Martin Denny with friend.


A whole new generation has joined
die-hard fans as the 'exotica' music of Martin Denny,
complete with bird calls and croaking frogs,
resurges, calling for reissue
of his ’50s albums

By John Berger
Special to the Star-Bulletin

IT"S been almost 40 years since Martin Denny hit No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 with "Quiet Village," longer than that since he recorded it. So much for history!

The New York-born composer-arranger-pianist celebrated his 86th birthday in April, his latest recordings are currently being shipped to mainland record labels, and his vintage "exotica" albums of the late 1950s and early '60s have become the foundation of contemporary "lounge music."

To put it all in perspective: The parents of many of his new fans weren't born yet when Denny and his original partners in "exotica" -- John Kramer on bass and Arthur Lyman on vibes -- opened at the Shell Bar in the Hawaiian Village Hotel in 1956.

"What flabbergasts me now after these years is that (public interest) has come back again," Denny says. "It's like a cycle: what goes around comes around, and the music sounds as fresh now as it did then."

Scamp Records is rereleasing those early albums complete with the original album art and annotation; Denny has been actively involved with the rerelease program and writing additional annotation for it. Scamp has put out four albums on a two-per-disc basis: "Exotica" and "Exotica Vol. 2" followed by "Forbidden Island" and "Primitiva." A fifth, "Afro-Desia," completes the series thus far, but two more, "Enchanted Sea" and "Exotica Vol. 3," are due out this summer.

Capitol is also capitalizing on the Denny boom with a double-disc 40-track package that includes material from later albums and previously unreleased music.

"The interest is incredible," says Kit Ebersbach, a long-time admirer and highly regarded local studio musician. Ebersbach and Lloyd Kandell are the creative end of Don Tiki, the contemporary "exotica" band that's continuing the tradition with a little modern technology added.

"There are fanzines, websites, fans who'll argue over the correct sequencing of the tsetse-fly-flying effect on 'Afro-desia.' To anyone who's into what's now called 'exotica music' Martin Denny is the man who popularized it," Ebersbach says.

Some call it "rediscovery," but a profile piece on Denny in a recent issue of Honolulu magazine drew letters from long-time fans who discovered his music here 40 years ago and have loved it ever since. He recorded his last full-length album, "Exotica '90," in Japan just seven years ago.

Denny was already an accomplished pianist and arranger when he settled in Hawaii in 1954. As a child he had enjoyed classical music. He defines his debut as a professional musician as the eventful four-year-and-a-half years he spent in South America in the early 1930s. Military service in World War II was followed by a decade of advanced study and steady work. He first came to Hawaii for a gig at Don the Beachcomber's (the open-air club that later became Duke's), but it was at the Shell Bar in 1956 that his exploration of "exotica" began in earnest.

Croaking frogs are credited with inspiring "jungle sounds" that accent many Denny recordings. Percussionist Augie Colon joined the group early into the engagement and proved a master at bird calls, but Denny's concept involved more than animal noises.

"I would start with the premise of using an unusual instrument or effect, then go into typical jazz group thing, and then go back to the original sound. Instead of using guitar or ukulele, I used vibes, and I kept adding percussion instruments. We didn't play dance tunes, and for quite a while we didn't have a drummer, but we all learned to double on percussion."

"If I had attempted to do the same thing on the mainland and asked a bunch of guys (there) if they'd do bird calls they'd have laughed me out of the studio. We did it here and it worked, but even without the bird calls the guys could swing. That's what intrigued people -- plus the showmanship."

Denny was always looking for new ideas. Airline employees began bringing him exotic instruments. He didn't plagiarize or imitate. He explored the possibilities of incorporating Polynesian, Australian, Asian and African instruments in mainstream jazz and pop arrangements. Imagination was the key. Denny borrowed a 400-pound, canoe-size log-drum for one recording session; he used cheap toy instruments on others. Even so, jungle noises and bird calls were perceived as his trademark.

"For many Americans, Martin Denny was the sound of Hawaii and the tropics in general," says composer-musician-producer Dennis Graue. He's been incorporating Denny-style bird calls in his compositions ever since he launched Nohelani Cypriano as a solo artist with "Lihue" in 1977.

Success didn't come easy for Denny and his band. Developer Henry J. Kaiser, who owned the Hawaiian Village, began interfering with the band's plans to sign on with a Los Angeles record label.

When Denny informed Kaiser that he wasn't going to break his agreement with the label, things got ugly fast.

"He read me the 'riot act,' called me disloyal, an ingrate, everything you can think of, for a half-hour. He told the band that I was ruining their future, but they stuck with me. For the rest of our time there we were cold-shouldered by every employee -- on his orders," Denny recalls.

Denny and his band endured "the treatment" and stayed together through the uncertain times that followed. They returned to Hawaii as headliners at Don the Beachcomber's. Kaiser eventually wooed Lyman and Kramer back to the village; Denny replaced them with Julius Wechter and Harvey Ragsdale. The rest is musical history.

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