The coinage of the term Exotica is usually attributed to co-founder and chairman of Liberty Records Simon Waronker in 1955 but it was Martin Denny’s 1957 album of the same name that provided the blueprint for this new musical movement.(1)
Denny along with other pioneers such as Les Baxter drew inspiration from a wealth of sources including French impressionist composer Debussy, Afro Cuban, and Latin Jazz, as well as sounds from the Polynesian and Pacific Islands. Despite its gentle sound, Exotica music has its history steeped in 20th Century travel, colonial conquests, and war.
Exotica is a paper tiger in two senses of the phrase. It can be seen as somewhat ornamental, decorative and thin representation of other cultures but it can also be seen as something ineffective with a façade of power. The music can be beautifully dreamlike but beneath it bubbles a realm full of post world war II tensions and in some ways it acted as the soundtrack to a new Western world trying to put the pieces back together. World War II had meant that a range of nationalities had remained in Hawaii and the Americas. Americans had also stayed in Hawaii while airlines began to offer trans-Pacific flights.
The tropical soundscapes are characterised by percussion-heavy, pastiched compositions, juxtaposed against a traditional Jazz or orchestral setup, sometimes with chanting or drawn out, swelling vocal harmonies to conjure up these mystical images. The sounds seek to transport listeners to dramatic, theatrical, mythical dreamscapes that are reminiscent of Africa, Asia, the pacific and Polynesian islands, consequently creating a strong sense of Othering. In many ways compositions can sounds like a visual representation of ‘The Wall’ by Surrealist artist André Breton – a collection of authentic traditional objects, gathered together with no regard for location, only their aesthetic value.
Alt text: Featured image is of a newspaper clipping with a headline that reads “20 Golden Hawaiian Hits, Martin Denny”. Image of a person (Martin Denny) in a shirt playing the piano.
Image in text is a photograph of Martin Denny’s band. Four people are holding instruments whilst squatting on the floor.
With song names such as ‘Sophisticated Savage’, ‘Taboo’, ‘Tahitian Sunset’ and ‘Oasis of Dakhla’, Exotica hits a lot of ‘-isms’ – Exoticism, Eroticism and Orientalism to name a few. However, a big part of the sentiment of Exotica is about the listener attempting to cut oneself loose from authenticity to create something completely fabricated, it is oxymoronic and exists within its own conflicts. I would liken the experience of listening to Exotica as witnessing somebody dropping a fragile treasure, watching it fall but being suspended in the moment when it’s about to make contact with the ground – you recognise the fragility of the object but know that within it, there will be beautiful fragments.
The resourcefulness of Hip Hop samplers and beatmakers has seen them perform Kinstsugi on Exotica compositions with the genre living on in music by big hitters like J Dilla, Dj Premier, The Beastie Boys, Madlib, Flying Lotus, The Avalanches, Roots Manuva and The Pharcyde. Sun Ra has been recognised by some as the creator of a parallel to Exotica through Afrofuturism, crafting a uniquely Black Exotica with music for transportation away from Planet Earth and this is presented in the 2017 compilation ‘Exotica’(1956-1968) . The art of audio Kinstsugi is demonstrated expertly by Japanese electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra’s 1978 reworking of Martin Denny’s track ‘Firecracker’, a composition with explicit nods towards Chinese and Japanese traditional music.
Give armchair travelling a go and check out both tracks amongst some of the biggest names associated with Exotica in the Spotify playlist below.
- Debussy Redux: The Impact of His Music on Popular Culture, Matthew Brown, Indiana University Press, 2012