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Enter the Tiki lounge: exploring the bewildering world of exotica


There are few musical styles more worthy of the term ‘kitsch’ than exotica. Named after the 1957 Martin Denny album of the same name, exotica is one of the more obscure genres to have emerged in the years following the Second World War. It’s also proven to be one of the most short-sighted. Devoted fans of Les Baxter, Arthur Lyman and the like argue that the blatant racism that underpins these records is an unfortunate contextual factor that shouldn’t be used to discredit the value of their music; others hold a more sceptical view. Either way, the development of this gloriously camp and morally dubious genre offers a window into one of the strangest moments in American pop-cultural history.

Exotica began its rise to the top in the 1930s. It was around this time that American jazz musicians first started employing the instrumentation of far-off countries to create a sense of outlandish glamour. Even Duke Ellington’s work with Juan Tizol seems to predict the sound of exotica, with tracks like ‘Caravan’ (1936), ‘Pyramid’ (1938), and ‘Perdido’ (1941) being the most obvious examples. America wasn’t alone in its fascination with foreign lands as a source of creative innovation. In Europe during the 1920s, artists like Picasso and Gauguin, propelled by a colonialist worldview, became interested in the ‘otherness’ of non-Western art forms, believing that they demonstrated a state of expression that the Western realist tradition had long forgotten.`

This view of the global south had been prevalent in the world of music since the 19th century, perhaps even earlier. French composers like Debussy and Ravel, for example, relied on scales inspired by Javanese gamelan music to craft their lush and otherworldly classical compositions. Both of these composers visited the Paris Exhibition in 1889, where they listened to gamelan music, Japanese old song, Chinese march, Persian song, and Egyptian belly dance. Both composers’ works from this point onwards are far more overt in their incorporation of scales and melodic patterns inspired by the musical traditions of these countries. Take Ravel’s 1912 ballet Daphnis et Chloé, for example, which, despite being set in ancient Greece, features the same lush textures and simulated bird calls – played by the woodwind section – that would come to characterise exotica.

As the Second World War came to a close, exotica started to flourish. American soldiers who had spent the last few years traipsing around the South Pacific returned to their suburban homes, bringing with them stories of adventure and a set of perpetually itchy feet. At the same time, the carnage of the war had created a sense that humanity needed to ‘get back’ to an Edenic past. Add to that a newly-wealthy middle class with enough money to buy expensive Tiki furnishings and Hi-Fi Stereo systems, and you’ve got the perfect breeding ground for a style that allowed music fans to travel the world without leaving their armchairs.

When it comes to exotica, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more archetypal entry point than Les Baxter’s 1951 LP Le Sacre du Sauvage. As well as working as a conductor on some of the biggest hits of the day, including Nat King Cole’s ‘Mona Lisa’, Baxter had a fascination with evoking landscapes that existed purely in the imagination. This led him to collaborate on Harry Revel’s Music Out of The Moon album with theremin pioneer Dr Samuel J. Hoffman in 1947. By the ’50s, however, Baxter was more interested in grounding these fantastical sonic visions in landscapes that the American people could feasibly visit. Alas, they turned out to be just as fanciful — as Le Sacre du Sauvage, with its simulated tropical bird calls, tribal percussion, and shameful racial stereotypes, clearly demonstrates.

Even at this time, exotica was a fringe phenomenon, known mainly to frequenters of the numerous ‘Tiki bars’ popping up across America. It wouldn’t be until Martin Denny’s Exotica that the genre would start reaching a wider audience. With his top ten single ‘Quiet Village’, Denny established the sensual blueprint of the genre; combining jazz, Latin rhythms, and ethnic instruments like Balinese bells, gamelan, and Koto to conjure colourful sonic landscapes. With cover art featuring the downturned come-to-bed gaze of Sandy Warner, it’s unsurprising that exotica quickly became associated with sexual as well as sensory pleasure.

The success of Exotica triggered a wave of recordings from classically-trained American musicians looking to replicate Denny and Baxter’s sound. The record labels lapped it up and started churning out exotica-themed releases left, right and centre. Of course, a large number of these were utter guff, but many still sound utterly enchanting. Take Carmen’s ‘Isle Of Love’, for example, which blends the textures of exotica with accessible pop songcraft. Then there are composers like Piero Umuliani, who continued exploring the outer-fringes of exotica well into the 1970s, using the style to soundtrack erotic films like a Ragazza Dalla Pelle Di Luna.

Of course, exotica was always doomed to fade into obscurity. Plagued by a colonialist view of the world, it was far too small-minded to endure. It was music for the affluent middle classes; white middle Americans whose idea of a perfect summer’s day was whiling away the hours in a beach-side bar drinking fruity cocktails. As the ’60s countercultural movement gained traction, exotica was swept under the banner of ‘easy listening’ and thrown onto the scrap heap of ’50s cultural ephemera. But with a bit of care and due caution, the genre can be regarded as a window into a strange hinterland in the American collective imagination.

Falling between America’s victory against the axis forces and the start of the Vietnam War, exotica arrived at a moment of supreme optimism when America regarded itself as a liberator rather than an oppressor. Of course, that idea is utterly alien to most listeners of Exotica today, meaning that it’s almost impossible to listen to the work of Martin Denny, Les Baxter, or Arthur Lyman without wondering how the hell one nation could have been so utterly blinkered.

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