Critical World
Thinking Globalization Through Popular Culture
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By Bob W. White

Martin Denny’s “Exotica” (1957) was not the first album of its kind to integrate non-western “exotica” sounds into recordings, but it is one of the most important, because in many ways it put “exotica” music on the map of mainstream popular music in post-war America.

The most well-known song from this album, Denny’s arrangement of Les Baxter’s composition “Quiet Village”, became a major hit and Denny was invited to perform on such visible venues as American Bandstand and the Dinah Shore Show.  What were the elements that came together in this music that would tap in to the popular imaginary of the post-war period?  What was Denny doing with exotic sounds and what were people hearing?


“Exotic Music”-Nelson Arruda

Audio MP3

“Patan”-Les Baxter

Collectables 2000
Audio MP3



“Quiet Village”-Martin Denny

Audio MP3

Exotica as a Genre of Music

In the introduction to his important edited volume on the topic of exoticism in post-war popular music (Widening the Horizon, John Libbey 1999), Philip Hayward alludes to a certain degree of disdain for exotica music, even from within the emerging field of popular music studies:

“I had not taken into account the element of embarrassment at examining styles which current tastes deemed so irredeemably kitsch as to be one of the final frontiers of pop music study.  Nor had I realized that, whatever my own academic curiosity, local cultural-political issues (both within academia and more broadly) prioritized traditional-oriented Hawaiian music as a credible area of analysis.  Without any precedent for serious study, the territory remained too outré for (academic words)”  (1999: 3).

Hayward’s book, which includes articles on Korla Pandit, Les Baxter, Yma Sumac, Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, Haruomi Hosono, Van Dyke Parks, and Yanni, is an amazing resource.  It covers a wide range of issues dealing with the topic of musical exotica, takes on a number of important historical and more recent cases, trying not to lose sight of the larger political economic context.

Hosokawa’s article in this book defines exotica music as involving “imaginary and intentional construction of non-western sound arranged and/or performed for western audiences” (ibid: 74).  In terms of defining the characteristics of the genre, Hosokawa identifies three aspects that make exotica unique:  its geography (primarily the South Pacific, but also the “orient” broadly construed, strong emphasis on island culture), its aesthetic (focused on creating a mood or an effect rather than a musical structure), and its relationship to travel (what Tim Taylor has referred to as “sonic tourism”).


Hayward sets out three registers of exotica music that more or less correspond with the geography of the music:  orientalism (as is common in much of Denny’s music), hawaiienesque (which is audible in the music of Arthur Lyman) and afro-tropicalism (perhaps the best example being Yma Sumac).

In an article appearing online (, Kevin Crossman sets out several important moments in the history of exotica music.  First is the publication of James Michener’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel Tales of the South Pacific(1948), followed by Rogers & Hammersteins’ Broadway musical South Pacific (1949).  In 1951 Les Baxter—who in the 1950s was working as an arranger for Capitol Records—recorded an album entitled Ritual of the Savage (Le Sacré du Sauvage), that Crossman characterizes as the “cornerstone of exotica”.

Thus when Denny came on the scene in the mid-1950s, the stage was already set.  Indeed, his first album (Exotica) featured a number of songs written by Baxter with arrangements by Denny, including the #1 single from the album, “Quiet Village”.  In 1959, Denny was nominated by Billboard for the best pianist of the year, and his group was awarded “Most promising group of the year” (Hosokawa 1999: 75).

The widespread attention given to exotica musicians such as Baxter, Denny, and soon after Arthur Lyman (who began as a member of Denny’s band) led to a number of offshoots and imitators, but the emerging empire of rock and roll pushed exotica off stage and it was not until the mid-1990s that exotica would make a comeback, this time under the banner of “retro-lounge” (see “Retro-Lounge and the Tiki Empire”).

“Taboo”-Arthur Lymann

Rykodisc (USA)1996
Audio MP3


Exotica Music and Expressivity

Birds and other elements of nature (frogs, monkeys, water, wind, surf) became an essential part of the exotica sound through the innovation of Martin Denny and his ensemble (for example, listen to “Coronation” or “S.  Much of the web-based literature on Denny tells the story of how these sounds first came to be a central part of the group’s sound:

DC: Was that about the time that you started taking American standards and making them more tropical sounding?

MD: Well, the way that started was that part of my training was how to make a small group sound larger than it really was. So I would use a lot of different percussive effects, and then I started collecting instruments from the South Seas and from the Orient, also from Latin America  The music became a quasi-mix of music from the South Pacific, the Orient and South America. We were always experimenting, and trying out new ideas. Of course, that’s when we added the birdcalls on “Quiet Village”. There was such a tremendous call for it. I kept getting repeat requests for it, I mean, during the course of an evening I had to play that damn thing maybe a dozen times!

(Excerpt from interview by Dana Countryman,

The use of natural sounds first occurred spontaneously during Denny’s concert appearances in Hawaii:

According to Denny, his use of these sounds represents and interaction between both human and nature, and between the musicians and the audience of the Hawaiian Village resort.  According to an account he published in 1993, one night, large bullfrogs in a pond next to the bandstand croaked during a performance.  When the band stopped playing, the frogs stopped croaking.  Checking to see if this was merely a coincidence, Denny repeated the same tune and then the frogs started croaking again.  Then, as a gag, some members spontaneously started imitating bird calls, much to the rest of the band’s amusement.  The next day one of the guests requested the song with the birds and the frogs.  The band then began to deliberately imitate frogs and birds”  (Hosokawa 1999: 77-78).

These sounds became not only a sonic signature for Denny’s group, but came to be associated with exotica music more generally.  But what work, either cultural or musical, was being accomplished by these sounds?

If we take Hosokawa’s analysis seriously, then the use of particular types of sounds that have now become characteristic of the style is not intended as an act of imitation (for example as criticized by Platon or much later by Adorno), but as a means of evoking certain atmospheres such as “island paradise” “high seas”, or “jungle”. Another important aspect of Denny’s exotica sound is the importance of a “cool” sound that reproduces the calm of tourist leisure (listen for example to “Off Shore”).

Following this thinking, and trudging back to some of the earliest writing on expressivity in music—Plato’s Republic—is it possible to see sound as an idea in the sense of Plato’s “world of ideas”?  How would this be different from talking about music as a social representation of reality?  Isn’t there some sense in which the sounds of Denny’s jungle paradise are social facts since they mark certain types of class-based privilege and behavior?  What does it mean that among the sounds of animals and nature, one can also hear the deep horns of commercial cruiseliners (“Stranger Than Paradise”)?

*Thanks to Eric Lewis for pushing my thinking in this direction, though he is not responsible for the sloppy parts.


On Kitsch and Irony

Kitsch is originally from the German word meaning ‘trash’ although more recently has been used as a word to describe objects of poor taste and usually poor quality. The world is littered with fine examples of kitsch such as the praying porcelain children at the top of this article or our faithful porcelain friend (pictured below right). Kitsch items can be found throughout history and are certainly not limited to the past century. Several definitions have been offered to describe kitsch:

1. kitsch kich, n. trash: work in any of the arts that is pretentious and inferior or in bad taste. –adj. kitsch’y. –adv. kitsch’ly. [Ger] Definition from Chambers dictionary

2. kitsch kich noun. trash; art, literature, fashion, etc dismissed as being of merely popular taste or appeal, vulgar, sentimental or sometimes pretentious. Also, adjective. kitsch’ilyadverb. kitsch’y adjective. [German] Definition from Larousse plc. Away in a manger…

3. kitsch In the arts, anything that claims to have an aesthetic purpose but is tawdry and tasteless. It usually applies to cheap sentimental works produced for the mass market, such as those found in souvenir shops and chain stores, but it is also used for any art that is considered in bad taste. Definition from Helicon Publishing Ltd.

Artificial Kingdom: On the Kitsch Experience de Celeste Olalquiaga, Broché – 336 pages (décembre 2002) University of Minnesota Press; ISBN : 081664117X

From her pet glass-globed hermit crab Rodney to the Victorian era’s Crystal Palace, Celeste Olalquiaga offers a meditative look at the origins of kitsch and what kitsch tells us about the conflicts between the real and the artificial, tradition and modernity, nostalgia and melancholy. Olalquiaga artfully traces this form to the mid-1800s and establishes kitsch as a sensibility of loss-a yearning for objects to help recapture the past-and explains how these artifacts respond to a deep-seated human need for meaning and connection with nature. The Artificial Kingdom beautifully elucidates this aspect of culture as an attempt to recover what industrialization has destroyed.


Retro-Lounge and the Tiki Empire Links

Le retour “lounge”:

Site “lounge” d’un particulier:

La meilleure ressource sur le tiki est le livre de Sven Kirsten

Qui est Sven Kirsten? Consultez le site Web officiel du livre et de l’auteur:

Nouvelles pour les amateurs tiki: index.html

Festival in Atlanta, still going on:

Le meilleur “mai tai” au monde:

et d’autres informations sur ce “drink” (histoire, recettes, interviews, etc.): maitai/about.html

Tiki en écriture:

Site exotica avec la bonne musique et d’objets tiki:

The Taboo Cove in Las Vegas (authentique tiki bar): taboo.htm

Des exotiqueurs à Londres (tiki loundge, bar et club):

Tiki a la radio par tout dans le monde: what/what.html

Un site sur le “Polynesian Pop”:
http:// tikilink.htm

Un site “célibataire” amateur de martini et de gâteau au fromage:
http:// martini.html

Entrevue avec le petit fils du fondateur Trader Vics: maitai/ about.htm

Site hybride sur les disques et les drinks de l’époque:

Tres bon site, tourisme virtuel exotica:


Other Related Links

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