin Denny's cover of Les Baxter's "Quiet Village" on the breakthrough album that lent its moniker to the genre, Exotica. What ultimately distinguished Lyman from his contemporaries weren't his birdcalls, however, but his knowledge as a native of the islands and his cool jazz style.

Born on Kauai in 1932, Lyman grew up in Honolulu. He learned to play marimba as a child, started performing on the vibraphone professionally in Hawaiian nightclubs when he was 14 years old, and joined Martin Denny's band in the 1950s. He left Denny's group in 1957 to go solo, and his first release, Taboo, sold nearly two million copies. Lyman eventually released more than 30 albums, several of which were recorded with sophisticated hi-fi equipment in the space-agey geodesic Henry J. Kaiser Aluminum Dome in the Hawaiian Village Hotel. A highly talented instrumentalist, Lyman played vibraphones, marimba, guitar, congas, bongos, conch shells, and other percussion instruments.

In addition to playing traditional Hawaiian melodies, Lyman found ways to adapt familiar standards like "Havah Nagilah", "Caravan", and "The Lady Is a Tramp" with an island sound, making these songs just as tropical as his covers of "Blue Hawaii", "Aloha Oe" or the ever popular "Hawaiian War Chant". Most of his albums resemble individual "world music" compilations, effortlessly shifting between South Pacific, Asian, Latin, or Caribbean tempos, and even downbeat jazz.

In the 1950s and early 60s, Arthur Lyman's music struck a chord with the WWII GI's who returned from the war with a taste for the exotic, and he helped Hawaii come to the foreground of America's consciousness as it was gaining its statehood. His music created a soundtrack for those who wanted to escape to deserted tropical islands. At the peak of his career in the early 1960s, he not only held court at the Shell Bar in Honolulu, but also appeared on the Hawaiian Eye TV show with Robert Conrad and Connie Stevens. A few years later, however, the British Invasion and Woodstock rendered his music old fashioned and out of step. Nevertheless, he continued to perform in his native Hawaii, playing vibes until early last year.

Unfortunately, Arthur Lyman lost his battle with throat cancer at the end of February, at the age of 70. But renewed interest in lounge culture has put a new spin on Lyman's music, proving his efforts went far beyond kitsch. For those without access to a turntable for his sought after Hi-Fi LPs, Lyman's solo debut Taboo, as well as Taboo Vol. 2, The Legend of Pele, Hawaiian Sunset, Pearly Shells, and Leis of Jazz have all recently been re-released onto CD by Rykodisc. A new compilation entitled The Very Best of Arthur Lyman is due at the end of March. For more information on this legendary composer, visit www.arthurlyman.com or www.spaceagepop.com/lyman.htm.

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