Exotica Goes Noir in a Box Set of Obscure Polynesian Pop
There’s who you’ve heard. There’s who you’ve heard of. And then there’s the rest. The hundreds, thousands of small, local, and one-off bands who maybe played a few shows, maybe cut a 45, maybe survived for a while as the house band in the cocktail bar of some Midwestern motel before the members dispersed. Maybe no one ever cared about their music. Maybe they meant a lot to someone. Exotica music is defined by a predictable if still enjoyable canon of primary texts: Les Baxter, Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, Yma Sumac. If you expand the definition to include space age bachelor pad music and the latinesque, then throw in Esquivel and Perez Prado. These are worthy standard bearers, each one a musical genius. If you dig deeper, you hit the second tier: just as talented many of them, and perhaps wildly popular in their day, but not quite as well remembered. A lot of them were famous for working with either Baxter or Denny before striking out on their own: Augie Colon, Sabu Martinez, Ethel Azama. Or they were better known for other styles of music but decided to dabble: Nelson Riddle, for example, or Al Caiola.
But then, if you are the kind of person who dug down to the second level, you’re probably the kind of person who keeps digging, who keeps looking not just for the obscure and sublime, but also the strange. That’s when you start to wander into the realm of Robert Drasnin and Korla Pandit, territory mined by the people behind and interviewed in RE/Search’s two volumes of Incredibly Strange Music. And then you keep digging, into small-town local acts and one-off groups thrown together by talented studio musicians. And if you are Rob Sevier and Ken Shipley of Chicago’s Numero Group, you start taking notes and compiling libraries. And eventually, you release Technicolor Paradise: Rhum Rhapsodies & Other Exotic Delights.
“It was a musical cocktail born in a marketing meeting: Two parts easy listening, one part jazz, a healthy dollop of conga drums, a sprinkling of bird calls, and a pinch of textless choir. Serve garnished with an alluring woman on the album jacket for best results. Liberty Records co-founder Si Waronker called it Exotica.”
liner notes, Technicolor Paradise
The nebulous genre known as “exotica” is, like just about every genres, one of those concepts with no concrete point of origin. At its most general, it is an attempt to summon a certain “exotic” mood, to adapt any music that is “other and apart” from your local culture. It does not mean attempting to play the music of other cultures, but rather to play someone’s concept of what that music might be. It’s almost always white musicians drawing from non-white. And while I’m sure some Greek sailor came back from one war or another, picked up a lyre, and started playing “you know, like, Persiany stuff,” for the purposes here, we can set a much more recent, definitive time frame for modern exotica — the 1930s — and a few definitive sources — the opening of Don the Beachcombers, the relationship between the United States and then-independent Hawaii, and the scattering of US servicemen and women throughout the south Pacific in the years leading up to and during World War II. As a result, early examples of exotica were heavily influenced by Polynesia, or at least by the idea of Polynesia. But rapidly, the arsenal of exotica sounds grew to incorporate Cuban and South American rhythms as well as Easts both Middle and Far.1
Donn Beach parlayed growing American infatuation with the South Pacific into a successful bar and restaurant empire, the first so-called tiki bars.2 Musicians were soon to follow suit, and by the 1950s, with additional assists from Hawaiian statehood and the advent of jet travel, exotica was in full bloom. But for every Martin Denny in residence at a posh Californian or Hawaiian resort, there were dozens of other, independent musicians plying their trade in the genre, often with strange, stunning, and sometimes downright spooky results. It is these musicians, a sort of garage punk-esque exotica underground, that Technicolor Paradise celebrates, collecting 54 tracks across three discs (you can get vinyl too, and it’s worth it for the accompanying book and photos) and highlighting, by and large, artists and groups that even exotica maniacs probably haven’t heard of.
“I think what people have thought of as exotic and lounge music before was through the lens of all the major labels — those Capitol Ultra-Lounge series and stuff like that,” said Ken Shipley in a March 2018 interview with Billboard. “I wanted to make something that’s the indie version of all that, and it’s just as interesting.”3
Inspired by the website The Exotica Project, Shipley began the task of finding tracks and biographical information, as well as tracking down licensing information and photos. Technicolor Paradise is the end result of his effort (and he tells Billboard he already has more than enough material for a second volume), and it is glorious. Divided into three categories — “Daiquiri Dirges,” “Rhum Rhapsodies,” and “Mai Tai Mambos” — the collection showcases just how deep exotica ingrained itself into the pop culture consciousness, how diverse interpretations of the sound could be, and ultimately, how disposable most of it ended up being. Not everything is a lost gem, but the good outweighs the mediocre, and among the good, some tracks are very good indeed.
Martin Denny’s sound was pure “mai tais at the Royal Hawaiian” party music. Les Baxter drifted between a similar sound and his more bombastic exotica soundscapes, songs that conjured up images of lost cities and adventurers hacking through the jungle. It’s no coincidence that Baxter became such an in-demand film composer. Some of the tracks on Technicolor Paradise aim to recreate one or both of those sounds, albeit with much more meager resources than were afforded Baxter and Denny. But even more tracks delve into darker, more haunting, at times downright sinister sounds, mixing Denny/Baxter-esque exotica classique with twanging surf guitar, moody Mellotrons, and ghostly, wordless female voices. Exotica noir, if you will, sparking the eerie mood of a film such as Curtis Harrington haunting, poetic Night Tide (1961) or as if Twin Peaks had fewer lumberjack and more aloha shirts.
Much of the time, the sound is dictated by necessity. Les Baxter could score world-class studio and orchestra musicians, and indeed, orchestras. Lenny and the Thunderbirds likely didn’t have access to the same scale of resources. But they, and countless groups like them, did have guitars and organs and a drum kit. The first disc, “Daiquiri Dirges,” is given over largely to guitar-driven instrumentals. And while I try to be discerning, the fact of the matter is that out of 18 tracks, there is only one I don’t like (the irritating “Jaguar Hunt” by The Crew). And for the other 17…it’s not just that I like them. I love them. If bigger brand exotica was meant to inspire images of a fictional Polynesia or Asia or High Andes, the songs here — while the bands may have aimed to inspire the same thoughts of pristine beaches, ancient temples, and deep dark jungles — conjure a somewhat different fantasy for me.
Attempts at island languidness instead sound spooky. Motel exotica. Images of a four-piece crew on the rickety stage of some backwater, wood-paneled cocktail lounge full of deep wooden booths and red velvet banquettes. Threadbare, aiming for regal, like a penniless aristocrat. Maybe after hours there’s a bump ‘n’ grind show. The crowd, such as there is, is a mixture of adventure tourists sheltering for the night, a smattering of local hustlers, a private shamus or two looking to collect proof that one spouse is cheating on the other, a couple local swingers looking for a prospective third, someone who used to be someone but was never really anyone, and probably one person in a shadowy corner who no one knows what to make of. Exotica once removed, no less fictional in the faded glory dream of roadside Americana than Martin Denny’s idea of Hong Kong.
The second disc, “Rhum Rhapsodies,” is no less haunting. Perhaps more so, as it introduced vocals, often in the form of what I call “ghost lady singing.” Wordless, melancholy, and so beautiful. The song “Nature Boy” as originally performed by Nat “King” Cole was already otherworldly and infused with something to do with the supernatural. Add a growling “slow grind” style sax and ghost lady vocals, and it’s positively unnerving, the sort of song you hear when you’re driving down a lonesome highway and stop to pick up a sorrowful-looking young hitchhiker who gives you her address, which you realize when you arrive, is a cemetery. And then she’s gone. Other tracks are suitable for anything from a burlesque “dance of the seven veils” to a romantic tryst on a moonlit beach. But probably one of the people in the tryst will also be a ghost.
Finally, “Mai Tai Mambos” aims to be a little more danceable, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less odd. After all, anyone dancing to these bands was probably a traveling salesman or local lounge lizard on his or her third Zombie. Things get weird at that point. That, or the person doing the dancing is on a stage wearing nothing but tassels and a G-string. There’s a lot of crossover between these tunes and what became known as, depending on your reference, “burlesk beat” or “Las Vegas grind.” You know it when you hear it, even if you’ve never heard it before. It’s inevitably played by a group of guys wearing slim suits, bath towel keffiyehs or fezzes, and Wayfarer sunglasses. More times than not, they are playing a song about a harem or the Casbah, with rhythms at least as authentically middle eastern as Martin Denny was authentically Polynesian. “Mai Tai Mambos” also marks an appearance by Robert Drasnin, probably the biggest name in the entire set. Drasnin was a jack-of-all-trades musician who was hired to cut an album cashing in on the exotica craze and ended up cutting three, known collectively as the “Voodoo trilogy.” If exotica noir has a godfather, it has to be Drasnin. He took the music into a steamy, sinister direction that was just as alluring but far more menacing.
Technicolor Paradise closes with “Lost Island,” by an artist named Clyde Derby. It’s an organ-driven slice of hotel lobby exotica that sounds like Korla Pandit channeling Arthur Lyman. It may not be the best track in the set, but it’s a fitting closing credits song regardless, because it is so oddball and obscure. If you went to a Polynesian themed haunted amusement park, this would be the song playing in the background. Exotica was always about transporting listeners, about immersing them in a fantasy of “the other.” If this is what cashing in on a cash-in trend sounds like, I’ll take that second helping as soon as it’s ready. If Les Baxter was too Hollywood, and if Martin Denny actually played in Honolulu, the mysterious artists of Technicolor Paradise were the people they were making the music for. Landlocked, or in a northerly clime. Regional sales managers and housewives and some kid dreaming of getting the hell out of this one-house town and joining the Merchant Marine or something. It’s smoky, sultry, and secretive. It’s music of private eyes and shadow-shrouded booths, of dreams about dreams and modest trysts carried on in economical motel rooms with pink neon spilling in through the window blinds.
- I can’t to justice to the complex history of exotica here, but you know where justice is done? Mondo Exotica: Sounds, Visions, Obsessions of the Cocktail Generation by Francesco Adinolfi (2008, Duke University Press Books).
- And if you want the full story on the rise of tiki bars, check out Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari by Jeff Berry (2016, SLG Publishing) and California Tiki: A History of Polynesian Idols, Pineapple Cocktails and Coconut Palm Trees by Jason Henderson and Adam Foshko (2018, The History Press).
- Graff, Gary. “‘Technicolor Paradise’ Is the ‘Indie Version’ of an Exotica Retrospective.” Billboard, March 26, 2018.