Polynesia — an idyllic destination that seems made for the stereo, jungle on one channel, rolling beach on the other. A kind of ersatz version of Polynesian music — with its vibraphone and chiming piano, the rhythm provided by hand drums — was all the rage in the late 1950s, when the combination of high fidelity, sophisticated cocktail culture and a sense of the pleasures of kitsch provoked a drive for escapist music. The motif was, ironically, enhanced by America’s march through the Pacific in World War II, its more romantic aspects captured in the musical South Pacific. In the late 1950s, this image of island sunsets and romance proved irresistible to bachelor pads and populuxe stylists, who also gave us the automobile tail fin and the Stratocaster, among other midcentury design triumphs.
Geographically speaking, the closest Polynesian island to the United States was Hawaii. There had long been cultural interchange between the sounds of Hawaii and the mainland; witness the craze for lap-steel guitar stylings in the 1920s, with such masters as Sol Hoopi, Frank Ferara and the vaudevillian Roy Smeck. But the indigenous Hawaii was overshadowed by tourist-friendly, come-hither stereotypes, and no place promised a mythic Waikiki experience, complete with pu-pu platters and dancers gyrating in grass skirts, more than the Hawaiian Village Hotel on Oahu.
In the 1950s, Alfred Apaka, the Bing Crosby of Hawaii, was the musical director there, and pianist Martin Denny held forth in the complex’s open-air Shell Bar, where he often found himself accompanied by denizens of the surrounding jungle. One night, Denny’s combo played a song and was answered by the call-and-response of bullfrogs. The noises enhanced the travelogue feel, and as a joke he encouraged his band members to add such sound effects to the recordings of their music. On a Les Baxter album from 1952, Rituals of the Savage, he found a song called “Quiet Village,” and began to cover it, a tropical impressionism, that was the inspiration for the kind of music he set about creating. He recorded Exotica, his debut album, in 1956, following it with Exotica II in 1957, though it took until 1959 before “Quiet Village” emerged as a surprise hit single. Denny’s vibes player, Arthur Lyman, would go on to form his own solo group, having a hit with “Yellow Bird” in the opening months of 1961, and soon record racks were populated by albums promising raptures of mai-tai pleasure, blue lagoons, thatched hut interludes, and as one compilation series would have it, Adventures in Paradise.
In their eternal quest for an undiscovered sub-genre, it was only a matter of time before record collectors, bored with hunting rare English beat groups and obscure northern soul singles, would unearth the lush joys of “Exotica,” a style named for Denny’s debut album, but soon growing to encompass such slivers of categorization as space-age pop, cocktail jazz and lounge music. As much retro stylistic nuance as actual sound, it was meant to soothe and seduce, hence its tendency to blend into the background. But the performers were sophisticated musicians who often simplified and colorized pop standards, creating a languorous and dreamy ambience.
Among cognoscenti, Gene Rains has long been the odd man out. Also discovered by Apaka and booked into the Shell Bar, Alfred invited Decca representatives to see Rains in September of 1959. Riding the wave of “Quiet Village,” the vibraphonist released three albums — Lotus Land (1960), Far Across The Sea (1961), and Rains In The Tropics (1962). Unfortunately for Rains’ reputation, they have long been out of print, never emerging in the digital format until Real Gone Records decided to put together a comprehensive overview, spurred by “DigiTiki” Mark Riddle, whose podcast supplied the impetus for this collection. A reissue label that seems to have few boundaries — their latest clutch of releases includes Rick Wakeman, the Grateful Dead, soulster producer Willie Hutch, the Shirelles and the soundtrack to How to Stuff a Wild Bikini — label head Gordon Anderson says that there seems to be an abiding interest in Rains’ work, and that his mission is to make sure past artists of quality are not overlooked in pop’s relentless embrace of the new.
Surprisingly little is known about Rains, even to the extent that I’m unable to determine just when he passed on to the great Tiki god in the sky. With his gentle rhythm and jazz inflections, Rains comes off as a slightly more adventurous player than Denny, though not as showy as Lyman. He uses sound effects, of course, but his group’s interest seems to be in expanding the harmonic palette, especially true from pianist Paul Conrad. “Lotus Land,” the title song, is a heady dialogue between piano and vibraphone, a good example of his symbiosis with Rains. Conrad would leave the group after the first album to front his own Hawaiian combo; his replacement, Byron Peterson, has a more classical feel, especially in the keyboard and bell tree ripples of “Love Theme from The World of Suzie Wong“; the second album ends with a straight jazz rendition of “Caravan,” complete with bass solo. By the time Gene reaches his third and final album, there’s nary a bird call to be heard, and such cuts as “Song of Delilah” and “Bangkok Cock Fight” (another Les Baxter composition) stray close to Kai Winding and Vince Guaraldi territory, an adjacent and slightly more mainstream soft jazz genre.
Beyond the novelty aspect, which is considerable and should not be undervalued in our quest for listening pleasure, Exotica’s impact over the intervening years has been far more than is usually credited. For many listeners, this was their first exposure to global percussion and pan-Asian instruments, be they stringed, struck or blown. As a textural precursor to what would become world music, exotica accustomed western ears to the strange and otherworldly.