In 1956, in the U.S. territory of Hawaii, an entirely new sort of pop culture was getting underway. Martin Denny and his combo were creating an imaginary musical landscape of tropical torpor and bliss - moist and menacing rain forests, vibrantly plumed birds in full flight, fierce mute stone Tiki gods languishing in overgrown vines, sleeping fishing villages on bamboo stilts, glittering coral reefs, volcanoes bursting with molten-orange lava, smiling, obliging brown nymphettes in grass skirts - lotus land - in a word, "Exotica"...
But the roots of Exotica can be traced back a decade earlier when, in 1948, James Michener's Tales of The South Pacific became Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical (and movie) smash South Pacific. Polynesia, so recently the scene of bloodshed and terror from Guadalcanal to Midway, was now enshrined as Paradise.
With undulating bongos, ethereal vibes, oozing bass, majestic grand piano and various ethnic instruments - conch shells, Japanese koto, boobams, gamelans, corrugated gourds and man-sized Burmese temple bells - Denny's combo recorded the seminal Exotica in the Aluminum Dome of mega-industrialist Henry J. Kaiser's Hawaiian Village complex at Waikiki. With the exception of birdcalls and unintelligible "tribal" chants, Denny's music is purely instrumental. It relied on a combination of subconscious sound associations and rhythmic impulses to inject its mysterious air of forbidden pagan jungle rites into the newly puritanical America of the mid-50's.
With global reference points from the Afro-percussion of Cuba and Brazil and the jagged flute arpeggios of Peru to minor chord melodies from the Middle East and Hollywood soundtracks, Exotica is in no way indigenously "Hawaiian." As Martin Denny points out, "A lot of the Hawaiian music when I arrived here was played on steel guitar, and I felt that that limited you and put you in sort of a rut. By using vibes, mallet instruments, I was able to come up with different sounds, and it replaced he perennial sound of steel guitar. And then by inserting different rhythms, especially Latin rhythms, you supply the excitement that goes with it ..and then, of course, the feeling of the South Pacific, the languor, a relaxed sound."
It helped that Denny was performing more than 2,000 miles away from what he perceived to be the stifling environment of the then-48 states. "I was able to experiment, and the net result was something that was rather unique. If the audience didn't like it. why. I dropped it. but, was able to try anything I wanted If I had tried to do that on the mainland, I would have been ridiculed."
In the era of Sputnik and neighborhood A-bomb shelters. a full-scale cult of the primitive was underway. particularly on the West Coast The year 1955 marked the opening of Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom, with Adventureland's Jungle Cruise and Robinson Crusoe's desert island hideaway. Tiki-style motels and bars with glaring fire gods. torches, and day-glo volcanoes were springing up. as were projects such as Tahitian Village in Downey California. built to house the engineers of the Gemini rocket program.
Denny recalls ' I had traveled extensively... Argentina, Colombia, Peru, and Chile. I was brought over here (Hawaii) on contract by Don 'The Beachcomber in 1954. and then in 1955 1 formed my first trio. My music supplied a sort of window dressing, a background. The setting I had was a very exotic setting, what we wore and other things. These airline people that I got to know would bring me back these little funny instruments, and I would build an arrangement around them. I had a collection of Burmese gongs, for instance, bamboo chimes and Japanese glass chimes. a lot of very exotic-looking instruments."
For Denny's first album, Exotica, his lineup was composed of Augie Colon on percussion and birdcalls, Arthur Lyman on vibes, John Kramer on string bass, and Martin himself on piano Lyman soon left the band to start his own successful solo exotica career, and was replaced by future Herb Alpert sideman and Baja Marimba Band founder Julius Wechter: John Kramer, now a vice president at Prudential-Bache was replaced by the cherubic Harvey Ragsdale. As Denny notes, "Julius and I were the only haoles, Caucasians, 'cause the other boys were locals, they were all different nationalities Harvey Ragsdale was part Chinese, Hawaiian and English, Augie Colon was Puerto Rican-Hawaiian and Arthur Lyman was mixed Hawaiian. it sort of had an international feel to it, an ethnic thing."
The surrealness of Martin Denny's sound would not be complete without his trademark birdcalls. The inspiration for this motif revealed itself in a fittingly absurd manner: "We had a very exotic setting in the room that I played in: It was called the Shell Bar and there was a little pool of water right outside the bandstand, and rocks and palm trees growing around .very tropical, very relaxed. One night, we were playing this tune and suddenly I became aware that these bullfrogs started to croak - ribbet, ribbet, ribbet. ribbet, and when we finished the song, they stopped croaking! I thought. well, that's a coincidence. I thought a little later on we would try it again. And sure enough. the frog came in again! But this time, as a gag, the guys start doing these birdcalls. like a ''meanwhile, back in the jungle' type thing And everybody cracked up about it, it was just a spoof.
"The following day. somebody came up to me and said, 'Mr. Denny, would you do that arrangement you did with the birds and the frogs?' And I said, 'What are you talking about?' It was ridiculous Then it dawned on me. I recalled what had happened the night before and it sort of made sense. So at rehearsal. I said, 'Hey, let's do 'Quiet Village' . now, each one of you do a birdcall, and space it, formations apart.' and I did the frog effect on this grooved cylinder So it became incorporated into the arrangement. and it just went like wildfire, that's all they wanted to hear 'Hey. do that 'Quiet Village .''' So then I started to do some other tunes along the same lines. and that's when 1 started to add all these curious little sounds and things, ethnic sounds other than birds. We were coming up with Oriental sounds and South Pacific sounds, different kinds of drums and gongs, little effects, but it was well thought out musically."
When released as a single in 1957, the eerie instrumental 'Quiet Village" cruised to the top of the charts, spawning at the tail end of the baby boom a new American fertility cult. As Denny laughingly remembers. 'A lot of people told me, when they came to the islands, that when they heard that music they had some wonderful matinees ...l'd get a vicarious kick out of saying I might have been indirectly responsible for a whole new generation."
The often-overlooked talent behind the success of "Quiet Village" end other Denny hits is its composer, the accomplished Les Baxter. A former arranger for Nat King Cole, Baxter later became famous for conjuring op African savannahs, Cuban voodoo ceremonies or the onyx-encrusted peaks of the Andes with his brilliant recordings Ritual of The Savage, Tamboo!, and Yma Sumac's Voice of the Xtabay.
A typically inventive Martin Denny interpretation of a Les Baxter composition is the unnerving Tsetse Fly" 'I wanted to get the feeling of the irritation , listening to this fly, with an African beat. The whole idea was the stereo effect of a fly crossing a room. Compress your lips like you're going to play the trumpet, and you get a sound like ppppphhhhhh. Blow through your compressed lips, and that sounds like a fly, you see, a high pitched sound, and that's how Augie Colon was able to come up with that sound When it was recorded, it was done by transference from one side to another which gave the sound the stereo effect. So you got the feeling that It went from right to left or left to right. We were sort of pioneers of the stereo sound."
Another component of Denny's success was the Technicolor lushness of his album covers, invariably featuring the alluring come-hither look from "The Exotica Girl," model Sandy Warner Denny recalls their first meeting: "I'm playing the piano. and right on the edge of the stage, there's a young couple sitting there, and a very attractive gal I finish the show, and she motions to me to come over to her table, so I did. She says hello, I say hello, and she says 'You know. we have a lot in common.' I say, 'how come'?' And she says, 'well, I'm the girl that was on your cover of Exotica ' I looked at her and by God she was! She was on her honeymoon and that was her new husband. She was a model on at least ten of my albums, and on each one she has a different characterization, a different look and everything. A very stunning girl."
Now nearing the age of 80. Martin Denny has recently become a phenomenon to a new generation on the other side of the Pacific with the release of his newly recorded CD Exotica '90. "I've been told by some of the very well-known Japanese recording artists that my music influenced them many years ago. They do some exotic things. and they felt my music influenced them. They have coffeehouses all over the place where students and people get together, and they listen to music, and it's sort of avant-garde. And now, they've become aware of these sounds, and it's become an 'In' sort of thing, like a cult."
Martin Denny's exotic sounds today still offer a private wordless paradise for the mind to wander into, revealing visions of a beatific Tiki nirvana.
-Stuart Swezey and Brian King
August 9, 1990
Compiled by: STEWART SWEZEY and BRIAN KING