Martin Denny

Musician of birdcalls and frog croaks known as the 'Father of Exotica'

Monday 07 March 2005 01:00
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Known as the "Father of Exotica", Martin Denny successfully created a sound world that encompassed jazz and Latin American rhythms, the music of Asia, Africa and the South Pacific and, characteristically, birdcalls and croaking frogs.

Martin Denny, musician and bandleader: born New York 10 April 1911; married (one daughter); died Hawaii Kai, Hawaii 2 March 2005.

Known as the "Father of Exotica", Martin Denny successfully created a sound world that encompassed jazz and Latin American rhythms, the music of Asia, Africa and the South Pacific and, characteristically, birdcalls and croaking frogs.

It was a fusion that proved extraordinarily popular, shifting millions of albums to suburban Americans who saw it as refuge from the supposed excesses of rock'n'roll. Although critically reviled at the time, his output, along with that of contemporaries such as Esquivel and Les Baxter, has more recently found favour among left-field groups such as Throbbing Gristle, Stereolab and Air who have recognised its intrinsic wit and invention.

Despite their ethnic flavour, Denny's recordings are far removed from anything approaching our understanding of the term "world music", as he himself was quick to confirm:

My music has always been like fiction, no authenticity. I didn't want to make African music. I only wanted to suggest how African music might sound.

He was born in New York, in 1911, and raised in Los Angeles. Although he originally aspired to a career as a classical pianist, by the time he was in his teens he was touring South America with Don Dean's big band and absorbing the region's distinctive rhythms.

Following service in the Second World War he returned to California and resumed his studies at the Los Angeles Conservatory. The lure of Latin jazz, however, proved too great and by 1954 he was fronting a Honolulu-based quartet that featured Arthur Lyman on vibes, John Kramer on bass and Augie Colon on percussion. In time Lyman left the band to pursue his own career in exotica and was replaced by the future Baja Marimba founder Julius Wechter; Harvey Ragsdale then replaced Kramer and the classic Denny line-up was set.

It was a version of Les Baxter's "Quiet Village" that, in 1959, proved his breakthrough and introduced listeners to his trademark sound. He later recalled the track's genesis:

I was opening at the Shell Bar at the old Hawaiian Village and we played the song and inserted birdcalls. There was a pond of water near the band, and whenever we played the selection, bullfrogs were croaking . . . When I stopped playing, they stopped croaking. It was a coincidence. When we started up again, adding the birdcalls, the croaking would resume.

Denny cut the track in the studio with Colon supplying the birdcalls and frog croaks courtesy of a grooved cylinder. On release it proved a smash hit, just missing the top spot on the US Pop Charts and ensuring that his albums Exotica and Quiet Village (both 1959) also performed well. In total, Denny recorded some 40 albums including Hypnotique (1958), Afro-Desia (1959), Romantica (1961), Exotica Suite (1962), Hawaii Goes a Go-Go! (1966) and A Taste of India (1968) .

He became increasingly interested in incorporating unusual instruments into his music, from Burmese gongs to the three-stringed Japanese shamisen. The exotica sound, with its inventive effects, was particularly suited to contemporary advances in stereo engineering and this may well have contributed to the popularity of the genre.

Although his music had largely fallen from favour by the end of the 1960s, Denny continued to perform regularly until quite recently. He was heartened by the renewed interest in his music and was quite forthright in his opinions on the deficiencies, as he saw them, of contemporary music:

I'm happy the music's back, because I'm frankly tired of hearing the same old thing. Rap music. High-voltage rock'n'roll. What will kids today remember 20 years from now? There's hardly anything romantic or melodic. I think a whole lot of good music has been lost.

Paul Wadey

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