“Does the haunting beat of savage drums fascinate you? Are you captivated by the forbidden ceremonies of primitive people?” invites the listener, in the liner notes of Les Baxter’s 1951 album Ritual of the Savage. It is this beckoning that highlights the cornerstone of a strange and enchanting music genre: Exotica.
Exotica is a mix of varying musical genres that span jazz, Latin and samba with recorded sound effects and studio orchestration. Like its sister genre, ‘space age pop’, the listener is transported to worlds unknown: deepest jungles, ancient rituals, or the arms of a hypnotic temptress. Using a mélange of ethnic instruments and riffs, exotica music conjures idealised landscapes outside the west: south and Latin America, the Far East and Africa. Its prominence rose in post-war USA, where a burgeoning middle class with expendable income now had the means to travel beyond their states. The music and often tantalising album covers, with an erotic edge, would operate as a fantasy travel brochure to instil a sense of adventure into middle-America suburbanites. At this time another culture of kitsch was bubbling through the so-called ‘tiki culture’ which had originated in Hollywood in the 1930s. Tiki culture took ethnic tropes from the Oceania region, particularly the South Seas, with a mix of artefacts and cultural associations to create new bars, hotel lounges and restaurants where Americans could sample Chinese food in tropical settings. After World War Two, soldiers who had served in the Pacific returned with stories of their travels. With a yearning for a return to Island life, Americans would buy Tiki style furnishings and host Hawaiian luaus on their perfectly manicured lawns. There was something pagan about these rituals, something that unlocked the free spirit, as an orientalist pre-cursor to the sexual revolution and counter culture. But this was straight-laced, conservative, it needed a soundtrack to match.
Two names synonymous with the exotica genre are Les Baxter and Martin Denny. Both would have lucrative careers recording varying albums of easy listening and exotica albums, often re-arranging bands or starting new ones with an array of other big names in the genre. Denny would work in tiki styled hotels in Honolulu, where he would further elevate the genre with the inclusion of bird calls and other animal noises. Denny’s biggest hit was the Les Baxter tune Quiet Village which eventually made it to a gold record. However, not all of the voices of exotica were American men, for there was another with the power to traverse five octaves. Yma Sumac, the Peruvian princess who boasted to be related to the last Incan king had the distinctive exotica voice that takes the listener to a place ancient and profane. When not displaying her mastery of voice she would sing slowly in the Quencha native language, memorized, for she didn’t speak it herself, which would aid the instrumental backing for ultimate immersion. Sumac’s first album Voice of the Xtabay composed by Les Baxter took the name from a Yucatec Maya myth of a seductive female demon that would lure men to their deaths. Most exotica music is based on myth, whether folkloric or imagined in PR offices.
It is easy to consider exotica as a culturally insensitive genre by building on stereotypes and cultural bastardry through orientalised images. It is a white man’s fantasy of exploration through terrain unknown and a deep sexual desire of the native woman. This is often reinforced by stereotyped musical themes such as the so-called Arabian and Oriental riffs to create a sense of place, largely imagined by Europeans. This muddling of other cultures can be seen even in the titles such as The Sophisticated Savage from Les Baxter’s 1951 album The Ritual of the Savage. Baxter would also record alums such as Tamboo, that imagined musical interpretation of tribal rituals and his album African Jazz pictures a white model in ceremonial dress on the cover. Beautiful women are the conventional focus for the exotica album cover image and as the genre’s popularity heightened, so did its proclivity for ever-more sexualized subjects. But soon the sex appeal wore off, and exotica found itself in the annals of the more general ‘easy listening’ genre.
But while the music’s imagery is questionable, it would be accurate to consider exotica, not as a travelogue but rather as an adventure story. It is music that belongs to the realms of mythical desire, primitive places created in the minds of the suburban American. It’s all a fiction that uses the real sounds of instruments and ethnic motifs to create a tapestry of strangeness. Like tiki culture, the popularity of exotica music comes down to changing tastes and attitudes, what was once exotic and interesting is now sanitized and kitsch. However, when listening to the relics of this ancient culture, this movement stuck in the mid-20th century, there is an inexplicable attraction, a yearning for a paradise that is sometimes needed in bleak times.
To get you started on your journeys into the unknown, here are some albums to give you the exotica flavour:
Ritual of the Savage- Les Baxter (1951)
The granddaddy of the genre, Ritual of the Savage takes the listener to a globe of exciting places through fun musical flourishes and busy jazz tracks. Some highlights consist of the opening track, Busy Port, where the flutes and vibrato trills imagine a tropical scene emerging from an old steamer. Also, Jungle Jalopy, which builds into a mysterious adventure, with curious brass and a steady beat.
Exotica- Martin Denny (1957)
Martin Denny’s first album, and the first to use the eponymous name for the genre. This would also be the beginning of a series of Exotica volumes where Denny often reimagined jazz standards with his own tropical twist. Here, Denny recorded his own versions of Baxter tracks found on Ritual such as Quiet Village, probably the best track on the album, as well as Busy Port, Jungle Flower, Stone God and Love Dance. Another memorable cover is a version of Hoagy Carmichael’s Hong Kong Blues, it’s not one to miss.
Voice of the Xtabay- Yma Sumac (1950)
The Peruvian songbird’s debut album is unforgettable and gives the listener an opportunity to marvel at Sumac’s soprano voice. The title track lures us in with a vibrating high note as if darting from the past, perhaps the heavens, before settling us in for an album that takes us to foregone fantastical civilisations and rituals. One of the most haunting tracks is Ataypura which was also, notably, used in the Coen Brothers’ 1998 The Big Lebowski, a film that uses wonderful set design to show the decaying American dream through tiki Hawaiian shirts and battered Formica countertops.