Picture yourself on a beach in Hawaii drinking a refreshing piña colada. What music would you be listening to?
If I had a dollar for every time a foreigner tells me how much they loved Mexico and its culture after going on vacation to Cancún or Cabo, I would probably have enough to pay a trip for myself to these places. As a proud Mexican, I’ve been to these tourist spots twice, and I hated it. Basically, you go to your hotel and are welcomed by a dude wearing a hat and a hideous, bright shirt we call “guayabera,” while a lady in an embroidered, generic “Mexican dress” gives you refreshments, as you wait for your room.
Then, there are presentations of “folkloric dances” all over the hotel, and when you’re just relaxing by the pool, all of a sudden some mariachi music starts playing, and you can see the happy faces of all the tourists who believe this is really what Mexico is like. Well, I bet that wherever you’re from, especially if you’re from another “exotic” country, you’ve have a similar experience when going to a place like this. Now, imagine that fake, amusement-park cultural representation in music.
That’s what exotica is all about. Seriously, it’s so weird and bizarre that I’m not really sure where I stand on it. Unlike every other music genre that has roots and a clear evolution throughout the years, or that emerge from a specific social movement, exotica is a completely different animal. This is a genre that was basically created in the studio out of a huge marketing concept of merging some of the most popular music trends and current interests in society. The genre ended up being a mixture of jazz sounds, some pop, lounge music, and different "folkloric rhythms" from around the world. I bet now you're starting to get where the name comes from.
So, let’s talk history for a bit. It's the early 1950s the world was drastically changed because of the war, there's an intense joint reconstruction effort, and even though some countries are still struggling to come to terms with things, in the US, people are determined to close that chapter and move on. It’s bliss: the economy has been reactivated, and now middle-class citizens have enough money to live and treat themselves with certain luxuries. Traveling is one of their favorites. During the war, many soldiers had been sent to the military base in Hawaii, and when they returned to their homes on the mainland, they brought with them a huge excitement for Asian-Pacific cultures.
Suddenly, with all the economic growth, people didn’t want to just listen to amazing stories about these remote islands in the Pacific; they wanted to see them by themselves, and they wanted to embrace the culture. Of course, this was seen by the record company that gave us exotica as a great opportunity, and in 1952 ,what is considered by many as the first exotica album was released. Lex Baxter's Ritual of the Savage (I mean, just look at the name! BTW, he also has a song called "Sophisticated Savage." Barf.) introduced a whole new world of sounds and fusions that exemplified this new obsession people had. Unfortunately for him, his album wasn’t the huge success he was expecting.
Just four years later, Martin Denny, another orchestra and instrumental composer, decided to take one of Baxter’s songs “Quiet Village” and make some slight modifications. His debut album (recorded in Waikiki, by the way) Exotica was a huge success that propelled him to the first place in the Billboard charts and gave this new genre a proper name. What did Denny do differently to Baxter's song that the audience liked? It's so simple that you’re going to laugh: he literally added some animal sounds to the track. Yes, it’s basically the same song but with some birds singing, monkeys shrieking, and naturally, some felines growling. Believe it or not, that made a big difference because it made people feel like they were in the middle of the jungle in a faraway, exotic land.
The genre was a hit for a few years, and then new musicians tried adding more “folkloric” and “tribal” sounds to their melodies. They didn't just stick to Tiki, pseudo-Pacific sounds. They took it as far as their imagination allowed them, incorporating “traditional” sounds from various countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, the more “exotic” the better and the more records they could sell. As a matter of fact, going back to Mexico, there’s an album by Baxter that just makes me want to bang my head with that Quetzalcoatl stone figurine that appears on the cover of Sacred Idol.
You might have noticed how I put quotation marks in many of the recurrent words, and that’s because that's what the genre is all about. It’s a fake, unauthentic fantasy created for a very specific audience who wanted to see and experience something different. It’s like the resort I was talking about before, or the tons of people who go to Hawaii for that Tiki vibe, while drinking their piña colada in a luau at sunset. In other words, it’s all make-believe cultural representation.
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