The Evolution of Exotica

By Kevin Crossman, February 2000

When the veterans of World War II returned home from the Pacific Theatre they told tales of exotic locales and cultures. The genesis of Fifties fascination with all things Polynesian, Hawaiian, and Oriental was started. By the middle of the decade, apartment buildings, bowling alleys, restaurants, and bars all used these motifs in their architecture and design. As the Fifties progressed, a musical form became associated with this so-called "Tiki Culture" movement and that music eventually was called Exotica.

Narrowly defined, Exotica is a form of mostly instrumental pop music featuring orchestral or lounge instrumentation, augmented by Latin, African, or Polynesian rhythms or tribal-sounding chanting or singing. This music had its roots in the early Fifties, reaching its apex in late 1959.

There were several important events in the evolution of Exotica.

The first was the aforementioned movement toward Tiki culture. In 1948, James Michener published the Pulitzer Prize winning novel Tales of the South Pacific. This war-time story kicked off America’s craze with Pacific locales. The musical based on the book, South Pacific, only cemented things in the collective consciousness.

In the days before Rock ‘n Roll, the height of popular music was the "pop standard." This orchestral music was typically accompanied by vocals, but in some cases was not. One musician toiling in this field was Les Baxter, a former singer and sax player in Mel Torme’s band. In 1951, Baxter found himself working for Capitol Records writing arrangements and conducting orchestras for Nat King Cole, Bob Eberle, and Frank Sinatra. As was often the case in those days, Capitol would let their arrangers record their own music on the side.

Baxter’s first album, Music Out of the Moon, was the first to feature the spacey sounds of the theremin. But it was Baxter’s second album, Ritual of the Savage (Le Sacre du Sauvage), that would become the cornerstone of Exotica. This album featured lush orchestral arrangements along with tribal rhythms and featured such classics as "Quiet Village", "Jungle River Boat", "Love Dance", and "Stone God." Ritual is the seminal Exotica record, influencing all that came after it.

As the Fifties progressed, Baxter carved out a niche in this area, producing titles in this style for Yma Sumac and Bas Sheva, in addition to continuing to record in the "jungle" style as well as more traditional ones (evidenced by his 1956 #1 pop hit "Poor People of Paris").

The next big event in Exotica’s history took place in 1956. A journeyman piano player named Martin Denny was performing with his group in Waikiki at the Hawaiian Village’s Shell Bar. Denny and his group were quickly becoming local favorite’s by mixing up both pop music standards and more exotic pieces with the Latin rhythms and percussion supplied by band member Augie Colon. Denny’s group also featured Arthur Lyman on vibraphone and marimba and bassist John Kramer. Instead of the complex, sweeping arrangements favored by studio musicians such as Baxter, Denny rearranged the songs so they could be played by a four piece band live in Waikiki and beyond.

One evening at the Shell Bar, Denny’s group was performing their version of Les Baxter’s "Quiet Village." As legend has it, the group was joined during the performance by the frogs from a nearby pond who croaked along to the beat of the song. When the band stopped, so did the frogs. When they played "Quiet Village" again later that evening, the frogs came back to life. This time, the band members returned the favor to the frogs by screaming out wild bird calls during the song.

The next day, the most requested song at the Shell Bar was "the one with the frogs." Not understanding what the tourists meant at first, eventually Denny figured out it was the version of "Quiet Village" heard the previous night. As fate would have it, Denny and his group embraced the sound the frogs provided, reprising the frog sounds by using a wood cylinder and making the bird calls part of the standard arrangement.

Martin Denny released his first record in 1957. This album, titled Exotica, gave the musical form it’s name. But the music was not an overnight sensation. When Martin Denny left his employer Henry J. Kaiser, who owned the Hawaiian Village, his band returned to their former gig at Don the Beachcomber’s, as well as tours of the mainland. To the folks in middle America, Martin Denny’s exotic music conjured up images they had only read and fantasized about. Though Denny’s music used instrumentation and stylings from around the world, the music was not truly authentic. But, that did not matter to the listeners who loved the music and performances anyway.

Shortly thereafter, Arthur Lyman took his vibes (and Denny’s bassist John Kramer) onto a solo act funded by Henry J. Kaiser. Lyman’s debut album Taboo was recorded in a similar style to Denny’s and stayed on the Billboard charts for more than a year after its release in late 1957. Lyman himself was a native Hawaiian, which lended a bit of authenticity to his music. Other artists began to record in the style of Denny, Lyman, and Baxter, often incorporating the sounds of Hawaiian music then increasing in popularity thanks to inklings of statehood and the air-travel which allowed the Hawaiian tourist industry to burgeon. Exotica was gaining momentum but needed something to push it over the edge into mainstream consciousness.

That something was in fact Martin Denny’s version of "Quiet Village", re-recorded for stereo in 1958. This version started getting played on the radio and by mid-1959 was a full fledged craze. Two-year-old Exotica eventually reached the top of the album charts (selling 400,000 copies) and "Quiet Village" was a Top-5 hit itself. Pretty soon Martin Denny found himself on shows such as American Bandstand and The Dinah Shore Show instead of the tiki huts of middle America. Hawaiian statehood that summer and America’s love of the islands were tied to the music of the era; Exotica, spearheaded by Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny.

Exotica continued on strong through the mid-60’s. Dozens of imitators jumped on the bandwagon, with often mixed results. Lyman and Denny forged strong careers though, built on their strong musical arrangements and energetic live performances. Les Baxter moved on from Capitol but still recorded soundtracks, pop, and even Exotica for other labels. By the time Vietnam and the Summer of Love rolled by, Exotica was considered by most a relic of the Fifties and all the squareness that decade then stood for. Exotica was now a dead art-form, or at least one in deep hibernation.

In the Nineties, Exotica was rediscovered by a new audience tired of overproduced pop and raucous grunge. The old LPs from the fifties found themselves being sold at increasingly higher prices, prized by collectors young and old. Many of the old albums were then re-released onto CD, thrilling audiences once again.

Though Les Baxter died in early 1996 before the Exotica rediscovery was in full-swing, Arthur Lyman continues to reap the rewards of his Exotica days. Many of his old albums were re-released by Ryko and others, and he still skillfully performs weekly solo shows at the New Otani Hotel in Waikiki. Lyman plays the vibes to a mostly older crowd, takes requests, and generally holds court in the exotic setting of the sand and the Pacific.

Martin Denny is mostly retired by still makes occasional appearances despite being almost 90 years old. His early classic albums were re-released by Scamp records and he has recorded with new Exotica band Don Tiki. His songs were featured as the soundtrack to the Bruce Willis movie Breakfast of Champions and on a Charles Schwaab commercial shown on this year’s Super Bowl. In late 1999, Martin Denny performed live with Don Tiki, Augie Colon, and others as part of the Hawaiian Film Festival. He still lives in Honolulu to this day.

Exotica is more than an ancient fad; it was and is a unique cultural icon which symbolized and embodied the times in which it was formed. In the repressed Fifties, Exotica tantalized and fascinated those who would not, or could not, take the plunge into taboos, real or imagined. Exotica stands as tribute to those who embraced the Tiki Culture and those who live it today.

All images and text appearing on these pages are copyright 2000 by Kevin Crossman, all rights reserved, unless otherwise noted. Reproduction or retransmission of this material in any form is prohibited without expressed written permission.

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This page last modified on Tuesday, June 08, 2004.