While exotica is fondly remembered as a borderline-novelty post-WW2 pop genre where white people made asses of themselves exploiting indigenous music, it was also an inevitable dialogue between traditions that genuinely inspired sincere converts and cut them free of western assumptions about how music should sound. For every Martin Denny or Les Baxter (who rhapsodized the South Pacific without once leaving the San Fernando Valley), there was an Esquivel, a Korla Pandit or an Yma Sumac to reflect our colonial fantasies back at us.
While the kitschy crap carries on wherever tiki torches burn, the musical backwaters are still rife with artistic seekers who went native and started reverse-cargo cults, building tribal compounds and sacred spaces out of oscillators and echoplexes. These are some of my favorites. I’d love to know about yours…
6. Nortec Collective
First brought to light in a compilation series that spotlighted Tijuana’s scorching retro-synth scene in the early 2000’s, Bostich & Fussible have emerged as a kind of Norteno Daft Punk. As their name implies, there’s a particular Yello influence working to invert the colonial exotica model; the duo use norteno brass and accordions to add heat to the suave coldness of Europop.
(see also Plankton Man, Hiperboreal, Pinker Tones, Mexican Institute Of Sound)
5. Cumbia Cosmonauts
If the innovation and spark feels like it’s missing from modern electronic music, maybe it’s just been hiding below the equator. Australian Moses Iten takes his Cumbia very seriously. Having just completed a crowdfunded ethnomusicological survey of Mexico and Colombia, he’s a staunch acolyte of the deceptively sleepy dance tradition he wires up so effortlessly to relentlessly juicy techno grooves, highlighting the common thread of hypnotic rhythm and vivacious bombast inherent in both genres. His last release was an extended collaboration with Radio Africa Band, a syncretic confection that juices the African roots of Latin pop to scintillating effect, and as a DJ, he’s a tireless advocate for the unbelievably rich sonic veins he’s mining.
(see also Buraka Som Systema, Deela, pretty much everything on the Hawaii Bonsai label)
4. African Head Charge
Conceived by Adrian Sherwood in response to Brian Eno’s pretentious claim to having evoked a “psychedelic Africa” with David Byrne on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, African Head Charge promised and delivered the real thing. A collective formed around the nucleus of Ghanaian percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah, the muddy, sun-blasted expanses of densely layered polyrhythms reject the empty utopia of afro-futurism and embrace a bionic Now. Thirty years strong, they were supposed to play a show in London with Italian dub-maestro Gaudi only last week…
(see also John Wizards, Burundi Black)
3. Secret Chiefs 3
Secret Chiefs 3 is another fluid collective, revolving around former Mr. Bungle guitarist Trey Spruance, that injects rigorously authentic middle Eastern instrumentation into their diabolical mix of surf rock, death metal and epic spaghetti western soundscapes. Taking Bungle’s legendary jigsaw-style and stop-on-a-dime-and-melt-it intensity, Secret Chiefs 3 is what they’d play to break down American POW’s in Al Qaeda black sites, if the tables were turned.
(see also Estradasphere, John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Axiom Label, Beats Antique, Pentaphobe)
2. Ratatat/White Flight/Abuela/Kunzite
When I asked them about it once during a brief interview, they just shook their heads and told me they had no idea what I was talking about, but from the Andean-inflected “Montanita” to the synthesized hurdy-gurdy sound of “Tacobel Canon,” Ratatat’s Classics is peerless modern exotica. While one of Ratatat’s interminable sabbaticals, bassist Evan Mast went to South America with White Flight super-hippie Agustin White to sample ayahuasca and Inca atmosphere as Abuela, and now White and Ratatat guitarist Mike Stroud have mutated into Kunzite. While Hawaii-based Kunzite’s Birds Don’t Fly radiates indietronic stoner vibes, standout islander tracks like “Pressure” take Caribbean dance hall skank to places Lee Scratch Perry couldn’t find in his Black Lodge, and make Bob Marley sound like the guy in HR who really wants to know why you can’t take your lunch breaks at your desk.
(see also Ott, Yeasayer, Liquid Stranger, Early Worm, Rainbow Arabia)
1. Kava Kon
Long after the lounge-exotica boom of the late 90’s, there’s still no shortage of kitschy combos wanking out Martin Denny/Les Baxter pastiche to move bespoke tiki mugs, but only one nails the awe and savage beauty of the Pacific Islands. Kava Kon’s latest (last?) full-length release, Maritime Mysteries, is a moody masterpiece that goes beyond corny bird-calls and frog croaks to convey real tropical chills. In a better world, they’ve already been airlifted out of LA and marooned on Molokai until the next one is done…
(see also Ixtahuele, Don Tiki, Javier Diez Ena & His Theremins)