Before I go further, let’s get down exactly what I’m talking about when it comes to exotica music – defined best, I think, by Les Baxter’s “Quiet Village”, which would later become a hit by the so-called “father of exotica”, Martin Denny:
Les Baxter‘s album Ritual of the Savage (Le Sacre du Sauvage) was released in 1952 and would become a cornerstone of exotica. This album featured lush orchestral arrangements along with tribal rhythms and offered such classics as “Quiet Village”, “Jungle River Boat”, “Love Dance”, and “Stone God.” Ritual is the seminal Exotica record, influencing all that came after it. As the 1950s progressed, Baxter carved out a niche in this area, producing a number of titles in this style including “Tamboo!” (1956), “Caribbean Moonlight” (1956), “Ports of Pleasure” (1957), and “The Sacred Idol” (1960). Baxter claimed Ravel and Stravinsky as influences on his work.
In 1957, Martin Denny covered Les Baxter’s “Quiet Village”, with exotic bird calls and a vibraphone instead of strings, which established the sound of the Polynesian styled music. The song reached #2 on Billboard’s charts in 1959 with Denny’s Exotica album reaching #1. Soon the new technology of stereo further opened up the musical palettes of Denny and other prominent exotica artists such as Arthur Lyman and Juan García Esquivel.
The distinctive sound of exotica relies on a variety of instruments: conga, bongos, vibes, Indonesian and Burmese gongs, boo bams (bamboo sticks), Tahitian log, Chinese bell tree and Japanese kotos. Additionally intrinsic to the sound of exotica are bird calls, big-cat roars, and even primate shrieks which invoke the dangers of the jungle. Though there are some standards which contain lyrics, singing is rare. Abstract, sirenish ululations, chants, vocalized animal calls, and guttural growls are common.
Yeah, that’s about right. But if Martin Denny is indeed the “father of exotica”, then surely Baxter has to be the “godfather of exotica”, as without Baxter’s ingenuity and influence, Denny wouldn’t have created a brand of exotica more accessible to dozens of small combos and orchestras worldwide who tout him as their major influence today.
I don’t recall ever seeing a Les Baxter album in our house, though it wouldn’t surprised me if my Auntie Marge and Uncle Don had one in their collection that I might have heard on some occasion. Perhaps it all started with the South Pacific soundtrack LP my parents brought home when I was just a kid, or shortly thereafter, those Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass albums whose stylish arrangements caught my ear and got me dreaming of warmer and sunnier climes far away from my Tewksbury, Mass. home.
While folks typically associate The Great White Shank’s musical tastes as primarily Beach Boys, Sandals, and surf music driven, there is no music I identify more with, or a genre that moves me more, than exotica.
Sitting on my back patio, cocktail in hand, tiki bar nearby, and watching the palm trees sway above the pool, my surroundings and tastes were a testament to exotica music before I even knew what exotica was. But me and exotica music have much in common: both born during the Cold War years when America, weary from the horrors of World War II and the Korean War and the fears of a nuclear age, sought an escapism tied to exotic and friendly ports of call. Add to that the gifts of an ear for music and a taste for travel to faraway places handed down to me by my parents (my Mom’s side especially, since my Auntie Marge had both as well), and it’s easy to see why The Great White Shank and exotica music were made for each other.
That such a unique art form should have been created during such a dangerous time in the world’s history is no accident, as RJ Smith writes in the liner notes to The Exotic Moods Of Les Baxter:
…these are pieces meant to invoke a boat trip up an African river, or the bustle of a port town, or a pagan dance around a Tiki god. They have little or nothing to do with the genuine music of those places. They are Cold War fantasies of otherness, of a world not armed to the teeth, of a place where everywher Americans go they are liked. …in it you will taste the clash of cultures, yet never spill your drink. This met the needs of a post-war world anxious to be told, over and over again, that it was a small and safe world after all. This was sensuousness devised to overwhelm the senses, to make “commuter man” lose all control.
To me, exotica music is music that, not unlike the Googie architecture of the ’50s and ’60s I’ve written about previously, takes you to faraway places without ever having to worry about leaving your comfort zone. Exotica conjures up imaginitive (and completely unrealistic) images of the South Seas, the Orient, African jungles, or places like India or Morocco in a way no different than what Walt Disney created at Epcot – places that might exist physically, but presented in a completely safe – and, shall I say, American – form where the distance between reality and fantasy is no further than that between your patio chair and the bartender pouring your drinks.
Look in the next couple of days for a very special guest offering up his own must-have list of music for creating your own exotica music collection.