Don Ralke
The Savage And The Sensuous Bongos




There is bongo music and then there is bongo music with an emphasis on the percussive instrument that became everyone's darling in the Golden Age of Exotica music. Bongos had been used on virtually every Exotica release but they were at the same time subordinate to the respective orchestration and were no more important than any other instrument. It was up to Don Ralke, a relatively unknown music arranger back in the late 50's, to bring the bongos into the limelight. As a result, he resurrected Jack Costanzo's fad called Bongo Craze and transfered the post-World War II phenomenon into the early 60's.


While we are talking strictly bongo here, Ralke's LP is fortunately varied and contains brass sections and original melodies, paying tribute to the predominantly melodious spirit of the Exotica Age. However, the tribute which is being paid is only a small one: Ralke has a zero-tolerance rule applied to schmaltzy, heart-warming ditties. So even if the release occasionally drifts to Oriental fragments, the raw power and energetic vibe of the bongos surely makes up for every slight bit of a cliché! Thankfully, Don Ralke's records are digitally remastered and easily available on your favorite online music store.


The LP starts with Head Hunter, and this is a gargantuan beast of a track, featuring several full-scale bongos played with wild precision, if you allow me this oxymoronic description. An orientally flavored melody is played by flutists and adds to the energetically loaded atmosphere. Despite the cliché in terms of the run-of-the-mill Oriental depiction, Ralke's composition works as well over 50 years later as it did back in the day, even though the novelty of bongos is slim to none nowadays and strict bongo songs don't meet the needs of a large audience anymore. Of course, this never bothered Exotica afficionados. Anyways, Head Hunter is one of ten tracks I would include in the Exotica Hall of Fame for sure.


The next track, Saoco, decelerates the tempo and is even more stripped down to the roots of bongos, featuring everyone's favorite percussive instrument in addition to shaman-like ramblings – and that's it. The build-up stage, however, is much more intimate and the bongos can hence be apprehended more clearly. Another winner, and all the more unusual for its time as Saoco features a kind of roughness in displaying a jungle atmosphere that most releases tried to capture with Western instruments. Here however, Ralke blends a plastic jungle made in Hollywood with a more realistic approach by the omission of strings, brass or other orchestral ingredients.


Ju-Ju Man features a vibrant melody played on a flute on high notes. The tempo shifts in the middle of the song, and the bongo sections are once more exquisite. While The Mystery Of Yambuya is the first Jazz song of the album with vibraphones and a cheeky melody played on marimbas, Voodoo Priestess is similarly built but with added ukuleles and an even more positive vibe, shifting the focus on bongos slightly away while still relying on their audible presence. Black Panther is another track worth mentioning; here, the bongos are played in a significant tick-tock rhythm while a mysterious, stripped-down melody is played, making this track one of the most genuine on this LP.


Moon Goddess features several flutes playing exciting, ceremonial chords with a slight Oriental touch. The bongos aren't as wild but harmonize with the melody by being played in a more complaisant way. Sacrifice Of The Maidens is a short quick-paced ritualistic tune full of energetic bongos, other percussive instruments and manic laughter. Safradesia is the brass song on the LP and also one of Ralke's more well-known songs. I would wager that this is the most melodious song and the added flute works quite charmingly in collaboration with still surprisingly dominant bongos. The brass accompaniment next to the main melody is especially catchy and remains always stuck in my head hours later once I listened to Safradesia.


Say what you will, but this album definitely stands the test of time. The instrumentation is well made and the actual stars, the bongos, are put to the forefront all the time. Artistically, this release is highly valuable as well because no other artist of those times envisioned or let alone succeeded in creating a jungle atmosphere the way Don Ralke did. In fact, songs like Head Hunter could work marvelously in posh-club DJ sets, I'm not kidding. Very highly recommended to everyone who is the slightest bit interested in Exotica music and especially to people who don't like the kitschy atmosphere of beach walks in moonlight that are generated every so often on Exotica releases but in fact prefer action and pumping bongo beats. This album embodies the concept of fashionable coolness in a way like no other Exotica release did in the 60's.


Further reading:

The entry for Don Ralke is one of the few good researched articles on the web in terms of Ralke's legacy.


Exotica Review 011: Don Ralke – The Savage And The Sensuous Bongos (1960). Originally published on Dec. 18, 2011 at