Lately my virtual turntable has been spinning many an album filled with vibes, marimbas, congos, and jungle noises. Exotica!
“Exoti-what” you ask?
Yes, exotica! It’s a lost music style that was popular in the 50s and early 60s. A kind of ersatz world music with jazz, classical, Hawaiian, and sometimes surf rock roots. I’ve been diving so deeply into it because it presents a lot of notions I’ve been wanting to include in my own music.
The 1950s saw large numbers of American soldiers returning from the South Pacific and Hawaii priming to become the 50th State (they joined in 1959). These vectors, plus a few other touchstone culture points (James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific”, the Kon-Tiki expedition), fueled an interest in Polynesia and other “exotic” lands. As American’s are wont to do, this interest was of the Hollywood variety. It focused on the myth, romance, and fantasy of these places rather than their authentic history and heritage. This nascent movement, called “tiki culture” or just “tiki”, which had been around since the mid-1930 suddenly boomed. Tiki themed restaurants, backyard luaus, and Hawaiian shirts all became a thing. And this thing needed a soundtrack. Enter Exotica.
Exotica is generally mellow and often categorized as “easy listening” music. It rarely has vocals except as non-lyrical vocalizations (lots of female singers oohing and ahhing behind the band). Oh, and it’s commonly filled with bird calls, monkey sounds, and other jungle noises (yes, really).
Exotica pieces rarely stray far from predictable Western conventions but they’re played with unusual instruments to instill the proper vibe. According to Wikipedia the usual exotica arsenal included:
- Indonesian and Burmese gongs
- boo bams (bamboo sticks)
- Tahitian log
- Chinese bell tree
- Japanese kotos
Exotica can be broadly bifurcated into two main types: Jungle and Tiki.
Jungle exotica is the big orchestra variety and plays like a hollywood soundtrack with more percussion and jungle noises. Les Baxter was the biggest name in this variety.
Tiki exotica, which I greatly prefer, utilized smaller groups more like a jazz ensemble. Martin Denny is the preeminent name here.
Here’s my 10-song exotica primer. Just for fun I’ve included three track at the end which are from the rock genere but have strong Exotica roots.
- Africa – Gene Rains (apple Music) / Atlantis – Les Baxter (Spotify)
- Tradewind – Eben Ahbez
- Chant of the Moon – Robert Drasnin
- Tune from Rangoon – Martin Denny
- Taboo – the Surfmen
- Quiet Village – Martin Denny
- Myna Bird – Eben Ahbez
- Pet Sounds – The Beach Boys
- Blue Hawaii – Elvis Presley
- Africa – Toto
As I’ve stated before, the Exotic Tiki Island podcast is a goldmine for this genre. Pandora will serve you up a good selection and there are many useful playlist on Spotify and Apple Music as well.