Tak Shindo





The work of Takeshi "Tak" Shindo (1922–2002) isn‘t hard to determine stylistically: he mixed Asian instruments with the aesthetic desires of Hollywood. When the Exotica genre was on the rise in 1957/58, Shindo was already a busy advisor regarding Asian flavors and faithful settings in films and TV series. Mganga!, his first original album, marks a sudden short term departure from Far Eastern territories and moves into unexpectedly murky faux-African lands, making Shindo leave his signature instrument, the koto, behind. Africa may be one continent, but it was and still is to this day highly diverse in its culture and inherited lifestyle.


Naturally, these remarks aren‘t of any interest in regard to Easy Listening and Exotica albums, and yet they are of particular relevance here, for Shindo tries and succeeds with his ambitious approach by featuring several instruments of African descent and intricated melodies that were far ahead of the clichéd competition, including the Exotica grandmasters whose names and music form the base for further ventures of 60‘s records into exotic lands. Shindo doesn‘t adapt specific melodies of African origin, but takes the same approach as every other Exotica musician at the time: analyzing certain African characteristics, coming up with a few Western, modern-world additions and uniting them so grandiloquently that the result seems to be surreal and mind-blowing to the listener, yet distantly familiar and comforting.


The dynamic range of the LP is superb, resulting in harmonious strings that are quiet as a whisper and supernova-esque brass blasts – they don‘t mix them like this anymore. One thing, however, is surprisingly trivialised on the liner notes of the LP, despite being a terrific trademark that makes Mganga! so impressive: its daunting, intimidating drums! If you think of hectically played bongos and congas, you aren‘t too far off, but these are already used time and again in various Exotica records of these times. No, Shindo makes the sounds of the drums a serious business in a predominantly smooth-running genre, and on lots of the tunes all hell breaks loose, making this album a classic to my ears that is as vivid, energetic and feral as it was back then.


Mombasa Love Song demonstrates Shindo‘s style with a blast. Dark and reverberated drums plus jingling tambourines form the base frame for polyphonous flutes, shimmering trumpets and a gorgeous female choir. The mood is seething, dusky and even ghostly at times. Safari To Kenya is a more playful song that features a rare and thus fantastic field recording of elephants which is then replaced with pompous brass and violin sections that bring back that certain darkness to the album. This darkness is also exemplified by a swamp concert of frogs at the end. A killer track! Nyoba Festival consists of gentle harp pluckings, staccato violin sections and dark mixed choirs reminiscent of Warren Barker‘s Hawaiian Eye soundtrack, the mood is euphorious and rather welcoming, a novelty on the album. Slave Chains Of Mtumwa starts quietly with sustained violins and a short crescendo in the middle with lamenting choirs and cinematic trumpets. The song swells down afterwards and fades out slowly, displaying the dynamic range I have mentioned before. Bantu Spear Dance is the final piece of side A and presents a clichéd ritual dance with rumbling drums, incisive flute tones and dramatic brass bits.


As it is often the case with Exotica albums, side B offers a diverse mixture that departs from the overarching theme of faux-African songs, but never so much that the listener questions the setting. Rains Of Okavango is a military march bolero that starts with rolling thunder and the valiant melody of a sole trumpet which is later amplified by a brass section. Chirping owls and nightingales mark the end of the short fanfare. Huts Of Kichwamba introduces the listener to the majesty of the Savannah with the help of another field recording full of birds and tigers. Echoey congas, short xylophone sprinkles and cascading harps form a gorgeous melody with the help of bass flutes and exotic percussion. The short vibraphone bits at the end are especially welcome.


The title-lending Mganga features euphonious harps, scintillating flutes, effervescent marimbas and choirs full of bass voices. The song feels more like an audio collage, though, as the last 13 seconds of the song break loose and present an exaggeratedly melodramatic end with marimba tones and a quavering flute. Mwanza Market Place is a strong favorite with a distantly Asian feeling and the most playful song of the album. It starts with bongos and short choir hummings and moves fastly-paced, yet majestically along with exhilarant mallet instruments, towering orchestra bits with almost all instruments playing orderly at the same time. Even though the dark hummings of the choir transport a glimpse of darkness, this is a joyful and bustling track. N‘Ga – The Maiden is a phantasmagoric harp song with an additional flute that is played in an Oriental style. Gentle drums accompany the sections without destroying the highly intimate mood.


Watusi Drum Dance is the most successful attempt in creating a lifelike eyewitness testimony as a field recording of a tribal dance is intertwined with the studio setup of hoydenish drums. The sound quality is top notch and the vivid drums and deep bass lines are awesome. If you are in search for a drum song that has no perceptible melody, this is the one to listen to; it also masks its U.S. origin as an added bonus. Port Of Trinkitat concludes the album in a Far Eastern way with trembling orchestra drums, distinct claves, Chinese gongs, cheeky mallet instruments of all kinds and beautifully coruscating triangles. The second half of the song introduces audacious brass instruments and disciplined bongos.


To sum Mganga! up, I can distill its 3 columns that were far ahead of the late 50‘s competition, making this a contradictorily futuristic-faux-tribal album of African flavor: at first, there‘s the wide dynamic range that is unfortunately more than a bit altered during the remastering process – egad, I can cope with that because I have the LP anyway. Secondly, there‘s the blood-curdling drums that inherit an unbelievable darkness and danger not to be found in any Exotica release of that time. Don Ralke, Irv Cottler and others don‘t come even close in terms of the drums‘ size and impetus. And lastly, there is a welcome variety of field recordings which enhance the feeling of traveling through Africa. Believe it or not, but every cliché Tak Shindo is guilty of – using trumpets on an African album and deeply humming male choirs as devices which point to savagery and truculence – is slayed by the sheer vehemence of the drums and percussion.


If you like the African flavor of Exotica, this album is an essential entry in your collection, even more so since Shindo never reconsidered a second album of African spirit, but focused on the fusion of Japanese sounds with Latin and U.S. themes, and on big band albums in the 60‘s. If you‘re searching a rough, not too dewy-eyed depiction of the American‘s viewpoint of Africa in the late 50‘s, this is the album to own. Luckily, it is available on iTunes and Amazon, so give it a listen if you don‘t know it already.


Further reading:

Who has interesting information about Tak Shindo? Well, I point you to the usual suspect, to the Tak Shindo entry of SpaceAgePop.


Exotica Review 030: Tak Shindo – Mganga!. Originally published on Feb. 4, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.