Mr Porter’s Musical Primers: Exotica
Mr Martin Denny and his bandmates, c.1970. Photograph by Mr Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
How a mash-up of calypso, bongos and bull frogs took over the turntables of 1950s suburbia – with MR PORTER’s exclusive edited exotica playlist.
Few musical genres can rival exotica for pure escapism. The aural equivalent of sipping piña coladas in a Polynesian rockpool, exotica came to prominence in 1957 when composer Mr Martin Denny, an American jazz pianist who had moved to Hawaii in the early 1950s, released an album of the same name. Emerging at a time when the physical and emotional scars of WWII were still raw, this new movement opened a portal through which listeners could leave behind the bombed-out buildings and transport themselves off to tropical Shangri-Las of the imagination.
Taking the percussive sound of calypso and giving it a strong shot of weird, Mr Denny mixed bongos, vibraphones, brass and animal noises to create fantastical soundtracks designed wholly for “armchair safari-ers”. He stumbled upon the formula by accident. During a set at the appropriately named Shell Bar in the Hilton Hawaiian Village resort in Oahu, a group of bullfrogs started chiming in every time his group played a song. Their croaks blended in perfectly with the lilting piano melodies and would stop every time the music halted. As a joke, Mr Denny’s bandmates started doing birdcalls in response and the audience loved it. The next day someone asked if he could recreate the arrangement. Denny agreed and played “Quiet Village” using a grooved cylinder to simulate the frog croaks, with the band doing their best birdcalls once again. They recorded it and the album went on to sell a million copies.
Ritual of the Savage by Mr Les Baxter, 1951
Provocative artwork played a pivotal role in the genre’s success. As Ms Bettie Page rose to fame thanks to Ms Bunny Yeager’s safari-inspired photoshoots, record labels titillated exotica fans with similarly risqué images. Offering up various “suburban savage” and “forbidden island” fantasies, models such as Ms Sandra Warner were cast on album covers as voodoo temptresses and tropical vixens. Prancing around lava eruptions, bathing naked in jungle streams and swinging among palm trees and totem poles, they appealed to the primal instincts of middle-class men who were too scared to reach for the top shelf. Artists such as Mr Denny and Messrs Les Baxter, Arthur Lyman and Webley Edwards reaped the rewards of this marketing strategy, with each enjoying huge international success with their music. And while we may baulk at the aesthetic of these album covers today, in the 1950s they helped break down sexual taboos by placing men’s fantasies out in the open… or at least partially hidden under their turntables.
However, exotica’s time in the sun was to be short lived. Following Hawaii’s official induction into the US in 1959 and the rise of affordable air travel in the early 1960s, the public’s fascination with “mondo music” tailed off. They were no longer satisfied with merely imagining it; they actually wanted to go and live it.
Exotica by Mr Martin Denny, 1957
In the years since its heyday, exotica has become synonymous with kitsch thrift stores, elevator muzak and quirky beer adverts – but its influence still pervades pop culture. In 1989, the pioneering acid house group 808 State cited Mr Denny as an influence on their hit song “Pacific State”, and producers such as Flying Lotus and J Dilla have sampled his work. In 1998, the Coen Brothers chose Ms Yma Sumac’s “Ataypura” for The Big Lebowski soundtrack, and in 2014 the makers of HBO’s Fargo used Mr Eden Ahbez’s “Full Moon” to devastating effect as the show’s two assassins dropped a body into a frozen lake – which is as far away as you can get from the utopian fantasies the song was created to invoke.
Exotica may still be an acquired taste, but if you dig deep into its discography you’ll find some hypnotic records that are guaranteed to get your next cocktail party into a groove. So, slip on your favourite Hawaiian shirt, mix up something fruity and put on our playlist. We’ll see you when you get back from the island.
Listen to the MR PORTER exotica playlist here