Rex Kona And His Mandarins
Wild Orchids





Rex Kona And His Mandarins were an ephemeral Exotica band that released one LP only, Wild Orchids in 1964. Two attributes are remarkable on this release: firstly, a few of the 12 songs are surprisingly jazzy. I write surprisingly because you wouldn‘t necessarily expect this from the tongue-in-cheek band name. What you can expect, secondly, is the inclusion of distinct Eastern flavored music, and Rex Kona offers plenty of Japanese songs that can be told apart from the Jazz numbers by their track titles. However, be aware that this remains faux-Asian music, but this is probably what you are looking for anyway – I know I do.


The oscillation between Latin Jazz standards, Exotica classics and Asian motifs is in fact so strong that this album is a mixed bag and cannot please every listener equally. The compositions are always harmonious and in fact so strong that I consider this an essential Exotica release – still, at time of writing the holders of rights to the record beg to differ and dig their heels in. Fortunately, the vinyl version has been reissued in 2010, though this version is now no longer available that easily. The original by Columbia Records is now worth between $50 and $100 on auctions, but this is one of the many cases where the price says nothing about the artistic quality. My review will fill this gap, hopefully, as I cannot approve the current status of Wild Orchids as an out-of-print gem because it‘s really that good.


Kisses Sweeter Than Wine marks the beginning of the journey through several music styles. First composed by The Weavers in 1950, then consecutively sung by Jimmie Rodgers and Frankie Vaughan in 1957 and 1958 respectively, it was in later years ruined by Nana Mouskouri (in both German and French, mon dieu!) and Ray Conniff, among others. Luckily, the version by Rex Kona is very good! It is upbeat, quick, has a nice samba groove with creaky rattles, fantastic drums, an exhilarant accordion and eclectic vibraphones.


Moonlight In Vermont is one of these cheeky discrepancies between title and concept. Yes, this is another beautiful take on a Jazz standard – but with an Asian flavor like, you know, Vermont were based in China! Xylophones, wind chimes and lots of reverberated bells make this a sparkling rendition that shares next to nothing with the version of, say, Frank Sinatra or Jo Stafford. To my ears, this is a pitch-perfect example of soothing Exotica music, the pale moonlight and the added chirping of birds boost the feeling of felicitousness. An essential song for me and the best version of Moonlight In Vermont out there. Ginza Girl is next with a cha cha groove, lush bongo percussion, harmonicas, brass bits and the mandatory droplets of Asian flavor. Even back then faux-Asian music was a cliché, but again, I won‘t complain. Despite its Eastern flavor, this song is remarkably similar to the music on Alex Keack‘s Surfers Paradise LP.


Sushi is an up-tempo crime scene tango with Latin flavor, so just ignore its track title. The vibraphone is loose, the paradisiac flute amplifies the playfulness further and the signature accordion is also featured. Halavah is first keen on percussion with distinct tambourins and huge drums but introduces a Middle Eastern flute melody shortly after, which is again followed by a scintillating glockenspiel section and a shift to Far Eastern territory. I dislike the song, as the song is too childish and its permanent shift between Middle Eastern and Far Eastern elements causes an overkill. I very much prefer the following rendition of Trolley Song with its carefree accordion melody, the accompanying vibraphone and its short My Resistance Is Low intersection – quite a treat and another funny element. Another hit!


Side 2 of Wild Orchids starts in the most gorgeous way: A rendition of the classic Patricia. And yes, the Exotica factor is surprisingly huge due to the jocular flute, the euphonious vibraphone sprinkles and the bossa nova groove. Apart from these elements, the song is pretty much a normal version of Patricia without any surprising extra. Will He Like Me? is nothing to speak of really, as it is just the usual schmaltzy Jazz standard. The only interesting tidbit is the main melody which is played on vibes. Bushi, Bushi adds the strongest Japanese flavor of all the tracks: a galloping 6/8 rhythm, wind chimes, pianos and vibes make this the more charming song compared to Sushi, as both are equally childish, but Sushi is the undecided one stylistically, whereas on Bushi, Bushi the style is consistent. No thumbs up from me, but a friendly recognition of its style.


Peg ‘O My Heart is again a surprisingly likeable version of Dean Martin‘s classic. The reliance on the vibraphone and the harmonica give it an interesting taste and somehow conjures the spirit of Milt Raskin‘s Kapu who came up with original pieces with the same instruments a few years prior in 1959. Now to a speedy song that will let your heart pump: Bird Train revives the Exotica spirit that seemed to be lost on most songs of side 2. Staccato rattles, a whole zoo of different birds and a bantering juxtaposition of crazy vibe grooves and a sustained accordion make this the most remarkable and different track on the album. It cannot get any faster than this. The gabba song for Exotica lovers. The final Wild Orchids ends the album on a slower note and another strong Exotica flavor with a gentle bongo groove, various mallet instruments, flutes and pianos before the album ends with the last sustain of the wind chimes. This is no euphoric piece but a more laidback song that evokes the feeling of contentment and loitering.


This album is a huge favorite of mine, and the two songs I usually dislike – The shuttling Havalah and the dull Will He Like Me? – aren‘t horribly bad after all. The first three tracks in a row, however, are fantastic, and you don‘t encounter an Exotica album everyday where this remarkable amount of soothing, interesting and stylistically successful material is sequentially featured. One of my most favorite vintage Exotica albums and a welcome result for its time, as it captures the mood of 1959 and transforms it to 1964. Well, what‘s 5 years? Quite much in terms of music trends in general and Exotica specifically, as there is no genre-defining Exotica record to be found in the 60‘s. Wild Orchids is a personal favorite of mine, not a considerable debut, so the album is another proof of the "50‘s yay, 60‘s nay" rule. Once more I am finding myself in my least favorite role, that of a beggar. There must be a possibility to release this gem a third time, right? I wouldn‘t even mind a digital-only release of a pristine master tape. I can only hope for the best, Wild Orchids would totally deserve it, as it is absolutely essential to me and is thus highly recommended. It‘s not worth $50, let alone $100, but that, in the end, is up to you.


Exotica Review 026: Rex Kona And His Mandarins – Wild Orchids (1964). Originally published on Jan. 21, 2012 at