The new box set doesn't argue for a new exotica pantheon; it shows how much impact the defining artists had.
There’s a school of cratedigger thought that equates rarity with quality. That theory argues that a record’s obscurity proves that it’s too pure and therefore too good for the marketplace. A lot of great records have been unjustly overlooked, but many generic, derivative, uninspired records were justifiably overlooked, some fading from memory almost the moment they came into existence.
Numero Group has often zeroed in on the stories those records really tell. The reissue label has often collected music that reveals the long coattails of major artists. Its R&B releases haven’t shown me overlooked geniuses, but they have illustrated just how influential James Brown and Ray Charles were as lesser known contemporaries recorded songs that offered twists on sounds and styles that major artists put in the public ear.
The new Technicolor Paradise: Rhum Rhapsodies & Other Exotic Delights follows that pattern. The three-CD box set documents the exotic music boom from the late 1940s to the British Invasion, but it doesn’t set out to tell the whole story. Too many major names—Martin Denny, Les Baxter, and Yma Sumac—are missing for that, but it does something more interesting. Technicolor Paradise bypasses the stereo test records heroes—Esquivel, The Three Suns, Henri Rene—and collects independent singles from around the country to show how deeply exotica reached into the popular pop consciousness.
Because many of these records were recorded in smaller studios around the country on limited budgets, only material on the third disc delivers the cinematic scope, the 3-D sounds, and whimsical mixes often associated with exotica. Much of it just doesn’t sound very exotic, though many feature an Yma Sumac-like vocalist cooing wordlessly in the background. Many of the scaled down tracks locate themselves on the surf spectrum, while others likely reveal their makers’ true interests when rock and pop touches sneak into the faux-Polynesian fantasia.
Technicolor Paradise also turns up some genuinely good tracks that live on their own and not in the refracted glory of bigger records by better known names. I’ll return to Pony Sherrell’s mispronounced “Tobago,” which she sings as if the country name sounds like a type of sled. Like many of these records, the cultural sensitivity is only up to the standard of the moment, so it clanks a little to modern ears, but the animated enthusiasm with which Sherrell throws herself into the happy native narrative ultimately wins. I’ll also take song’s delirious playfulness as it teases a rhyme with “wrecks” that starts with an “s” but goes somewhere else instead.
Ultimately, Technicolor Paradise treats exotica as Americana—not the patchwork genre but an encapsulation of something quintessentially American. The songs themselves often chase a dream with far more hope than innovation, but some beautifully improbable songs are held together with the musical equivalent of duct tape and twist ties. The accompanying book reminds us that many if not most of these efforts to evoke a mythical tropical paradise were recorded by people who were landlocked and maybe never saw a sea. The set presents people chasing a dream on multiple levels, and its success comes from finding tracks that reflect the good-natured hope with which they pursued it.