Sometimes a realization hits you so hard, you don’t believe it’s been staring at you for so long.
Case in point: I recently re-connected with guitarist Alika Lyman, a good friend of mine since elementary school. We had fun on field trips, played games at recess, and later hunted for records in our high school days.
“Speaking of which are you familiar with exotica music?
My uncle had a great group in the 60s, Arthur Lyman.”
Why it took me 15 years to realize that maybe, just maybe, these two people were related—Arthur Lyman and Alika Lyman—I have no idea. I even found out there’s a Lyman Museum on the Big Island, to which Alika said, “Haha yes those are my missionary ancestors.” (Add this to your collection, LM!)
Alika’s always been an outstanding guitarist, even when rocked to the fullest with his heavy metal band in high school.
But just like any unexpected realization,
jazz music can hit a person so hard
he drops everything and changes.
That’s what happened when Alika heard “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane.
Now Alika is on his way to becoming one of Hawaii’s—and Seattle’s—next great guitar players. You can hear it in his music: sincere, sensitive, skillful.
The players accompanying him are no exception; together they form the Alika Lyman Group, a transcendent group of enthusiastic individuals filled with the spirit of jazz greats like Grant Green, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, and John Coltrane.
Thanks to Alika for sharing his music and experiences with Aloha Got Soul!
Aloha Got Soul: It’s been ages since we last saw each other in person. In 12 words or less, tell me what you’ve been up to since 2006.
Alika Lyman: Playing many kinds of music while emitting great vibes in the process.
Aloha Got Soul: What woke you up to jazz music?
Alika Lyman: Ha, I literally know the exact moment I was awoken to the amazing art of jazz.
In 2007 I was on my way to a rock gig with my drummer Elijah Oguma and he asked me if I wanted to hear something, and as always I agreed. The album he put on was A Love Supreme by John Coltrane and the opening bassline alone caught my attention, by the time Coltrane laid down the opening theme I couldn’t believe the beauty I was hearing, this was like nothing I heard before. “I’m down with this” I thought to myself.
Needless to say that by the opening blast of “Resolution” I was like, “ok…this is the greatest form of music ever. Where do I sign up??”
Aloha Got Soul: You used to play a lot of rock in high school, heavy metal, stuff like that. And you loved it! Is it the same feeling when you play jazz, or is this an entirely different feeling?
Alika Lyman: I’ve definitely thought about this myself and the answer time and time again is yes, at it’s most basic element it’s the same feeling. Music has always been a celebration for me, every time I play for great people with great musicians, it’s a party by my standards.
Aloha Got Soul: People don’t always realize that Hawaii is a lot like the mainland. We have access to the same music, the same amenities, the same creative energy. Hawaii’s population doesn’t listen exclusively to ukulele jams, island rhythms, traditional Hawaiian music, and so on… But at the same time, Hawaii is a special place to grow up, there’s a laid-back vibe that fills what we do everyday. What I’m trying to say is, your talent blends effortlessly with music that grew from the streets of places so unlike Hawaii—Chicago, New York, New Orleans, Kansas City—so how do you capture the energy of Hawaii when you play?
Alika Lyman: My favorite part of jazz has always been the regional differences in players and how it affects their sound. This aspect of the music is crucial, I mean, could you imagine what the world would be like if the Kansas City/Midwest musicians didn’t start migrating to New York in the early 40s? The music we know as jazz would be so entirely different; no Basie, no Bird, no Miles, no Lester Young, no Charlie Christian?! The list goes on.
Hiding my island roots would actually
do a disservice to myself and the art.
Jazz is not just a social art but a deeply personal one as well. In Hawaii, our way of life is definitely very loose, laid back, and devoid of tension; this comes out of me unintentionally.
My musicians always understand what I’m going for and latch on just as any great player of improvised music knows how to do. I really enjoy the “just kani” attitude back home, don’t stress…let’s just play some music.
Aloha Got Soul: Has Seattle been key in pursuing your musical ambitions?
Oh my goodness, I could write a book on this topic; basically Seattle is a fertile breeding ground for the arts, it doesn’t matter what kind of art you may do. The people of Seattle love great art, music, theater and food and there are many innovators and great people here that work hard to keep the culture alive.
As far as jazz is concerned, it is very much thriving and I am so deeply grateful to have met and worked with some amazing people.
Aloha Got Soul: For 15+ years it never once crossed my mind that you could be related to one of Hawaii’s most prolific musicians of the 1950s and 1960s, Arthur Lyman. What are your earliest memories of him?
Yes, Arthur Lyman is my great uncle or my grandfather’s brother. My earliest memory was around Christmas time when my grandfather would play Arthur’s Christmas album, I specifically remember “O’ Holy Night” being beautiful. Unfortunately our families were not that close and the only time I met my uncle was when he played at my grandfather’s funeral in 1997. He played the most beautiful version of “Yellow Ginger Lei”. I remember my dad taking me up to shake his hand, I was 8 years old. In 2002 when he passed I went to his funeral with my family and started listening to his music soon after via my aunty Alison Lyman.
Aloha Got Soul: So you discovered his music around age 13, but when did you really start studying his music… Wait, would you call yourself a student of your uncle’s music?
I started to “listen” to my uncle around that age, I remember the first song I loved was his version of “Miserlou” because everyone else plays it so damn fast. This marked the beginning of a student attitude I would have towards his music. I didn’t begin to “hear” my uncle till several years later when I was enlightened by jazz.
At that point I could really understand what he was going for. The way he went about his music was very beautiful and straight to the point. Stylistically, you can always know it’s Arthur when you hear it and I think all musicians should strive for that identity in their music.
My uncle was a player that didn’t need excessive chops because he knew the perfect note to hit every time. Some players play 10 notes just to find the right one.
Aloha Got Soul: What would be your familial relation to Arthur’s daughter, Kapiolani (she was a singer and musician in his band) does music run in the family?
Kapiolani is my cousin though we have only met once or twice. Music has and always will be an important part of my family and our normal way of life. It’s an escape, its therapy, it provides good energy. Because of this I know any member of my family has the ability to be a great musician, it’s just up to them. My father Anthony Lyman used to refer to this as “the Lyman ear”, the effortless ability to enjoy, hear and internalize music.
Aloha Got Soul: Who or what was the Yellow Bird, and what was it doing at your grandpa’s house?
My grandmother Alice Lyman told me this story: My grandfather was a great fan of calypso and would play many records religiously. One day when Arthur stopped by to visit him in the late 50s my grandfather was spinning a Norman Luboff record. When “Yellow Bird” came on my uncle mysteriously went to the turntable to examine the sleeve and get a better listen, he came back to the table without saying a word. It wasn’t until the release of Arthur’s 1961 #4 billboard top 100 version that everything made sense.
Aloha Got Soul: Your uncle Arthur Lyman was a pioneer in “faux-Polynesian” music known as ‘Exotica’. A lot of people still see exotica as ‘cheesy’ music, what’s your argument against that?
This music will forever be cursed to be pidegeon-holed as tiki bar, lounge, cheesy etc.
However all one has to do is really listen to see the light. The musicians involved were highly versed in the art of jazz (most noteworthy is Geoge Shearing) and this was a study in texture and restraint.
Exotica is a specialized field and
can easily sound like shit
if played out of context.
The same goes for the great Ahmad Jamal who got the degrading tag of “cocktail pianist” by a very ingnorant crictic. Ahmad Jamal understood music and ensemble interaction like no other, his understanding of space, time, texture (the what, the when and the how) was impeccable. The term “cocktail pianist” should not be the defining word on a brilliant jazz man…all you have to do is listen for yourself.
Aloha Got Soul: I can sense a strong vibe of creative energy from Arthur’s music, he was doing something few other musicians were doing at his time. Exotica is the music of what people *imagine* Polynesia, the Pacific, and the Orient might sound like. You’ve got to be pretty creative to make music that’s all based on fantasy!
To me the divine creator of Exotica, Les Baxter, had a great compositional imagination and provided the rest of the great players with standards to base their sound off of. From there my uncle added his trademark deep green jungle vibe that the others could not match. Arthur Lyman made the tunes come alive on a whole new level.
Aloha Got Soul: With the Alika Lyman Group, you play a lot of modern jazz, bop, Blue Note classics. Do you ever play Exotica music with another group?
I have been known to play an exotica standard or two at my club dates and I always get someone very curiously asking what “that one jungle sounding tune” was, It’s nice to keep it alive in my regular routine but I have bigger plans for the music.
Just last year I paired up with Tiki Joes Ocean, a Seattle based exotica group headed by pianist Andy Nazzal. We recorded an album called Under The Midnight Sun and it ended up winning a Hawaii Music Award for Exotica Album of the Year 2010.
Just this past august TJO headlined a show at the Bali Hai restaurant in San Diego where my uncle had a two-week stint in the 60s for the Tiki Oasis Festival to an ecstatic crowd of 300 people.
It is a great pleasure for me to do exotica work because my uncle Arthur was not just an exotica legend but an amazing musician with a tone on the vibraphone that shoots straight into your soul and produced healing vibes.
He played other composers’ melodies
with such conviction that
you would think he wrote it.
His music and memory does not deserve to fizzle out and I’m here working to make sure that doesn’t happen.
I was also very happy to meet music historian Jeff Chenault at the Bali Hai show who is doing a big part in keeping the exotica tradition alive by doing exotica history seminars and actually digging up hard to find exotica records and reissuing them on CD. I was very grateful to meet Jeff Chenault and I thank him for his efforts in keeping the music alive.
Aloha Got Soul: Considering that Arthur Lyman released 30+ albums, performed countless times, and pioneered a unique movement in sound, I’d say you have a long way to go on your musical journey. What’s next for Alika Lyman?
Everyday brings a new opportunity man, I work everyday on new compositions, recordings, club dates, weddings, lessons and I meet amazing people along the way, the work never stops. I have really been focusing lately on teaching and sharing my knowledge with people eager to learn the art of music. I’m a private teacher and also assist at Ev Stern’s Jazz Workshop in Seattle. Ev has been my mentor for over 2 years, we share many of the same views about music and positive vibrations and yet I learn something new from him every day, he is literally a sage with an ocean of knowledge and an amazing bassist.