When Exotica fans get hold of records that were originally released in 1959, their mood often shuttles between pleasant anticipation and premonition, for this is Year 2 after the 1957 mono release of Martin Denny‘s Exotica. However, Denny‘s record didn‘t take off immediately and needed its time to reach and build an audience. But once a trend with huge market potential was established, other artists and bands tried to take advantage and cash in with exotic releases of varying quality and success, who were often forced by the record management to follow a trend they didn‘t want to explore.
Fortunately, Robert Drasnin‘s Voodoo! – which was also released under the name Percussion Exotique – is a high-quality release loaded with 12 original exotic cuts and beautiful female voices. It was hard to hunt down for years, but in 1996 it was re-released on Dionysus Records, supplied with a new Pop Art front cover as seen above by Josh Agle alias Shag and distributed with added liner notes by Skip Heller who writes about the historic dimensions of the release and its importance in today‘s times, all the more so since Drasnin isn‘t considered a heavyweight in the Exotica genre; his contributions to the genre are sparse as he usually composed film and television music with lots of diverse offers at hand.
Additionally, Voodoo! also marks a special high point in Drasnin‘s artistic activity, as he emphasized in an interview with Exotica expert and music historian Jeff Chenault in 1999 by stating that "Voodoo! represents the one and only project that gave me the opportunity to write and conduct an entire album of original compositions." (see Further Reading below for more information) The re-release is thus all the more satisfactory and one of the earliest in the cautious wave of Lounge and Easy Listening re-issues in the 90‘s.
Chant Of The Moon begins with deep exotic percussion, added bongos, quiet piano notes and the mysteriously haunting voice of Sally Terri, already setting the iridescent mood perfectly. But it gets better with the addition of a bass flute, a prominently played marimba and a sudden outburst of brightness with soothing harps and piano chords played by a young and then unknown John Williams. Desiree approaches the exotic theme in a playful style with a variety of different percussive instruments, polyphonous marimbas and distinct maracas. This main melody is played on a flute and the feeling is slightly jazzy, which is not the least surprising considering Drasnin‘s Jazz background.
Hindara features the pristine sprinkles of a xylophone and clicking claves, but the highlight is without a doubt the crazy flute melody; the instrument breaks loose and mixes slight hints of cacophony to the otherwise orderly conditions of the song. Orinoco is a favorite of mine, the reverberated voice of Sally Terri is especially enchanting on here, with a gorgeous intermission of hectic percussion, followed by deliciously cascading harp notes and piano backings. I generally dig the intermingling of harps to the mix because this instrument is a typical Hollywood device used for intimacy, enchantment or vistas of vegetation. Speaking of favorites, Mirage is my most upbeat favorite on Voodoo!, I think. At least it is the most exhilarant one, as it features an exotic string instrument, a light-footed flute that echoes the melody and a dynamic demonstration of various drums which are now put to the forefront in the middle of the song, resembling a Bossa Nova groove with a catchy polyphonous 5-note melody played by Williams.
The title-giving Voodoo is a strangely paced song that starts mysteriously and danger-evoking with Terri‘s quavering voice and dark piano notes, almost committing to a serious mood. Luckily, the first marimba notes arrive soon and the song moves into brightly colored territory. Once more the exotic feeling of lightness is evoked partly due to the marvelously played flute. Jardin De La Noche is a slower song and finally introduces the sustained reverberations of a vibraphone that are a nice couterpoint to the extremely low piano notes. This time the flute induces mystique to a setup that is particularly filled with mallet instruments.
The surprisingly straightforward titled You starts as a ballad with a lascivious melody sung by Terri and morphs into a frantic piece of ritualistic quality, focusing on another great section of various percussion and drum bits, while the following Paradise is a euphoniously carefree rendition of rambling strolls around an island with polyphonous marimbas, a soothing flute and gentle percussion, making this song an exceptional piece in terms of the roster of songs Drasnin presents; the atmosphere is totally different, calmer and gentler than on any other song – in fact, if I heard this song out of its context for the first time, I would adjudge it to Eden Ahbez‘s Eden‘s Island, which, mind you, didn‘t exist before 1960.
The final track Enchantment consists of another gorgeous and upbeat melody played on the piano, with distinct rattles accompanying both the piano and a glockenspiel. Occasional wind chimes and a short burst of hectic percussion amplify the exotic mood. The album ends with the king of clichés: a Chinese gong that marks the definite ending of the album. Thank you very much Mr. Drasnin, see you in 48 years!
In hindsight, the devotion of Exotica listeners regarding Voodoo! is not due to its (now former) status of a rarity. No, Drasnin‘s streamlined but original compositions are rightfully loved by Exotica fans around the world. Strangely, Voodoo! remained a one-time Exotica affair for Drasnin, similar to the equally sensational Kapu by Milt Raskin released in the same year. Thank the tiki gods for a rewrite of music history, for Robert Drasnin decided in 2005 to pursue further Exotica songs that were released as Voodoo II in 2007 – 48 years after the original release date of Voodoo! If three exclamation marks in a row weren‘t considered bad style, I would put them on the end of the previous sentence, as both Voodoo releases catapulted the charming Mr. Drasnin into the Exotica Shangri-La. It‘s almost unbelievable.
Voodoo! is surprisingly stripped down in terms of the vocals – it only features the voice of Sally Terri whose chants are used more as an instrument since she doesn‘t sing comprehensible words –, but all the richer on exotic percussion, playful flutes and ubiquitous mallet instruments. This is an essential album and should be in every Exotica lover‘s collection. It is easily accessible, melodious and not overly exotic thanks to the permanent appearance of the piano played by John Williams. My only point of criticism refers to the shameless omission of the vibraphone in the vast majority of the songs – only Jardin De La Noche addresses my needs. But seriously, this isn‘t a flaw per se, just a minor observation of my point of view. All in all, Voodoo I is recommended to virtually every Exotica fan, period.
There is a highly informative interview of Exotica expert Jeff Chenault with Robert Drasnin on ele-mental.org that complements the information given by Skip Heller in the liner notes of the Voodoo! re-release on Dionysus Records.
Exotica Review 022: Robert Drasnin – Voodoo!. Originally published on Jan. 14, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.