Otherness on Vinyl: Midcentury Exotica Records

I started buying used records at garage sales and thrift stores in the 1980s. Since they were really cheap, like a quarter, I’d often buy records just because they had interesting covers. That’s how I became acquainted with the genre of music called “exotica.” I became fascinated by these records for reasons that will become clear, and I would buy clean copies of records by Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, Les Baxter, Sumac, and other exotica artists whenever I came across them in thrift stores, which was frequently.

Exotica is a genre of music that reached its peak of popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, primarily in the United States. It is characterized by the following elements: 

  • The primary instruments used are western ones, with non-western instruments used for effect but generally not to carry the melody.
  • It is primarily instrumental with the notable exception of vocalist Yma Sumac. Vocals are ancillary in most exotica music, and consist of sounds rather than words in order to convey a mood or image.  
  • Most typically, the music doesn’t come from a particular cultural tradition; it only implies tradition. 
  • Exotica is mood music. It created a particular atmosphere and allowed its listeners to indulge in fantasy. Therefore, album covers played the crucial role of conveying the fantasy conjured by the music inside. Most exotica albums can easily be identified by the style of their cover art.

The popularity of the exotica genre during the 1950s and ’60s reveals some interesting insights to American stereotypes about other cultures during that era. Indeed, although the music and album images were intended to evoke “the exotic other,” they say more about U.S. culture than they do about the cultures to which they allude. This point, rather than the music itself, will be the focus of this post.

Before moving on, I’ll say a bit about the concept of otherness for those unfamiliar with it. In the social sciences, it refers to the construction of social identity which is comprised of the dichotomy between what one is versus what one is not – self versus other. Members of a majority population utilize certain traits – skin color, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, etc. – as characteristics by which they ascertain who is in their group versus who is an “other.” When we mentally designate people as others, we often essentialize and stereotype them because we don’t look at them as distinct and unique individuals. Those stereotypes might be traits that are seen as negative or positive, but they are still unwarranted because they’re based on our stereotypes.

The Album Covers

Exotica album covers made unabashed stereotyping their selling point, capitalizing on American ideas of the exotic other. One of the most popular exotica records is the one that lent its name to the genre – “Exotica” by Martin Denny, released in 1957. 

The cover model is clearly a white woman, but the setting implies something foreign. She even has an earring bobby-pinned in her hair to make her look more exotic. However, this cover is, if anything, milder/less exoticized than most others in the genre.

You may have noticed that all of these covers feature the same woman. Model and actress Sandy Warner, who hailed from Middletown, New York, modeled for Martin Denny’s first 12 albums and on a total of 16 of his 38 studio albums. Warner’s hair, eye color, makeup, and clothing (or lack thereof) are different from album to album in order to suit the theme of the record.

The two main themes that we see in these covers are a) the suggestion or direct reference to non-western cultures and/or peoples, and b) sexuality. The two are not unrelated, because one of the long-held stereotypes about non-western peoples, dating to the European colonial era and Victorian ideas of propriety, is that they are hyper-sexual. In regard to the exotic imagery of these album covers, note that the three covers in the bottom row use rather vague exotic references. The exoticized object is ethnically and culturally nonspecific because the main message is not about a particular ethnicity or culture but about the the allure of the foreign, untamed, and mysterious. The two albums on the top, however, are explicit in their references. The very title “Afro-desia” spells it out for us, but we also see a blonde Sandy Warner wearing African-inspired necklaces, standing in front of what are presumably African masks. On “Hypnotíque,” Warner is wearing the stereotypical Asian hairstyle and the props fill in the rest of the picture. The phenomenon we see in these two covers is that of cultural appropriation, which I define as the recontextualization of a less powerful culture’s symbols, materials, or ideas without regard to accuracy or legitimacy. Power is a key element of cultural appropriation; it is done with colonialist or imperialist assumptions of ownership and control. Therefore, enjoying the food or music of another culture is not cultural appropriation, but when the cultural element is taken and manipulated so that it manifests the vision of the taker and not of the source, it has been appropriated.

Exotica and the American Psyche

So why was this even a marketing theme? What made these albums so attractive to the midcentury American consumer? The exotica genre offered this population sounds and sights that were different but not too different. The liner notes of “Afro-desia” (author unknown), state it quite clearly. “Taking the various native idioms and translating them into breathtakingly ear-appealing vignettes, once again Mr. Denny stimulates the jaded palate of everyday civilization with music that is pure escape.” It continues:

In Afro-desia, one feels that he is being allowed that rare glimpse into other culture…other rooms. We become armchair travelers with our magic carpet, our hi-fi equipment and this album. We see and feel the searing veldt…the moody reaches of the jungle…a tribal initiation fête and sheer encompassing beauty.

The elements of fantasy, escapism, and exoticism are all very clearly outlined in these liner notes. These albums were intended to spice up one’s life with an auditory excursion to Africa as Martin Denny imagined it. This is an important point: these albums are not ethnographic and, for the most part, they were not intended as realistic interpretations of authentic cultural musics. They were unabashed fantasy.

Martin Denny

Martin Denny was the most widely-known exotica artist. He officially joined the world of tiki-dom with an engagement at L.A.’s Don the Beachcomber, which was the first tiki bar in the United States, and eventually secured a permanent engagement at the Hawaiian Village Hotel in Honolulu. It was here, at the Shell Bar, where Denny fleshed out the sounds of exotica with bird calls and animal sounds.

The animal sounds used in exotica music draw a correlation between nature and otherness, following a long history in the West of stereotyping other cultures as being more natural and less civilized. But you needn’t take my word for it – the American newspaper and radio commentator Walter Winschell wrote the following in the liner notes for “Martin Denny’s Exotic Sounds Visit Broadway”:  “Martin Denny’s music seemed to add just the right combination of the sophisticated and the primitive, the civilized and the savage” and that “Martin picks up a chunk of Hawaii and puts it down right in the middle of our beloved Great White Way.” Yikes.

It’s probably not coincidental that Denny’s popularity peaked in 1959, the same year that Hawai’i became the 50th state. Hawai’i became a tourist mecca, and Denny’s recordings became memorabilia of a trip to “paradise.” But one did not have to visit Hawai’i to engage in the popular imagination of it. Hawai’i became the literal and symbolic crossroads of exoticism and familiarity – exotic because of its distant location, tropical climate, and ethnic composition, yet familiar because it was part of the United States, first as a territory and then as a state. I’ll address this in more detail later.

Les Baxter

While Martin Denny certainly popularized the exotica genre, he was not its founder.  That distinction goes to Les Baxter, an arranger and conductor for Capitol Records in Los Angeles, who recorded over 20 studio albums and also wrote the scores for 44 movies between 1956 and 1982. To my ears, Baxter’s music is noticeably less exoticized. It’s the covers and song and album titles that really utilize the imagery of otherness. While I do enjoy several of his albums, I find many of their covers unsettling and downright offensive, crossing the line from sensationalist to racist.

Yma Sumac

In addition to his own work, Baxter worked with and produced the first album by Peruvian singer Yma Sumac, who also became a distinguished figure in the exotica genre. Sumac, who claimed to be a direct descendant of Atahualpa, the last king of the Incas, was born in Peru in 1927. She became renown for her four-octave range and, despite her real talent, her album covers exaggerated her looks so that she appeared very exotic.

A section from the liner notes of her album “Mambo!,” author unknown, read:

The mambo’s excitement emerges from the amazingly infectious character of its beat – a rhythm so full of fascination that it has even been known to lure large groups of people from their daily responsibilities. And if the mambo beat alone is an exotic community hazard, there’s no telling what its effect will be when heard as recorded here by Yma Sumac!

I think this passage is telling because it demonstrates the idea that exotica music offers a respite from the routine of daily life, but also that its lure is so enticing as to be “a community hazard.” While I believe the author had their tongue in their cheek, I also think they were trying to capitalize on a widely-accepted stereotype that contrasted the dangerous, enticing, and exotic other with routine and responsibility.

Arthur Lyman

While Sumac was herself exoticized to the extent that she was as much “the product” as the sounds that she produced, the ethnic identity of another important figure of exotica music, Arthur Lyman, did not take center stage as such. Lyman was of mixed Hawaiian, Chinese, French, and Belgian descent. He was born in Hawai’i in 1932 and died there in 2002. Initially recruited by Martin Denny, Lyman left Denny’s band in 1957 to start his own, which replaced his former boss’ band as the nightly entertainment at the Hawaiian Village Hotel’s Shell Bar. 

Lyman released 33 records between 1957 and 1975.  Volcanoes figure prominently on several of them, including “Bwana à,” which gets its title from the Swahili word meaning “Boss” or “Lord.” It was used in the old “Tarzan” movies to refer to white men, which is probably where they got it from. However, the volcanic scene on the cover is from Hawai’i so, again, different cultural elements were mixed to convey the exotic. Some of Lyman’s album covers convey a sense of mystery and romance while some, like “The Legend of Pele,” are more sensationalist. Pele is a Hawaiian goddess, but she is blonde and fair-skinned on the album cover. This is only partially compensated for on the back of the album, where one finds a substantial and accurate recounting of the legend of Pele and her sister, Hi`iaka. Furthermore, the first song on the album, “Pele,” includes part of a traditional Hawaiian chant, “Aia Lā ‘O Pele,” chanted by someone who is skilled in the form, and accompanied by an ipu heke, or gourd drum, before it drifts back into exotica land. Lyman’s own cultural affiliation as a Hawaiian may have made a difference here, although I do not know who was responsible for the content on the album jackets.

Exotica’s Focus on Hawai’i

Hawai’i in particular and Polynesia in general have long been geographic spaces onto which Americans projected their exotic fantasies. This phenomenon coincides with the “tiki culture” popular in the 1950s and ‘60s, for which exotica music was the soundtrack. I will not go into great detail about the phenomenon here, but instead direct you to Francisco Adinolfi’s book “Mondo Exotica” for an excellent academic treatment of the topic. Suffice it to say that, as Adinolfi explains, this American microculture was centered in the southern California suburbs and was comprised primarily of young white males with college educations and good-paying jobs, who delayed marriage and family life and instead spent their disposable income at cocktail bars, on decorating their bachelor pads, on Hawaiian shirts and other pieces of leisure wear, and on their hi-fi equipment (Adinolfi 8). Their participation in the tiki culture was an alternative way of life – a careful transgression of American mores and a pronouncement of sexual prowess, as a significant element of exotica was the stereotype of “primitive” sexuality.

This somewhat begs the question as to what was happening with recorded Hawaiian music at the time – not exotica, but actual Hawaiian music. Exotica portrayed the fantasy of Hawai’i, not the real thing. However, Hawai’i has a long musical history that includes many styles, including traditional chants, hula songs, slack key guitar, and hapa haole music which was often sung in both Hawaiian and English. While the latter was the most popular amongst tourists and non-Hawaiians in general, the other forms were recorded and released on 78s, 45s, and long-playing vinyl records and were purchased by both Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians. Furthermore, the popular radio program hosted by Webley Edwards, “Hawaii Calls,” aired from 1935 to 1975.

The abundance of recorded Hawaiian music during this period was due to the “Hawai’i craze” that swept through the continental states prior to and after Hawaii’s statehood. Hawai’i came to represent a dream world for many Americans; a tropical island paradise where one could leave behind their daily cares, sip mai tais on the beach, learn surfing from a beach boy, or attend a luau to watch alluring hula dancers. Not much has changed – Hawai’i still holds this romantic attraction for many mainland Americans, while the realities of life for Hawaiian people in Hawai’i are far removed from such hedonistic fantasies; Hawai’i has become unaffordable for most Hawaiians. According to the U.S. census, by 2010 there were more Hawaiians living in California than there were in Hawai’i because they have been priced out of their homeland by wealthy mainlanders and international businesses.

The Current Status of Exotica

A renewed interest in tiki culture and the lounge lifestyle began in the United States in the 1990s. Many exotica recordings, or compilations of them, were re-released on CD at the time, and new tiki lounges opened up across the country. Perhaps it’s not as trendy as it was in the 1990s, but tiki culture seems to have taken root as an American microculture with exotica music at its core, along with the cocktails, dress, and decor styles of the midcentury movement. I’m not a member of this microculture, but I’m familiar enough with it to note that now it’s less dominated by males, nostalgia for the 1950s and early 1960s is an important element for many but not all participants, and that some but not all participants engage in it with a strong sense of irony. That is, there is a significant element of kitsch in the movement. While some members might appreciate the music for its kitsch appeal, others genuinely like it. For example, Jello Biafra is a big fan, apparently. Participants in modern tiki culture and contemporary aficionados of exotica music approach it from so many different standpoints that one cannot argue for any singular meaning of its renewed popularity. However, in the midcentury era exotica music provided much more of a window into American stereotypes and colonial-inspired views of other peoples and cultures as being simple, sexual, and relaxed. Exotica music offered escapism into worlds that they saw as quite opposite their own.

Work Cited:

Adinolfi, Francesco. Mondo Exotica: Sounds, Visions, Obsessions of the Cocktail Generation. Duke University Press, 2008

9 thoughts on “Otherness on Vinyl: Midcentury Exotica Records

  1. This is another example of why I failed in my goal of becoming a master detective. I had no idea that was the same model in all those Martin Danny album covers. I believe my decent exotica collection also came together from thrift store finds because of the “fun” covers and a need to bring something home after an hour or so of digging. Thanks for the perspective on otherness and cultural appropriation in the music and the album covers. I think innately I knew the covers were culturally insensitive at best, but the music, especially imo Les Baxter, is really interesting, and having a fun local tiki bar in Modesto, called the Tiki Lounge, they remind me of those good times drinking a Mai Tai with friends in a faux island bar.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The Tiki Lounge is still open, with limited capacity. I had forgotten it became a gay bar years ago. I don’t get out drinking much these days but apparently it’s still a popular spot.


  2. Great insight into the genre. Not a huge fan of the genre but I do enjoy Denny for the music and yes for the covers. The fifties in general were loaded with racial stereotypes,even Cal Tjader who is very well respected in the Latin music community was prone to the over the top Mexican caricatures on his album covers. Somewhat off subject but there is a JJ Johnson Kai Winding album with them as cartoon characters and Johnson is drawn white. Keep the interesting posts coming.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Really fascinating Pam. Not a genre I have ever listened to, but of course I had a listen to Denny after reading this. It is very interesting to read your analysis.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This was an enlightening post. It was refreshing to read about exotica from an objective perspective. I have enjoyed exotica music for decades and as a record collector I focus on the rare and obscure releases of exotica, many of which focus on the music and not on the album covers, that are usually not nearly as extreme as those of Baxter, Lyman, Denny, and Sumac, but there are a few that are. But this post was very well done. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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