'Exotica' is a type of American music that takes the sounds of distant lands - African jungle drums, say, or far Eastern gongs - and uses them to enhance more traditional Western tunes. In the wake of tiki culture, exotica at its height provided listeners with a smooth but enchantingly foreign flavor added to the usual soft-jazz lounge music that dominated at the time. It was like a taste of fantasy amongst the everyday, and people loved it. And much of the creation of exotica lies at the feet of one man.
Martin Denny was a classically-trained pianist who had been turned on to Latin rhythms during a youthful tour of South America while playing in a band. In 1954 he was invited to Hawaii by Don the Beachcomber to play in a club there, and liked it so much that he stayed pretty much for the rest of his life.
Don the Beachcomber had single-handedly invented 'tiki culture,' that Westernized fondness for all things South Pacific (whether authentic or not); throughout the 1940's and 50's, he and rival Victor Bergeron (who owned the chain of Trader Vic's) helped restaurant patrons and clubgoers all over the country to vicariously experience tropical locales. American servicemen who had enjoyed their experience of far-flung Pacific island culture brought back with them a fondness for the sand-and-sea vibe, and wanted more of it.
By the late 50's Martin Denny had established himself in Hawaii as a talented bandleader and arranger, with a flair for the exotic. This fit in perfeclty with his surroundings, of course, because tourists visiting from the mainland didn't quite want the usual lounge background music to drink by, but they didn't quite want to go too far toward the unusual, either. The 'sweet spot' turned out to be a radio-friendly mix of sounds traditional and outre, enhanced by musical instruments from all over the world that Denny collected and would employ onstage as the song demanded. A Martin Denny number might incorporate a vibraphone, gong, Hawaiian guitar, traditional piano... and bird calls.
This last one happened - so the legend goes - rather by accident. One evening Denny's group was playing at their usual haunt, the Hawaiian Village nightclub, which (it being Hawaii, after all) featured one section of wall opened to the lush garden which the club maintained. As the band played, a bullfrog began to croak in time with the music; the musicians, inspired by the naturalistic sound, joined in with some of their own improvised bird calls. Patrons loved the performance and asked if the band could replicate the experience again the next night - and Denny had found his sound.
Denny's first recorded LP was, in fact, called Exotica. Released in 1959, the album featured the song "Quiet Village," which reached as high as #2 on the American charts. Today it's considered the quintessential Martin Denny record, with all of the pieces in place that would come to be associated with the exotica genre in general and Denny in particular. Denny would go on to record over thirty albums for Liberty Records, with such evocative titles as Hypnotique and Romantica.
For many, exotica is simply one more type of loungecore to be thrown into the mp3 mix or onto the turntable. For others, though, it maintains that peculiar romantic quality that transports its listeners to other realms, usually thousands of miles away, places covered in lush rainforest vegetation or comprising an endless, pristine beach presided over by palm trees, dark-skinned maidens, and the relentless ocean.