Exotica music began to take its roots as early as the 1930′s, but after WWII this romanticized version of Polynesia, far-away places, and tropical islands was clearly permeating its way into the American culture, transporting the listener with distinctive sounds like jungle drums, idiophones, Indonesian and Burmese gongs, Tahitian logs and the exotic sounds of bird calls, primal screeching, and other abstract jungle sounds. Martin Denny described this style of music 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.”
In the 1950′s and 60′s, “Space Age Bachelor Pad Music” (the term wasn’t in vogue at the time) was also boasting the sounds of Mexican lounge king Juan Garcia Esquivel. The new sounds in high fidelity were an experimental playground for arrangers like Esquivel and his zany mix of American pop, big band jazz, and easy Latin. “Compared to some of the other lounge music at the time, this music is anything but bland. Esquivel is spicy,” says Irwin Chusid, DJ and music historian.
Fast forward to the early 1990′s when these music genres…exotica, lounge, space age pop…were “rediscovered”. For most listeners it was something new, something their parents or grandparents may have listened to. It became quite vogue at the time but like all “fashionable” things, it went out of fashion, but only in the sense of being fashionable. “For those who truly appreciated Exotica’s musical qualities, it never went away,” says Chusid, who is credited with the rediscovery of Juan Garcia Esquivel through his production of the two albums Space Age Bachelor Pad Music and Music from a Sparkling Planet.
Fast forward again to today and you find Brian O’Neill (aka Mr. Ho) has taken the charge of re-imagining these musical styles. In the first CD in a his new series “Exotica for Modern Living”, Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica brings us The Unforgettable Sounds of Esquivel. Brian says when he first heard the music of Esquivel he envisioned performing the music with a live orchestra. Unfortunately all of the sheet music had been lost or destroyed. Though he thought he was “crazy” at the time, his friend and producer Brother Cleve* had all of the records and offered them for use. So Brian O’Neill took on the pain-staking task of transcribing the music himself by ear. Five years later, O’Neill’s note-for-note transcriptions of 11 of Esquivel’s big band arrangements were recorded live with his 23-piece orchestra (now standardized to 22 players for live performance.) Brother Cleve says, “He has taken Esquivel’s complex arrangements and transcribed and conducted them the way Juan wrote it.” Adding to this, Irwin Chusid says, “Listening to the Esquivel music – Brian stays pure to the genre…snappy, hard hitting.”
The second CD, just released, is strictly Exotica. In Third River Rangoon, Brian has stayed true to the Exotica masters but has also written new, original compositions. On Third River Rangoon, Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica transforms into his small ensemble…a vibraphone quartet with a fifth member on oud. Using instruments from around the world in place of the some of the more classic exotica instruments, and adding in Tchaikovsky’s Arab Dance and Cal Tjader’s jazz waltz, this music truly takes on a global mashup of jazz, exotica, chamber, and world music.
Brian O’Neill is a highly trained musician – a percussionist, vibraphonist, pianist, composer and arranger. He began early on with the group Waitiki who were playing exotica with bits of jazz elements added to it. After about 4 years as vibraphonist/percussionist, Brian left the group to focus on the Esquivel big band as a separate ensemble, pursuing his interest in creating the only 22-piece orchestra in the world that plays the true space-age bachelor pad sounds of Esquivel. He then later formed the small ensemble quartet under the same name, mainly focusing on writing and performing new interpretations of exotica.
Besides composing and arranging for his project of Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica, he also freelances with many different musical groups around the world which reflect in his exotica compositions. Regarding his original exotica pieces, Cleve says, “Brian’s compositions reflect his musical proficiency. He brings Tchaikovsky into his pieces while other contemporary composers of exotica might be more influenced by Dick Dale. He’s bringing more classical elements into his compositions and arrangements – incorporating his large musical palette with the music of exotica and jazzy big band sounds of Esquivel.”
So what’s next in the series? I had expected a short answer of “oh we’re doing this next…”, but in fact he rattled off quite the list of ideas for the next albums which included the possibilities of a brazilian-focused album, a strictly percussion album using his “global” instruments which look towards eastern influences, or perhaps another quartet recording interpreting classical ballet music with the group’s unique exotica, middle-eastern, and afro-cuban sounds.
It’s obvious this type of music is not fading away. And it seems Brian O’Neill has taken on the daunting task of keeping it alive. According to Irwin Chusid, “It’s not going away. It’s a living genre. Brian is helping it develop, evolve, and endure.” Perhaps it will become more global in style as Brian looks to the different instruments he uses today from around the world, how they interact and historically where they’ve come from, and then incorporating all of this into his “modern” exotica.
While Brian is paying homage to the traditions, he’s also wearing many hats: pianist, composer, arranger, vibraphonist. And then to compose, perform, record, plus bring it all to market..that is a daunting task. Let’s hope he can manage it all…for our sakes.
Combine in wine goblet:
* SPECIAL NOTE: Brother Cleve is a legendary cocktail creator who graciously agreed to create a special cocktail just for this article to go with one of Mr. Ho’s newest CDS. For your pleasure.