Today, when exotica gets discussed, it's invariably the music of Les Baxter, Yma Sumac, Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. These are figurehead artists of the '50s and '60s space-age generation: Baxter the magus of lush jungle tone poems, Lyman and Denny the cool-toned Polynesian jazz exponents, Sumac the mysterious, ululating chanteuse of the Andes. Among them, hit singles like "Quiet Village," "Taboo" and "Virgin of the Sun God" exemplified the postwar exotica phenomenon, the matching albums and album covers - lurid displays of color and flesh - encapsulating a dark continent fantasia that wound its way to millions of Middle American console turntables.

There was nothing authentic about Les Baxter's The Ritual of the Savage or Martin Denny's Afro-Desia. Exotica was an indiscriminate potpourri of influences, themes, and motifs, and none of it ultimately diverged much from Western popular forms. In most cases - Sumac perhaps being the exception - the artists' connections to the faraway lands they paid homage to were marginal. In summoning its desert oases or tiki-besotted, bare-breasted paradises, exotica was nothing if not imaginative, though. Set against tableaux of lush strings, punctuated by bird calls, made to shimmer and dance with Afro-Cuban percussion, vibraphones and mad jungle flutes, it was music manufactured to take the suburban classes to five o'clock dreamland.

Eradicated by the Beatles and the rise of rock, rendered moribund, if not somehow unsavory, by the political and social awareness of the '60s, exotica was forgotten in subsequent decades. Part reëvaluation of mid-century American life and popular culture, part nostalgic impulse, it was a post-modern generation of record collectors, hipsters and cultural cognoscenti that would seize again upon exotica in the 1980s and '90s.


Only in recent decades has the term exotica truly coalesced. The work of Les Baxter, Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman and Yma Sumac is exotica's bedrock, a select cadre of space-age instrumentalists like Juan Esquivel, the Three Suns and Ferrante & Teicher forming its outer periphery.

Historically speaking, though, exotica is shorthand for what was then a diffuse phenomenon. While the term did get thrown around a bit (most famously as the title of Martin Denny's debut album), exotica was never the codified genre. In its time, exotica might be applied to a straightforward piano reading of Ravel's Scheherazade or a volume of Russian or Gypsy folk song. Conversely, contemporary references in trade magazines like Billboard would just as likely characterize the latest Gene Rains Group or Tak Shindo release as "tropical piano jazz," "exotic novelty" or "big-band jazz with Oriental flourishes" as they would "exotica."

Exotica is a collector contrivance, a genre only in retrospect. It was, in reality, more creative force than genre - it spanned many genres itself. And it was never solely consigned to either the easy-listening end of the popular music spectrum or just a short list of artists. This is crucial.

Perhaps most significantly, there were dozens of jazz musicians who recorded terrific, unambiguously exotic concept records. Yusef Lateef, Herbie Mann, Sun Ra, and Ahmed Abdul-Malik - artists with considerable sections of their discographies devoted to incorporating non-Western elements into the jazz idiom, sometimes reverently, sometimes less so - are only the most notable of this long list. Buddy Collette (Polynesia and Tanganyika), Harold Vick (Caribbean Suite), Cal Tjader (Breeze from the East and Several Shades of Jade), Art Blakey (Drum Suite and Orgy in Rhythm, volumes one and two), Paul Horn (Jazz Impressions of Cleopatra) and Randy Weston (Uhuru Afrika) dedicated entire opuses to the concept as well. African, Middle Eastern, Asian, and Afro-Caribbean themes were especially popular.

There were ambitious, full-length exotica productions from Latin jazz and mambo maestros, too, with Tito Puente (Tambo), Sabu (Sorcery! and Safari with Sabu), Machito (With Flute to Boot and Kenya), Modesto Duran (Fabulous Rhythms of Modesto) and Perez Prado (Voodoo Suite and Exotica Suite) each creating Afro-Latin expositions of percussion and "jungle" jazz.

The importance of popular easy-listening and light jazz and orchestra productions - the formats most typically associated with exotica - should not be discounted, of course. Orchestras were particularly well represented, from Richard Hayman (Voodoo!) and Lawrence Welk's musical director George Cates (Polynesian Percussion) to more conservative efforts by Morton Gould (Jungle Drums) and Andre Kostelanetz (Lure of the Tropics). The productions of the arranger-composers toiling in studio-bound obscurity were, if anything, more adventurous. Phil Moore's Polynesian Paradise, Robert Drasnin's Voodoo, Frank Hunter's White Goddess and Don Ralke's The Savage and Sensuous Bongos are outstanding representatives. The same market also extends to the era's sweeping historical epics and swashbuckler- and travelogue-style soundtracks; Dimitri Tiomkin's Search for Paradise, Alex North's Cleopatra, Henry Mancini's The Hawaiians and Hatari, and Les Baxter's Bora Bora, to name a few.

Hawaiian artists and composers like Paul Conrad (Exotic Paradise) and Webley Edwards (Fire Goddess) made exotica. So did session guitar player Jerry Byrd (Byrd of Paradise). R&B tenor Billy Ward (Pagan Love Song) and Hawaiian-born crooner Ed Kenney (The Exotic Sounds of the Spice Islands) filled albums with gentle readings of South Seas favorites, while guitar-based combos Santo & Johnny (Hawaii and Off Shore) and the Islanders (The Enchanted Sound of the Islanders) released twangy, atmospheric instrumental versions of the same. Difficult-to-classify releases by wandering Hollywood poet-philosopher Eden Ahbez (Eden's Island), wordless vocalist Leda Annest (Portrait of Leda), turbaned organ mesmerist Korla Pandit (Music of the Exotic East, Grand Moghul Suite, Tropical Magic and many others) and violinist and musicologist Elisabeth Waldo (Realm of the Incas, Rites of the Pagan and Maracatu) were incontrovertible, if idiosyncratic, examples of exotica.

And so on and so forth, ad infinitum. It's critical here to note that, after World War II, the vogue for all things exotic was trickling down into sectors of the market well beyond the stereophonic pops and cocktail jazz of Baxter, Sumac, Denny and Lyman.


Exotica's modest revival stirred interest in a neglected set of recordings but still bypassed many of the more obscure, and crucial, dalliances. The Exotica Project moves beyond the form's central figures to encompass some of these lost gems.

A wide variety of artists from a wide variety of backgrounds populates exotica's back pages: jazz musicians and Latin congueros, landlocked surf guitar combos, cruise ship combos and actresses-turned-thrush, hinterlands nightclub singers, for-hire African percussionists, session musicians and studio arrangers and R&B vocal groups. That genre-spanning diversity is reflected here.

The role of the 45 format must not be overlooked, either. Exotica abounds on 45, the best examples wilder, looser, more eccentric, more experimental than their long-playing counterparts.

The record labels represented here were more likely to be locally- or regionally-based independents than the more conservative major labels behind the preponderance of long-playing exotica.

The 45 format's expediency, lower costs of manufacture and ease of distribution are also significant. The format's accessibility - basically anyone could make one, regardless of its commercial potential - and its low financial investment - anyone could afford to make one - put an official release within the reach of, say, the same obscure guitar combos or jazz musicians who were most likely to take the opportunity to vent their wildest musical energies.

A sort of critical momentum ensued. The idea of exotica provided an excuse for exorcising one's creative impulses, the 45 format - the vinyl age's democratic medium - provided an efficient means for channeling them.

The format tended to target a younger audience, too, a market with arguably greater enthusiasm for musical novelty. This was reflected in the common uses of the format, their functions more varied than the average home-bound LP. It might have been a catchy jazz album track edited down for jukebox use. It might have been an original ballad or "tropical" instrumental pitched to DJs for radio play to teenagers. Or it might have been a throwaway promotional device, with only several hundred pressed and given away at armory hall dances.

In sum, the 45 put a greater multiplicity of market, use, and aesthetic and production value into play.


In collecting these obscurities together, I wanted to get past the limited set of artists who have come to represent exotica. I wanted to expand the definition of exotica, to get away from the idea of it as a genre altogether.

These records together comprise only a loose collective, their disparate character discouraging easy analysis. After all, exotica is more creative force, more motivating idea, than genre. They possess an unquantifiably exotic atmosphere, certainly, and they broadly invoke some idea of the Other. But the examples form at the narrowest what is essentially a cross-section of postwar America's popular music and commercial record industry - even on a purely aesthetic scale these selections are only vaguely similar. What can they say about the postwar exotica phenomenon that isn't just empty generality?

The key to the site is an index that identifies and organizes the discrete components of the style. Here the building blocks of exotica - its motifs and themes - are mapped, as a set, to one hundred otherwise very different selections. It's a mechanical reduction, of course. But, if nothing else, it presents an interesting, uniting perspective on these records as well as on the exotica phenomenon in general.

Delineated into a set of indicators, a certain form emerges. The index is a registry of exotica's familiar cues: its Afro-Latin percussion, its jungle and Eastern themes, its flutes, vibraphones and bird calls. These are the clichés of the phenomenon. They might be considered prime indicators of exotica. Other cues - wordless vocals and tremolo guitar, for instance - are less of an exotica hallmark, but, interestingly, are hardly less prevalent. Each individual record's character, too, assumes a certain shape in terms of its instrumental and aesthetic constituents. Some records collect larger subsets of the style's parameters together. "Jungle Slave Dance," "Sunset Mood," "Tobago" and "Maui Rain" are, by this logic, the most exotic.

Any number of conclusions might be drawn. The most critical, however, is that the collection convey a sense of exotica transcending originating idiom - whether surf music, easy listening, Latin jazz, R&B or bop. Exotica is that impossibly obscure mambo-jazz "jungle" title or landlocked guitar combo's b-side version of "Caravan." Les Baxter, Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman and Yma Sumac are only the tip of exotica.

:: Dan Shiman / Little Danny :: Office Naps :: 2010-2024 ::