101 Strings – East of Suez [Alshire Records, 1968]

In the simplest of terms possible, this is a very enjoyable album. One of the most outstanding releases by 101 Strings, this 1968 album encapsulates the Middle Eastern/Oriental aesthetic in the most homogenized way possible, but, in so doing, creates possibly one of the most definitive Exotica albums in existence.

For one thing, this record begins on a very appropriate note. “Baghdad,” with its fast-er (but variable) pace and melodramatic qualities, makes for a “big” opening, and one that sets the stage for the nine tracks that follow. I must admit, however, that not every song on this album has quite the same impact (for my own ears, at least). The album has one or two dull moments, especially between tracks 7 and 9, which went by for me almost as if I was sitting in a silent room. Among the tracks that DO stand out, “Baghdad,” like I mentioned, along with “Theme From Scheherazade,” “Song Of India,” and “Theme From Prince Igor,” all of which are truly first-rate and satisfying renditions.

Another notable fact about this album is its Middle Eastern and Oriental themes relative to the most common clichés within the Exotica genre. Continents apart from the Tiki’s of Hawaii and the jungles of South America, we find the inspiration for this recording – in Iran, Istanbul and India (as well as surrounding areas). There actually were a decent number of conceptually and thematically similar releases from the 1950s and ‘60s, but few of them are as impressionistic (in the classic Debussian or Ravelian sense) as this one. The sounds on “East Of Suez” seem to ooze “vision.” Put another way, this album is effective in its ability to sound like where it’s supposedly from. While this is probably based entirely on our own stereotypes, fantasies, and emotions from popular culture, it’s the effectiveness at conjuring up these images in our minds that’s most important. If you’ve heard a lot of Les Baxter, I’m sure you understand what I’m saying, and, in fact, there are some parallels between “East Of Suez” and Les Baxter albums such as “Jewels Of The Sea,” “The Primitive And The Passionate” and “Ritual Of The Savage.”

When I play this LP, I can’t help but think of Aladdin, and to a lesser extent, Disney movies in general. The amount of melodrama and sappy orchestration presented here, while it makes for a somewhat artificial experience, is really just a part of Exotica’s charm. Much of what the music industry was producing during these years (roughly 1955 to 1970 or so) is the aural equivalent of McDonald’s or Panda Express, in a way functioning purely as a commercially motivated ready-made vacation package designed to escape from the dullness of work and home. While this music of yesterday can sound very strange to many of us, so too can the action-packed blockbuster movies they churn out now or the sleek aesthetics and strong sex appeal contained within the current releases by “divas” such as Lady GaGa and Ke$ha.

All in all, if you’re a fan of this genre and you want to hear a really good record, give 101 String’s “East Of Suez” a spin on the ‘table. I highly doubt you’d be disappointed.

Joseph A. Bremson
The Exciting Sounds Project

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