Exotica is a musical genre, named after the 1957 Martin Dennyalbum of the same title, popular during the 1950s to mid-1960s, typically with suburban Americans who came of age during World War II. The musical colloquialism exotica means tropical ersatz, the non-native, pseudo experience of insular Oceania, Southeast Asia, Hawaii, Amazonia, the Andes and tribal Africa. Denny described the musical style as "a combination of the South Pacific and the Orient...what a lot of people imagined the islands to be like...it's pure fantasy though." While the South Seas forms the core region, exotica reflects the "musical impressions" of every place from standard travel destinations to the mythical "shangri-las" dreamt of by armchair safari-ers.
Les Baxter's album Ritual of the Savage (Le Sacre du Sauvage) was released in 1952 and would become a cornerstone of exotica. This album featured lush orchestral arrangements along with tribal rhythms and offered such classics as "Quiet Village", "Jungle River Boat", "Love Dance", and "Stone God." Ritual is the seminal Exotica record, influencing all that came after it. As the 1950s progressed, Baxter carved out a niche in this area, producing a number of titles in this style including "Tamboo!" (1956), "Caribbean Moonlight" (1956), "Ports of Pleasure" (1957), and "The Sacred Idol" (1960). Baxter claimed Ravel and Stravinsky as influences on his work.
In 1957, Martin Denny covered Les Baxter's "Quiet Village", with exotic bird calls and a vibraphone instead of strings, which established the sound of the Polynesian styled music. The song reached #2 on Billboard's charts in 1959 with Denny's Exotica album reaching #1. Soon the new technology of stereo further opened up the musical palettes of Denny and other prominent exotica artists such as Arthur Lyman and Juan García Esquivel.
The distinctive sound of exotica relies on a variety of instruments: conga, bongos, vibes, Indonesian and Burmese gongs, boo bams (bamboo sticks), Tahitian log, Chinese bell tree and Japanese kotos. Additionally intrinsic to the sound of exotica are bird calls, big-cat roars, and even primate shrieks which invoke the dangers of the jungle. Though there are some standards which contain lyrics, singing is rare. Abstract, sirenish ululations, chants, vocalized animal calls, and guttural growls are common.
The music of American composer Raymond Scott is sometimes recognized as a precursor to exotica, as several of his songs were written with the intent of transporting the listener to exotic locations via novelty instruments and sound effects.
As a result of the popularity of exotica during the late 1950s, a large number of records were released that featured covers of recently released exotica songs (mainly by Les Baxter) and Hawaiian and easy-listening standards. These recordings include "Exotica" by Ted Auletta, "Exotic Percussion" by Stanley Black and his Orchestra, "Orienta" by Gerald Fried, "Taboo" and "Taboo 2" by Arthur Lyman and "The Sounds of Exotic Island" by The Surfmen. However, some composers pushed the bounds of the genre by producing albums of original content, often with unusual instrumentation. These recordings include "Voodoo" by Robert Drasnin, "Africana" by Chaino, "Pagan Festival" by Dominic Frontiere And His Orchestra, and "White Goddess" by Frank Hunter. By 1959, the majority of American record labels from majors such as Columbia, RCA, Warner Brothers and United Artists to "budget" labels such as Kapp, Crown, Dot, and Roulette had released at least one exotica-themed album, usually utilizing composers and musicians that produced jazz, classical or easy-listening recordings.
After several years of rising excitement leading up to Hawaii becoming a state in 1959, the Hawaiiana fad waned in the United States and so did exotica's commercial appeal. CD re-issues ignited a revival in the early 1990s.
According to a 1960 promotional EP designed and distributed by Liberty Records for Liberty shareholders, David Seville (of Alvin and the Chipmunks fame), a composer/producer on Liberty, told Julie London that the term "exotica" was coined by Simon "Si" Waronker, Liberty Records co-founder and, at the time, board chairman.
In 1955 Waronker wanted to find a term that would capture the spirit, and also perhaps, help to sell such music as was in Liberty's best interest, considering they had just signed Martin Denny, who was producing and recording this kind of exotic music for his first album with Liberty. This story has it that Si was doodling and had written down the word "exotic" on his pad of paper when he casually added an "a" to the end. He liked the sound of it so much that it went on to become the title of Denny's first album on the Liberty label.
In the 1990s exotica resurfaced, along with a new category in which to place the genre: lounge. Dozens of long out-of-print LPs were reissued on CD. The revival accompanied a related swing revival and general appreciation for tiki culture. A new crop of bands were influenced by the classic albums, and Combustible Edison for one featured songs like "Breakfast at Denny's", a tongue-in-cheek title for a song styled on the music of Martin Denny. The early 2000s saw additional exotica revival efforts, such as Hawaii-based Don Tiki; the comeback of 1960s composer Robert Drasnin; Waitiki; The Stolen Idols, Kava Kon, and a group consisting of international Exotica musicians called Tiki Joe's Ocean, formed by lifelong instrumentalist Andy Nazzal. Tiki Joe's Ocean is currently the reigning recipient of the "HAWAII MUSIC AWARD" for Best Exotica Album. Mr. Ho's Orchestrotica is both a quintet (primarily performing what they call "global jazz and exotic chamber music") and a big band performing the world's only transcriptions of Esquivel's large ensemble music. As of 2008, there are many festivals worldwide that celebrate exotica music and the tiki culture (e.g. Tiki Oasis in San Diego, Calif.; the Hukilau Festival in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Ohana Luau at the Lake in Lake George, N.Y.; Northeast Tiki Tour (NETT) in New England; the London Luau in the UK). There are several podcasts that broadcast classic and new exotica and tiki revival music.
- More recently, with the rise of digital download services such as Apple's iTunes, many long out of print exotica albums have begun to be released in download form exclusively.
- Tiki Joe's Ocean, the only Exotica group remaining on the West Coast of the US, is also the reigning winner of the Hawaii Music Award for Best Exotica Album in 2011; "Under the Midnight Sun."
- Mr. Ho's Orchestrotica started a record series entitled "Exotica for Modern Living" which started in 2010 with "The Unforgettable Sounds of Esquivel" (big band) and was followed in 2011 with Third River Rangoon (by the exotica quartet). In 2013, the small ensemble (now a quintet) released its third recording (the first on vinyl) entitled, Where Here Meets There. The albums have received acclaim from various sources such as The London Times, Downbeat, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, The Huffington Post, Lucid Culture, and others.