As kitsch as a Jeff Koons Valentine card, and as camp as a Liberace Christmas TV special, exotica first flourished, primarily in the US, between the mid-1950s and the early 1960s. As the Pacific returned to peace after the second world war, and as the US economy entered a newly prosperous, consumer-driven age, increasing numbers of Americans began taking long haul vacations, first in Hawaii and then throughout the Asian-Pacific. Exotica was their soundtrack; a melodious, sun-kissed blend of "exotic" folk music and American dance bands, with a splash of jazz thrown in.
It's easy to sneer at today, in 2010, but the exotica movement of the 1950s, as bland as it essentially was, can be seen as the precursor of the modern world music movement, introducing American audiences to new sounds and new rhythmsadmittedly, refracted through a prism fashioned in part by the work of vanilla bandleaders such as Paul Whiteman
in the 1920s. The band led by pianist Martin Denny, the godfather of exotica, was in effect one huge rhythm section; it needed three trailers just to transport the percussion instruments, from gamelan parts to octave after octave of tuned gongs to huge bamboo xylophones.
Exotica revivalist band The Waitiki 7 was formed in 2008, and New Sounds Of Exotica is its second album, following Adventures In Paradise (Pass Out, 2009). The core of the band is its three-piece rhythm sectiondrummer Abe Lagrimas Jr., percussionist Lopaka Colon and bassist Randy Wongall from Hawaii and with solid exotica provenances. Colon's father, Augie, was Denny's percussionist and the originator of the bird and animal calls which were a feature of Denny's sound. Lopaka's calls revive the family tradition on three tracks. Lagrimas also performed with Denny.
The other four band members are variously from Boston and New Yorkpianist Zaccai Curtis, violinist Helen Liu, flautist and saxophonist Tim Mayer, and vibraphonist Jim Benoit. Mallet instruments were prominent in first-generation exotica, and among them The Waitiki 7 have three vibraphone or xylophone players. Benoit and Mayer deliver a degree of jazz sensibility, and extended solos, sometimes even verging on the "out," not generally heard in exotica. Curtis and Lagrimas also have jazz chops, and these four musicians lend the band a weight unusual for the genre.
But the overall vibe is pretty, politely percussive and supra-chilled, as exotica should be, with layered vibraphones and fluttering flutes features of most tracks. Individual tunes range from the astonishingly kitsch, such as "Ruby" (check the video clip below and gasp) and "Bali Ha'i" (from Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific), to less frequent, relatively charged outings such as Denny's "Voodoo Love" and "Firecracker," an up-tempo showcase for Lagrimas. Another Denny tune, "When First I Love," sounds at times very like the title track on guitarist Grant Green
's In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969)written off as "opium music" by one leading jazz critic when it was first releasedand you're heading in approximately the right direction, albeit on a package tour airline. Take it easy.
Tracks: Similau; Flower Humming; Bali Ha'i; When First I Love; Tiki; Voodoo Love; Ruby; China Fan; Firecracker; Sweet Pikake Serenade.
Personnel: Tim Mayer: flutes, soprano saxophone, clave, hulusi; guiro; Helen Liu: violin, ocean drum, guiro; Zaccai Curtis: piano; Jim Benoit: vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel; Abe Lagrimas Jr.: drums, vibraphone; Lopaka Colon: percussion, bird and animal calls; Randy Wong: double bass; Greg Pare: vibraphone (4, 8).