Exotica

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: Exotica

Why it’s daunting: For one thing, exotica is an exercise in pure nostalgic exhumation. Though there have been a few aborted attempts at reviving it by groups like Pink Martini, Skip Heller, and Combustible Edison, true-blue fans of exotica will always prefer the more authentic sounds of the past to any modern take on the genre. Gaining an expertise beyond the most basic names requires a lot of research even in the Internet age; while most of the big names in exotica are now available in digital formats, the lesser lights are long forgotten, and learning about them requires plenty of time served in the record bins of thrift stores and resale shops.

For another, the genre is difficult to define. Its origins are a bit murky, emerging from both the big-band jazz tradition of the 1940s and the now universally reviled easy-listening pop era of the early 1950s. It’s often muddled with other, very similar musical genres popular in the 1950s and 1960s, like space-age pop and lounge music. This isn’t so much laziness as an honest mistake: Many practitioners of one genre were equally at home in another, and few performers can be said to be “pure” exotica artists. Most were established and accomplished in other musical traditions before exotica was even born, and therein lies another speed bump. Exotica was one of the first musical genres that didn’t so much evolve naturally: It was created by record executives and marketing consultants to cash in on a nebulously connected series of trends.

Exotica, more or less, is a concatenation of cultural influences that flowed together uninterrupted until some clever folks in advertising decided to put them together: light, jazz-influenced party music played in cocktail lounges, a post-World War II thirst for the exotic and foreign, propagated by returning servicemen; the emerging tiki culture, combined with a growth boom in Southern California, mainland fascination with Hawaii, and the concomitant rise of the surfer lifestyle; and—in what was one of the very first post-war hipster trends—a demographic of cool middle-class men and women in search of something exotic to spice up their parties and nightclubs. It all gelled into the movement—coined in the ’50s by a record-company executive—that brought its own exciting sound and outlook to Middle America at a time when even squares were looking for something new.

Another question, and one related to why exotica is daunting, is why anyone should care about a musical movement that peaked more than 45 years ago. The reason why exotica and its cultural accoutrements undergo periodic revivals—in the mid-’90s, for example, and then again in the early 2000s—is the same reason it became popular in the first place, and is likely to keep coming back every decade or so. The music is genuinely compelling, a still-fresh-sounding blend of cool jazz, well-crafted pop, and rhythmic world music, and its ability to create a mellow, laid-back atmosphere is a good accompaniment to the kind of intoxicants that never go out of style. It’s also, as it was in the ’50s and early ’60s, a cheap and enjoyable way to enjoy exotic culture (or at least a clever facsimile of it) for those without the money to actually travel to the South Pacific.

Possible gateway: Martin Denny’s 1957 album Exotica

Why: Well, the name should be a good tip-off, for one thing. The word “exotica” had been around since 1955, but Martin Denny, an upstart bandleader who took the genre by storm, had the audacity to claim the name of the whole genre for his debut album. Recorded in 1956 in Waikiki, the album became a huge success, finally climbing to the top of the charts in 1959, the year of Hawaiian statehood and the peak of exotica culture. Denny, a classically trained L.A. bandleader whose tours of South America as a young musician hipped him to Latin rhythmic elements, had worked as a nightclub entertainer in Hawaii for several years, and when he got his first record contract with Liberty Records—home of the burgeoning exotica movement—he stocked a playlist full of ringers by his biggest competitor, Les Baxter, and created what many consider the definitive album of the genre. It must have seemed like the Rolling Stones hitting the top of the charts with an album of Beatles covers. Baxter’s career hardly came to a crashing end, but it was an absolute marketing coup for Denny, who made his fortune overnight and quickly, inaccurately became known as the Father Of Exotica.

None of this is to say that Denny was a phony, of course, or that Exotica doesn’t completely live up to its reputation. To the contrary, it’s a real masterpiece of the genre, from its moody, expertly played music to its alluring cover (one of the classics of the period, and one that set the standard of album covers featuring artsy shots of lovely models surrounded by mildly exotic set dressing, covers as immediately recognizable in their own way as the legendary Blue Note jazz covers). Denny doesn’t entirely surpass the master, but he does school him on the very first track; his version of Baxter’s “Quiet Village” is the definitive version, upstaging the original and showcasing the talents of Denny’s crackerjack band. But Denny shows his real genius in the selection of non-Baxter material: the second track (“Return To Paradise,” by film composer Dimitri Tiomkin) is a standard-setter of riffling, calming tropical smoothness, and other selections, including a clever take on Hoagy Carmichael’s hoary “Hong Kong Blues” and the Japanese pop standard “Shina No Yoru,” prove that Denny had what it took to truly take command of the genre. He even manages to stick it to Baxter one more time (or, if you’re more charitable—Baxter did get plenty of royalties off these songs, after all—pay homage to him) by delivering a dynamite take on “Stone God.”

There are historical reasons why Exotica is a perfect place to start, as well; when it was originally recorded in mono, Martin Denny’s orchestra featured a young man named Arthur Lyman lending the record a distinctive sound through his innovative use of percussion, xylophone, and vibes. Denny decided to record the album a few years later in stereo, and by then, Lyman had struck out on his own to form one of the most successful, long-lasting bands in the history of exotica. His replacement was Julius Wechter, who himself would become an important figure in the field as the leader of The Baja Marimba Band.

Next steps: Plenty of people will argue that the entryway to exotica shouldn’t be Martin Denny at all, no matter what he chose to name his albums. They say it should be the man who more or less invented the genre, Les Baxter. And who’s to say they’re wrong? Baxter’s outstanding 1952 album Ritual Of The Savage is considered by many to be the founding document of the exotica movement, and it’s certainly one of the first and best albums to incorporate skillfully borrowed Latin, Polynesian, and African rhythms into the jazz-pop of the post-war era. And just as Denny helped launch the careers of Arthur Lyman and Julius Wechter, Baxter provided the music on Voice Of The Xtabay, the debut album of Peruvian songstress Yma Sumac, whose astonishing vocal range is another must-hear feature of exotica. Her best albums—the debut, Mambo!, and Fuego Del Ande—are good places to start after a thorough examination of Baxter and Denny.

Arthur Lyman may be the purest example of an exotica artist, particularly since he mostly stayed with that genre throughout his career and didn’t stray into more conventional areas to the degree Denny and Baxter did. He’s also arguably the most talented of the three; he was a truly innovative, skillful percussionist, and definitely the most technically gifted player of them all. His best albums are Taboo (1958) and Yellow Bird (1960). Julius Wechter’s Baja Marimba Band wasn’t nearly as strong as Baxter, Denny, and Lyman, but the group still put out a few strong sides that can be heard on various compilations and re-releases. (Thanks to the digital-era revivals of exotica, you can easily find almost all of this music in CD or mp3 format, whether it’s groups like Lyman’s and Denny’s, whose work justifies the purchase of entire albums, or performers like Wechter, who comes across better in small snippets on anthologies.)

No discussion of exotica would be complete without mentioning the man whose music crossed the line between that genre and what became known as space-age bachelor-pad music: Mexican bandleader and hipster icon Juan García Esquivel (spelled with or without an exclamation point, as you see fit).  Esquivel’s music has always been a favorite of nostalgia hounds and exotica revivalists, and while there are extraneous reasons (his cool-nerd appearance, his idiosyncratic personality and style, and his status as the only leading practitioner of exotica who was actually “exotic”), there’s no denying that his music is well worth exploring. Unusual even by the standards of an unusual art form, his style was far more influenced by Latin jazz than were any of the rest of the gang, and he smeared his musical palette with touches nobody else dared use, including the early use of electronic instruments, nonsense vocalizations that seemed alien even as they aped the sound of easy-listening vocals, and serious chops combined with ridiculous song titles. Esquivel took the genre to a new level, but for that very reason, he’s better approached after you’ve familiarized yourself with the basics.

Even in the digital age, part of the fun of getting into the genre is poring through the stacks of ancient vinyl at the local Goodwill. The ’50s and early ’60s were the peak of the vinyl era, when just about anything could and did get put on record, and it was also the era when exotica was at its peak of popularity. Go to any decent thrift store in America, and you’re likely to find an album by some long-forgotten combo, never to be released in any other format, that was cashing in on the exotica trend. Look for a surfer or a hot model in a sarong on the cover, and Hawaiian names or percussion-driven covers of songs from Your Hit Parade on the track listing; a lot of these will be terrible, but occasionally, you’ll find a mellow, evocative gem among the dross.

Where not to start: For one thing, avoid almost all the modern revivalist practitioners of exotica. They mean well enough, and some of them even have decent songwriting chops and technical prowess to go with their retro tendencies, but what really sinks them is a matter of economics. The original exotica movement took place in an era when dancing was a regular nightly activity, and the music wasn’t recorded, but played by big bands and orchestras. This isn’t fiscally sound anymore, and few bands can afford to perform weekly with 24 trained musicians; as a result, they simply can’t replicate the huge, lush sound of Denny, Baxter, and their ilk. They have to settle for trying to ape that sound with electronics, and it simply doesn’t work.

There are plenty of lesser lights in the exotica firmament, from Gene Rains to Robert Drasnin, but they should come long after you’ve familiarized yourself with the best of the best. Almost every big bandleader of the era tried to cash in on the exotica trend (even Neal Hefti, composer of the Batman theme, did a passable album of exotic tunes), but the genre’s complex rhythms and multiple influences weren’t something you could do well without constant practice. It was music best left to specialists, and most of the jazz and pop bands who dabbled in it just embarrassed themselves. The Latin pop movement (pioneered by Herb Alpert & His Tijuana Brass, and participated in by Esquivel) yielded some fun music, but it’s really more influenced by exotica than part of it. And you’ll eventually want to give yourself a taste of the genuinely weird Korla Pandit, the mysterious Grandfather Of Exotica, but his stuff is so unusual that you’d no more want to start with it than you’d want to study jazz by starting with Sun Ra.

Finally, a warning: With the possible exception of Arthur Lyman, exotica isn’t a musical genre in which being a completist is rewarding. Baxter, Denny, and all the big names went on to do dozens of other albums, most of which had nothing to do with exotica, and lots of which are dreadfully boring Arthur Murray dance records, tedious easy-listening pop, or meandering instrumental covers of then-popular vocal hits. It’s the kind of stuff that WKRP played before Travis took over as program director, and should be avoided at all costs.