master of exotica

Martin Denny's music
evokes exotic images

'Tiki Lounge Five-0'

With special guest Martin Denny
Where: La Mariana Sailing Club, 50 Sand Island Access Road
When: 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. tomorrow
Admission: $5, 21 and over; $8, 18-20
Call: 848-2800

Jimmy Buffett describes Martin Denny's music as "the soundtrack of paradise."

"Martin's music bears as much responsibility for my escape to the islands as the actual ships that skirted the shores of mysterious ports," Buffett writes in the album notes for Denny's upcoming album. These were "sounds that came alive in my mind as songs and lyrics, long before I ever saw them on the horizon. I certainly didn't know it at the time, but Martin was creating a new exotic form of music."

The '50s style was called "exotica," easy-listening lounge music drawing on world music, but not authentic replication. It's lightweight entertainment with identifiable ethnic sounds in a smooth, easily digested pop form that conjures up images of exotic destinations the world over.

Now Denny, this 92-year-old hipster icon of a new generation, will make a rare appearance tomorrow night at the appropriately tiki-themed La Mariana Sailing Club on Sand Island Access Road, where he'll play a few of his major hits, including his gold record "Quiet Village."

"What goes around comes around and what's old is new again," Denny says in an interview at his Hawaii Kai home. "But I'm just old; nothing new here."

Denny has a delicate heart condition which prevents him from touring or rigorous performances. He's being cared for by his daughter and only child, Christina.

But Denny is not one to sit on his nearly half-century of laurels, fragile health or not. The musical innovator is producing two new albums: "An Evening with Martin Denny," from music he recorded on the Big Island in the early 1980s, and "The Intimate Martin Denny," mostly piano music which will use Buffett's liner notes. Denny is also writing an autobiography.

"I do try to stay busy, but busy is more difficult these days," Denny jokes.

Martin Denny

BACK WHEN he was 20, the New York-born and raised Denny toured South America for four years with the Don Dean Orchestra.

"There were six of us -- I'm the only survivor -- and it was supposed to be just a six-month engagement," he said. "More than anything else, that tour had a real influence on me musically, which created this fusion of such a unique sound."

After being discharged from the military in 1945, Denny moved to Los Angeles to study piano, composition and orchestration, then came to Hawaii in '54 to perform at Don the Beachcomber's.

"A year later I formed my own group with (vibist) Arthur Lyman, (bassist) John Kramer and (percussionist) Augie Colon," Denny said.

The exotica sound was born one night in 1956 while the group performed at Henry J. Kaiser's Shell Bar at the Hawaiian Village.

"We heard these bird and croaking frog sounds and I knew they would blend perfectly with our tropical music style," Denny said. "On a lark, Augie began imitating bird calls onstage. The audience loved it."

Denny then began incorporating South Pacific and Far East instruments into his arrangements, and by the time he recorded his Liberty Records debut, 1957's "Exotica," his new sound had taken hold, thanks to the album's smash hit "Quiet Village."

Denny says his "greatest professional satisfaction" is knowing he created "a sound that has an identity that's stuck around for nearly 50 years."

The release of "Exotica" was "perfect, lucky timing," Denny says, because the tiki culture had just become so popular on the mainland, including aloha shirts and tiki torches for backyard parties.

"But there was something else," Denny says. "Stereo recording and playback happened. With our bird whistles, jungle calls and weird instruments, the channel separation made our music come alive."

Denny continued making records in his trademark style throughout the 1960s with successful singles like "A Taste of Honey," "The Enchanted Sea" and "Ebb Tide." His interest in African and Pacific Rim musical traditions yielded the "Afro-Desia" and "Sayonara" albums. He also recorded what became known as his "honey sound" or conventional easy-listening music.

Martin Denny with Duke Kahanamoku outside Don the Beachcomber in Waikiki in 1955.

DENNY'S announced retirement in 1985 lasted only three years, then he reunited with Lyman, Colon and Chang -- adding bassist Archie Grant -- to return for a series of sold-out club dates.

In 1990, Denny received a Na Hoku Hanohano Lifetime Achievement Award.

That honor coincided with the beginnings of an exotica revival, and Denny's vintage LPs began disappearing from used record stores. He was also the subject of a major CD reissue on the Scamp label.

Denny's music most recently has been used in the soundtrack of the motion pictures "Breakfast of Champions" and "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." And Jennifer Lopez recorded his song "Firecrackers."

"I started making more money after I retired than when I was working," Denny said. "Life can be very funny if you hang around long enough."

Following Buffett's impromptu performance last year at Duke's Waikiki, he met with Denny privately in his room at the Royal Hawaiian.

"We fell right into the comfortable place that spans generations ... (with) road stories; the taboo territory that traveling musicians know and relish as much as a ... Koa wood Martin guitar," Buffett said.

Denny regaled Buffett with stories of showgirls and big bands; Buffett told Denny tales like his opening for a Tahitian beauty contest in Papeete.

"He's a very nice young man, and now a friend," Denny said. "It reminds me what I would like on my tombstone: 'I had many friends.' I think that would be nice."

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