February 29, 2012

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 GarcĂ­a 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.

Filed in: Uncategorized by The Great White Shank at 00:59 | Comment (1)
1 Comment
  1. There was a great restaurant here called the Luau Room that was all Polynesian and they played Exotica music there. Always conjured up the South Seas for me and by the way, I love South Pacific.

    Check out Jennifer Berenzen…she has an amazing voice. She is a wonderful singer and does HER music. On the CD Returning, she recorded it in a Hypericum which is ancient cave-like place with perfect tones. Some of what she does is so contemplative that you may really enjoy her.

    Comment by Jana — February 29, 2012 @ 5:41 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.


Search The Site

Recent Items


September 2021
April 2021
January 2021
December 2020
November 2020
October 2020
September 2020
August 2020
July 2020
June 2020
May 2020
April 2020
March 2020
February 2020
January 2020
December 2019
November 2019
October 2019
September 2019
August 2019
July 2019
June 2019
May 2019
April 2019
March 2019
February 2019
January 2019
December 2018
November 2018
October 2018
September 2018
August 2018
July 2018
June 2018
May 2018
April 2018
March 2018
February 2018
January 2018
December 2017
November 2017
October 2017
September 2017
August 2017
July 2017
June 2017
May 2017
April 2017
March 2017
February 2017
January 2017
December 2016
November 2016
October 2016
September 2016
August 2016
July 2016
June 2016
May 2016
April 2016
March 2016
February 2016
January 2016
December 2015
November 2015
October 2015
September 2015
August 2015
July 2015
June 2015
May 2015
April 2015
March 2015
February 2015
January 2015
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
July 2014
June 2014
May 2014
April 2014
March 2014
February 2014
January 2014
December 2013
November 2013
October 2013
September 2013
August 2013
July 2013
June 2013
May 2013
April 2013
March 2013
February 2013
January 2013
December 2012
November 2012
October 2012
September 2012
August 2012
July 2012
June 2012
May 2012
April 2012
March 2012
February 2012
January 2012
December 2011
November 2011
October 2011
September 2011
August 2011
July 2011
June 2011
May 2011
April 2011
March 2011
February 2011
January 2011
December 2010
November 2010
October 2010
September 2010
August 2010
July 2010
June 2010
May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
February 2010
January 2010
December 2009
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009
December 2008
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
December 2006
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006



4 Goodboys Only

Site Info