The cultural occurrence of exotica was a manifold junket, swallowed with intense significance on the one hand, or bubblegum antiquity on the other, all depending on what level you perceive it on. Musically, exotica was a melting of oriental, Pacific and Latin styles with Western pop culture, taken with either sincere dedication (a la Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny) or insensitive exploitation (101 Strings). At the same moment, jazz was also experimenting with the same modes; Lenny Tristano, Charlie Parker, Sun Ra and Yussef Lateef were all reaching to the east for inspiration.
Culturally, exotica meant a lot to the post-war mature American audience. Cheaper airfare and economic trading brought curios and stories of enchantment to the American imagination, just as faux-anthropological mondo documentaries did for the African identity. Hawaii was all of a sudden an affordable and desirable holiday destination, and this tourist trade also sustained the musicians.
More importantly, the escapism offered to teenagers through rock and roll was jealously sought after by an older, wealthier crowd of parents. Tiki bars and expensive cocktails with funny names gave this generation a fantasy of their own -- one their children couldn’t share. Pretentious sophistication by travelling the world through liquor, the thrill of chatting up dark-skinned girls in grass skirts and the gregarious loss of reality through a socially acceptable manner (ie without drugs or rebellion) were all part of it. If the musicians playing in the International Market Place or Shell Bar of Hawaii were primarily island natives, the crowd certainly was not.
Many of the musicians involved in the genre catered to this fantasy world. Take, for example, Yma Sumac, self-confessed owner of a five octave voice; history is still unclear as to whether she was Incan Princess or just Brooklyn housewife with an ethnic-sounding name. Or take Korla Pandit (nee John Roland Redd), who married a Disney artist and changed his name and identity for good, and who had myriads of letters after his first TV appearances from furious husbands claiming he was mesmerising their wives with his beautiful gaze.
While disposable tiki culture has been adopted by rockabilly, and cocktail culture has been abandoned to the masses, the body of music left from this generation is thick, and certainly worth wading deeper than just the 90’s Ultra-Lounge reissues owned by all our party loving aunts.
- Jimmy Trash