Mike Simpson
Jungle Odyssey






One of the best and most unique Exotica entries has been submitted during the sunset phase of the genre. Mike Simpsons' Jungle Odyssey was released in 1966 by the South African label RPM Records, and although not much is known about the song writer-percussionist from Chicago, he delivered one of the underestimated gems that regardless of its status has even been re-issued in digital form, so go grab it on iTunes or Amazon, as it's fairly priced!


If there is one problem with the album, it's the title Jungle Odyssey, for this should be clearly titled African Odyssey. Elephants, hyenas, crocodiles and hippopotami among many other beasts are all featured on field recordings and are furthermore resembled by music-related peculiarities, either via instruments, certain melodies or varying tempo. This record is special for a whopping five different reasons: firstly, the aforementioned field recordings which are at least as vivid and extraordinary as the ones in Tak Shindo's faux-African classic Mganga! of 1958. Mike Simpson's formula is always the same in that the field recordings are heard first, followed by the careful introduction of melodious or percussive fragments such as bongos or brass bursts before the track actually begins. Secondly, Mike Simpson's style is one of a kind in the Exotica genre! His signature instrument is a harpsichord-like organ, anticipating the mystery theme of early Columbo episodes. This instrument is featured on all of the 14 tracks an is successfully merged with Hammond organs, lush violin strings, surf guitars and bongos.


This superstructure allows for jazzy and even funky grooves, and while the Funk genre had its breakthrough in the 70's, there are definitely attributes and stylistic peculiarities found in Jungle Odyssey that pre-empt the Funk movement by a few years, which is quite impressive. Thirdly, all compositions are coherent, unique and specifically created for this release which is not a given at all. While style and rhythm change slightly from track to track, this album is perfectly consistent and yet varied. Fourthly, there's the artwork of a young Machiel Hopman featured on the front cover: it's an elephant whose eyes are covered by the green letters of the album title. And finally, this album was recorded in South Africa. This is therefore no faux-African music, Simpson doesn't try to present aural renditions of fake rituals, but in fact paints a technicolored image of a wildly (!) romantic jungle somewhere in Africa where there are no real dangers; instead, every anmial respects the other. This purposefully naïve presentation is Exotica in a nutshell. Even though I have minor quibbles, I can only speak of this album in the most glowing terms. Let's take part in the Jungle Odyssey.

Elephant Drums starts with a field recording of some grey animal with big ears, but the following element could be taken straight out of the NBC Mystery Movie series – if Simpson wouldn't anticipate this series for several years. The atmosphere starts to get really funky with electronic harpsichords, droning brass sections, trembling fiddles and a quirky Hammond organ in the background. The song is rumbling and presents a rather rustic viewpoint of the Exotica genre. The drums that are mentioned in the title are definitely not in the limelight. But the song is great, it's pompous and completely way-out. A great colorful opening track.


Crocodile River introduces a field recording of a swamp with a few brass bursts and a great laid back bongo cha cha cha groove complete with lush Les Baxter-like strings. The polyphonous main melody is done on an electronic organ which is a great cheeky counterpart to the Hollywood strings in the background. Another great addition are scattered piano sprinkles and (too) short flute backings. This is another winner, it's highly melodious, funny and just inherits the cool attitude of the 60's and merges it with the string-laden remnants of the 50's. A superb symbiosis.


Does the following The Lion Is A Pushy Cat offer similar qualities despite its frivolous title? Yep, it sure does … kinda. A tired lion groans in front of the listener, the harpsichord organ bursts are heard again and soon thereafter, an archetypical Crime Jazz groove is played which is later exchanged with a short sped up interlude loaded with xylophones that are played in higher regions. My personal problem with this particular song is its playfulness that doesn't work here. The melodies are too outlandish even for my low standards, but a huge plus, as usual, are the interwoven field recordings. Impala Pirouette starts with a jungle setting of lively birds, followed by equally joyful bongo beats, steel guitars and gorgeous piano strolls. The most fun track so far, it is easy-going and yet rather complex in its melodies.

Madame Hippo features an echoey hippopotamus sample and a rambling rhythm that schleps itself forward very slowly – it's a pitch-perfect example for program music that resembles the lazy attitude of a tired beast. The Hammond organ swirls in the background and the harpsichord mimics a honky-tonk piano or a comic relief version of Frankenstein's castle in a Saturday morning cartoon. The deep trombones further enhance the weight of the track, but best of all is the hippo that seems to sing along with the tune. Now that's classy! I don't like the song overall, but it has style and is highly creative.


While Warthog Hollow is another song that's heavy on the romantic strings with a placid bongo groove and advected brass sections, Hyena Hippies evokes the clichéd setting of a dangerous twilight in the Savannah: a field recording of these beasts is played while short harpsichord tones and high-pitched violin strings work as shock-evoking devices. The track later moves into brighter territory with a bold bass guitar groove and a general focus on various acoustic guitars. This is a rather funky track that emphasizes the hippie aspect of its title. The laughing hyenas seem to enjoy themselves very much, and you can imagine what they have consumed in order to feel this happy.


The next track is Buffalo Country and it broadens the style for the first time by putting the strings into the spotlight, creating the atmosphere of a sunset over a wide steppe. This is probably the track that encapsulates the Exotica feeling best. The piano dots in the background sound effervescent, the harpsichord melody is subordinate to the towering strings, and birds as well as apes are watching the scenery in the background. A great tune for listeners who prefer their Exotica music to be string-focused.

Monkey Puzzle starts as an animal spy theme and moves into more jazzy grooves with backing pianos, cascading marimbas, harpsichord tercets and a jumpy surf guitar. The biggest surprise of this track is the lack of monkey samples, for you'd think that these animals are heard most often and are easy to record due to their incessant chatting. Wildebeest Trail begins with the deep, repellent groaning of a yak or buffalo before the track moves into one of the most euphonious ditties on the release. An easygoing Hammond organ is intertwined with resplendent film noir-like brass notes. The only percussive element are gently shaken maracas. Giraffe's Gait is based on another jazzy groove with the first inclusion of vibraphones and the usual harpsichord melodies that are so typical for Simpson's album. The strings are tremendously sumptuous this time, almost overflowing of joy.


The final track is called "Z" for Zebra and I have the impression that the barking dog at the beginning is sold to the listener as a zebra. Anyway, this is yet another good-mood song that seems almost like a big band track as the brass players leave more of an impact here than on any other track. The zebra interacts with the instruments, singing – or rather barking – along to the melody. At the end of this song, you realize that this is a mighty fine album with a clear focus on fun and happiness.

Jungle Odyssey is one of a kind. It is, to my mind, as special as Milt Raskin's Kapu, who turned his back to the Exotica genre after delivering this masterpiece. Mike Simpson is in a similar position, and although he has released Exotica and Latin albums before, he never went back to the drawing board in order to create a similar project. With the help of field recordings and seldomly used electronic organs, Simpson anticipates the Funk era of the 70's and merges it with the Exotica genre, which is normally the domain of Mandingo and their glitzy ritualistic albums like Sacrifice or Savage Rite.


That all compositions are unique and that the production value is very high due to various instruments and a full string ensemble is also a huge plus. The melodies are often childish, true, but the record delivers a big treat to Exotica fans when the strings are appearing. Even the ubiquitously cheeky harpsichord notes cannot fight the majesty of these well-known instruments. The album is also very coherent and the quality always top notch. Each animal is instantly recognizable, and the concept, though being delivered on a post-Jungle Book record, is rather uncommon in the genre as well.


This is an album that I wholeheartedly recommend for the avid collector as well as for occasional visitors of the genre. Simpson's album is a funky, genre-crossing and welcome novelty in the surprisingly wide field of Exotica. It is easily available on iTunes and Amazon for a very fair price. While being exotic on its own, this album was deemed good enough by the rights holders to greenlight a digital re-issue which I have bought a few months ago myself. A great album and a perfect foil for the aforementioned Kapu by Milt Raskin in that the composer delivered one Exotica album and disappeared completely. Mike Simpson accomplished the same. Sad but true.


Exotica Review 057: Mike Simpson – Jungle Odyssey (1966). Originally published on Apr. 14, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.