Weird Rhapsody: Global Exotica
by Rachel Devitt | May 2, 2013
Around the mid-20th century, a little musical/cultural movement popped up called "exotica." There were a lot of layers and strains to it (and if you want to know about them, a quick troll of the Internets will find you legions of die-hard collectors ready to mix you a tiki drink in their retrofitted man-cave and tell you all about it). But basically what it boiled down to was a group of white dudes (key players included Martin Denny, Les Baxter and Arthur Lyman) who fell hard for various "foreign" musics (or at least their idea of them) and reinvented those musics in their image, creating a kitschy, flamboyant mélange of "tribal" drums and harpsichords (!), island motifs and ticky-tacky jazz.
With names like "Jungle Madness," "Taboo" and "Pagan Love Song," the songs from this movement were typically wonderfully weird, more than a little bit problematic -- and usually almost completely removed from the musical cultures they purported to emulate. In other words, they were pretty much the perfect soundtrack for the newly jet-setting, cocktail-swilling, postwar imperialism of the 1950s and '60s. You know, the kind of stuff Roger Sterling might listen to while lounging on Waikiki Beach whilst drunkenly plotting his next boozy client schmooze session.
But there's an even more fascinating flip side to the tacky souvenir coin that is "exotica": The other group of key players in the movement were artists who were either from so-called "exotic" locales (Brazil! Peru! Cuba! Italy!) or had a legitimate cultural or ethnic connection to them. In short, people from the very cultures being exoticized took up -- and took over -- the over-the-top racist headdress of exotica, and not only made it their own, but took it to even more wonderfully weird levels than the white dudes. Think of Brazil's Carmen Miranda, with her salada do frutas piled high on her head. Or Xavier Cugat cha-cha-chaing his way through "Tea for Two." Or Juan Garcia Esquivel, the Mexico-born architect of vintage lounge music. Or (our personal favorite) Yma Sumac: self-professed Peruvian Mambo Queen; proprietor of a five-octave range that puts Mariah's whistle register to shame; fond of ornate headdresses, mythology-drenched song titles and vocals that ranged from rainforest bird shrieks to guttural growls; all-around generally strange and seductive badass. In some ways, of course, these artists contributed to a growing ocean of musical racism. But at the same time, they also got out in front of their own exoticization to beat the tiki-bar imperialists at their own game, to own exotica. And wow, did it sound wonderfully, weirdly good.