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Exotica: Tropical Tunes in Suburbia

Updated on April 25, 2014
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Following World War II there was a mass migration of sorts, as American families moved away from established, and often crowded, city neighborhoods in favor of the new sprawling suburbs. This migration was a fresh start for many young families, as they shook off the unpleasantries of war to bask in a new era of prosperity. If some elements of the war years weren't so easily forgotten, others would be embellished and romanticized, most notably the Polynesian cultures that our soldiers encountered while stationed in the Pacific. Memories of these peaceful, idyllic peoples, their exotic locales and curious customs, made a lasting impression on thousands of young men. In response to this fascination, the 1950s saw South Seas motifs make their way into architecture, interior design, cuisine, and apparel, as well as inspiring a new form of instrumental music, a style that came to be known as “exotica”.

Origins

The appeal of exotica was built upon idealistic perceptions of primitive lands, be it Polynesia, the Orient, or Africa, and a tendency to view them as a kind of Shangri-La, a utopia that's at once innocent and savage. This was the age of tiki bars and Polynesian restaurants like Trader Vic's, colorful places that featured bamboo décor, tiki torches, nautical props, and an extensive menu of rum-based cocktails. Of course such an environment warranted suitable music, and the raw, organic sound of exotica served to fill the bill. A vast array of instruments was utilized to construct this tribal soundtrack: bongos, gongs, conga drums, and the vibraphone, not to mention such ambient sounds as the calls of tropical birds and the roar of jungle beasts. A new breed of musicians and composers was called for as well, artists that were well-versed in traditional music-making yet adventurous enough to embrace new ideas.

Les Baxter

Sometimes musical forms will develop over time, but exotica has what is generally regarded as a distinct point of origin: Les Baxter's 1952 album, Ritual of the Savage. It was with this album that the tropical vibe found its voice, establishing a sound that was bigger than a single album. It's only fitting that a sound so original would come from Baxter, whose career spanned many musical genres as well as roles as vocalist, instrumentalist, composer and conductor. His was a diverse talent, but this diversity, and the creativity that fueled it, prompted him to explore many musical avenues rather than focusing strictly on this particular brand of "Polynesian pop". This left the door open for others to more fully develop this new genre, including the musician whose name is most closely associated with exotica: Martin Denny.

Martin Denny and "Quiet Village"

If Les Baxter can be said to have heralded the birth of exotica then Martin Denny surely popularized it, and he did so with a song written and previously recorded by Baxter. Quiet Village, considered by many to be the quintessential exotica song, appeared on Baxter's album Ritual of the Savage, but it was Martin Denny's 1959 rendition of the piece that caught the imagination of the public. While Les Baxter's original version of the track effectively captures the mood of a dream-like jungle environment, Martin Denny's version by comparison paints a darker, more primitive scene. It progresses at a slower, almost ominous pace, interspersed with the calls of exotic birds. Denny saw his Quiet Village reach number four on the pop charts, and due in no small part to this success he would come to be regarded as the king of exotica.

Other Practitioners of Exotica

Hawaiian-born Arthur Lyman started out playing music in the jazz and easy-listening genres, but an attractive offer from Mark Denny prompted him to join his band in 1954. In 1957 Lyman set out on his own, taking Martin Denny's sound and putting a unique spin on it. Lyman would release the album Taboo in 1958, and this album, perhaps more than any other in the genre, has held up beautifully in the years since its release. Denny and Lyman recorded an album together in 1990 called Exotica '90, and remained friends until Lyman's passing in 2002.

Robert Drasnin was above all a composer of music for film and television, and was highly prolific in these endeavors. But Drasnin was asked by the head of Tops Records to create an exotica album in order to capitalize on the craze, and this effort would result in Voodoo, a 1959 album that is on par with the best offerings of the exotica regulars. While the exotica sound would not become his mainstay, Drasnin did do a follow-up album forty-eight years later, 2007s Voodoo II.

Women were not prominent in the world of exotica, the one exception being Peruvian-born Yma Sumac. Her extraordinary voice elevated Yma to the same level of popularity as Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman, and much of her active years were dedicated to concert tours across the globe. Her music was highly diverse, spanning the traditional exotica sounds and covering what today would be called “world music”. Besides this and traditional lounge music, Yma would release a rock album in 1971 and a techno album in 1987.

Exotica and Beyond

There were a number of musicians that entered the realm of exotica after it's heyday, sometimes taking it in a truly original direction. One of these was Michel Magne (1930-1984) a French composer who took exotica to an extraordinary place with his 1962 release, Tropical Fantasy. While this recording has all the traditional exotica elements, it morphs them into something beautiful and, sometimes, unexpectedly avant-garde. (the second track, Sahara, is a good example of this) The lovely production makes this album a sonic delight, and I recommend it highly.

Another spin on exotica, a much more recent one, comes in the form of Clouseaux, a band from Houston, Texas that finds an extraordinary blend of '50s exotica, '60s movie scores, and countless other influences that sound familiar but can't quite be identified. Their 2004 release, Lagoon!, is a good place for you to discover just what these folk are all about. This is Tiki music brought to the present day, modern day exotica if you will, and it's easy to imagine this taking off in a big way. In some respects exotica was a product of its time, with little relevance in today's culture, but it's somehow comforting to see that it's still around. We live in a much smaller world than that which saw the birth of exotica, but its soothing sounds can take you back to a time when exotic places were the stuff of dreams.

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