Wednesday Book: An exotic journey into music

HAVE YOU ever believed that the secret purpose of a foreign building might be to make sense of the music you were listening to when you first saw it? Are you delighted by the idea of "an occult language taught to amphibians by fish but kept secret from humans"? Can you approach the sentence "I read aloud Bhaskar Chandavarkar's comments on Ritwik Ghatak" with anything other than extreme trepidation?

Even (perhaps especially) if your answer to these questions is not in the affirmative, David Toop's Exotica sets out to open your ears to another world. It explores the 20th century's guilty fascination with the exotic, especially in music.

Toop takes us to a magical place of singing insects and bustin' bongos, where the demonic ukulele of George Formby mingles with the haunting cry of the Antillean grackle and the character of each sound is enhanced rather than muffled by such bizarre juxtapositions. As he plots a compellingly serpentine course from the colonial exhibitions of the late-Victorian era to the "world music" industry of 100 years later, Toop celebrates a century of sonic otherness.

Grouped in a pyramid on the opening page is a series of rather daunting italicised phrases ("an imagined quality of elsewhere" being, by some distance, the most resonant), presumably intended to introduce the notion of what we mean by the exotic. It's a rather unpromising opening, all mouth and no trousers; but turn into the main body of the book, and that wordy pyramid collapses with the delicious urgency of a market-stall fruit display upended by a fleeing thief, scattering ideas across the page like Granny Smiths hitting the pavement.

Toop marshals an impressive array of musical authorities with the fearsome but discreet chutzpah of a great classical conductor. He moves from Duke Ellington in 1971, looking forward to a near future in which "It's most improbable that anyone will even know exactly who is enjoying the shadow of whom", to Bill Laswell's recent proclamation that "there is no exotic other". At one point he quotes an old Haitian proverb to the effect that "When the anthropologist arrives, the gods depart", but the goal of this remarkable book seems to be a reconciliation of science and myth.

To this end, Exotica interweaves practicality with mysticism, the familiar with the unheard of and the trivial with the deadly serious. Sometimes fact masquerades as fiction. When the author writes "Since the suicide of my wife, I had been engulfed by a rich diversity of agonies", it seems like just another of many stylistic allusions to Joseph Conrad - unless you know the sad truth that Toop's wife did in fact commit suicide. Sometimes fiction masquerades as fact, as when the same narrator wanders through the Burroughs-like dreamscapes of high-voltage-fenced suburbia, where "blackened animals sat at electrical throwing distance from these banshee defences and wondered why they had died".

While such flights of literary fancy are not perhaps Toop's most persuasive flourish, they do give the book's more scholarly segments an appropriate air of difference. Ocean of Sound, his ground-breaking history of ambient music, was most easily digested by placing it on the table by the bed while you slept. Exotica achieves a similarly happy union of form and function. A truly exotic artefact in itself, it segues with apparent ease from imagined dialogues with Lassie to learned disquisitions on the history of Hawaiian guitar. Yet it has enough respect for the strange sounds it celebrates not to overlook their roots in everyday experience.

Anthony Seeger, the curator of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings (purveyors of such vital sonic documents as "Sounds of the Bowels: a normal hungry man smoking a cigarette before dinner"), explains how a lot of his label's most exotic products "were prepared by people who had something else in mind for them". And it's in the gaps between intention and result, artifice and essence, the real and the fake, that Exotica plants its most fertile seeds.

This book finds its truest magic in everyday struggles: from the pulp film sound-track legend Les Baxter - his commercial instincts doing daily battle, in Toop's memorable phrase, "with an innocent need to be regarded as serious" - to the Pacific islanders Tau Moe's Tropical Stars, who somehow sustained an ideal of Hawaiian identity through 56 years of international touring; because the greatest mystery of all is that there are no mysteries, except the heroic endeavours of "People too ordinary for their own liking, reinventing themselves as characters in a parallel universe".