Is “Exotica” Culturally Insensitive?

             Finding an older audience during the 1950s and 60s, Exotica was an American genre of music that branched off of Jazz and used certain combinations of instruments and effects to ‘transport the listener’ to various idealized landscapes, usually for a cheap and sometimes erotic thrill. The name is said to have come from Martin Denny’s 1957 album, also titled “Exotica”, in which Denny and his band performed songs written by other notable composers of films and later exotica music. It certainly came at the right time—World War II had just reminded the world how small it was, and many Americans were left with a longing for adventure and travel, though they lacked the means (and perhaps the true desire) to actually go to these exotic locales. Like their audience, the artist’s visions of these places—ranging from savage African jungles to the lost city of Atlantis—were based purely off of fantasy. And though Exotica has long since fallen out of the public eye, does it have a place in the modern, closely connected world, or would it just be discarded as ‘racist’?

Without a doubt, something like Exotica wouldn’t exist today, at least not with the gall to imagine ‘real’ locations through a series of stereotypes, and a lot of that can be attributed to the fact that the wide world is no longer a ‘fantasy’, but very close and very real. The inclusion of actual fantastical settings could be taken either as a means of defending the entire genre as harmless imagination, or as white-musicians reducing cultures to silly characterizations—a means for ‘armchair’ travelers to compartmentalize the world around them through easy-listening. This seems a bit condemning to what should really be judged on a record-to-record basis. If anything, the artists behind these works were more misguided than hateful. To listen deeper, let’s look at one of the most prominent musicians behind Exotica:

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Les Baxter (1922-1966) was a musician who arranged and composed experimental and ‘worldly’ albums long before and after the Exotica fad lasted. His earliest album, “Music Out of the Moon” (1947) was a soft-jazz record underlying a spacey theremin (incidentally, it was among the music Neil Armstrong brought and played during the Moon landing of 1969). By 1956, Baxter started composing the soundtracks to numerous films across every genre: “Pharaoh’s Curse” (1957), an Egyptian-themed horror film; “The Invisible Boy” (1957), a space-set science fiction film; “The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold” (1958), a Western. Baxter has a very prolific and long-lasting career containing dozens of soundtracks and albums, yet they all aim for a certain immersive and transporting experience for the listener. It was his 1951 record, “Ritual of the Savage”, that proved most influential on Exotica as a genre.

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Immediately, the title is problematic, but let’s put that on hold. The music itself is mostly general swing jazz mingling with congas, marimbas, and other instruments that might come to mind when one thinks of African jungles, with the occasional bird call or tribal chant thrown in for good measure. Politics aside, the music is cheesy, but Les Baxter knows how to compose good music! He does specialize in easy listening after all. Title aside, the album is pretty tasteful in it’s content, at least for the purpose of the music: to provide white suburban folk with a taste of the taboo. Is Baxter’s character and integrity to be judged by his complying to an audience? Judging by his massive and diverse catalogue, Baxter wasn’t just ‘cashing in’ on a trend, but rather showed genuine interest in creating emotive and picturesque music. Returning to the questionable terminology in Exotica song and album titles, perhaps this reflects more poorly on society in the 50s and 60s as a whole rather than the individuals; perhaps Baxter is simply giving his musical interpretation of the romanticized versions of Africa and other oft-dreamt about places, as opposed to the real place.

Perhaps the problems one could take away from Exotica comes from the misconception that Africa and the ‘Oriental East’ belong alongside the likes of the Moon and the bottom of the Ocean—to be fair all were about as equally distant from the average listener of Exotica. As a slight remedy, some choose to limit the genre of Exotica to only include real-world locations, however fictionalized. What it ultimately comes down to is the responsibility the listener must take. As with all art that could be seen as ‘controversial’ or ‘challenging’, a mature listener should take into consideration the implications, good or bad, of what they’re listening to. Exotica can exist in today’s world without being just a dated or ‘guilty pleasure’, but perhaps it should also be more than just ‘easy listening’. Art should never be dismissed and left outside the listener’s circle, at least to a point—it’s safe to say Exotica has good enough intentions not to cross any drastic lines.

By the end of the 60s, commercial appeal of Exotica had waned enough to push it to the backgrounds of public interest. It has since been considered to be absorbed by more general genre of Lounge Music—while very few works that could be considered ‘Exotica’ have come out in the decades since the 60s, the theme of escapism has become a common feature of many film and television soundtracks and concept albums spanning all genres.

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