Michel Magne
Tropical Fantasy






Aaah, Tropical Fantasy. Celebrating its 50th birthday in 2012! Every Exotica listener will encounter this album by French composer and plate-smashing Avantgarde musician Michel Magne (1930–1984) sooner or later, and not without good reasons. I try to state it as objectively as possible by hiding my true feelings in the following sentence: Michel Magne’s Tropical Fantasy is the most iridescent, colorful and catchy Exotica album of the 60’s. I don’t want any claqueurs spoiling the impetus of the sentence, because to my mind, it is true.


Magne delivers an album that almost bursts due to the huge variety of songs, instruments, field recordings, melodies and surprises. Despite its boldness and Magne's actual bile in terms of anything Exotica-related, it is nonetheless successful in painting a tropical atmosphere and in keeping the pace, often deliberately bewildering the listener with a strange choice or an alienating interpretation of a Latin classic. The production quality is breathtaking, the percussion eclectic and the melodies fantastic.


 Two largely different vinyl versions exist, one released by Columbia Records and one by the French Bel Air label, the Columbia one features 14 tunes and the Bel Air one offers a whopping 16 tracks, a different track order and additional curlicues. The version with 16 tracks is featuring a jocular dance scene on the front cover and is the one I am reviewing, whereas the version with 14 tracks features a white mid century modern art front cover of a bird with a black neck from whose throat downwards the feathering becomes vividly colorful; that version omits the tracks Amapola, coincidentally the point of departure in the 16-track version, as well as Acercate Mas. However, the differences might be even greater than I know, since I only have the French version. This is also the one that is downloadable on iTunes and Amazon, although the tracks are grouped together in a different order. Instead of questioning why this had to be the case, I’ll better be glad about this 2012 re-issue by the rightsholders Smith & Co, for this album is so totally worth it! If you want to find out more about the best, funniest and most joyful Exotica album of the 60’s or if you want me to confirm your opinion, please read on. 


Amapola starts the original French version of the Bel Air label with quavering flutes, a female singer whose chants remind more than a bit of Robert Drasnin’s Voodoo! album and a purposefully bad interpretation of a chirping bird of paradise, presumably done with the help of a flute rather than a human voice. The conga groove strolls along in an easy-going way and an smooth flügelhorn plays a reduced but still glorious melody. The origin of this track by Joseph Maria Lacalle is very old and reaches back to the shellac days. An addition you don’t hear often on Exotica records.


Congo is one of two compositions of Michel Magne and presents an African chanter, tremendously vivid bird calls which are done right this time, and an unbelievably fantastic bongo performance in 6/8 time that mixes various tribal chants of dozens of people with a rudimentary yet swashbuckling Congo chorus. The tribal feeling is sky-high, and there is always some chattering taking place on this percussive track. One of the very best faux-African tracks you can come by in the genre! Magne’s skit and many others that are about to follow capture the energy time and again, thus bringing albums like The Markko Polo AdventurersOrienta to mind, the only other Exotica album that offers a similar high-production scope.


Ary Barroso’s Baia follows, and the rhythm is slowed down in regard to most other exotic performances, among them the iconic version of Arthur Lyman on his album Bahia. A dark trombone is playing the double bass part, quavering flutes play the main melody, vivid bongos and congas are beaten, all the while ducks and drakes (!) quack in the background – a successful homage to the Walt Disney classic The Three Caballeros of 1944 where the song is prominently featured. Magne remains in boldly tropical realms with Ernesto Lecuona’s classic Tabu and its eclectic percussion of maracas, bongos and wind chimes. The main melody is presented in a melodramatic way due to the exuberant use of wildly different instruments, ranging from various mallet instruments to eerie temple gongs and shawm-like devices that interweave stark Oriental bursts into this Latin classic. The female choir is literally whirling. This is an interesting interpretation of Tabu, for it is really hot-blooded, wild … and has a strong Middle Eastern approach.


A version of Peanut Vendor originally written by Cuban orchestra leader Moises Simons is right behind the corner. Orchestra bells, effervescent marimba bits, jumpy flutes and mellow alto flutes altogether cause happiness and joy. An interesting counterpart to the bells are the dark tubas in the background who further augment the comic relief of this short interlude. However, Copacabana really takes the cake by starting with an eerie fire alarm siren; this is definitely not the dreamy beginning one would hope for when listening to Alberto Ribeiro’s and João De Barro’s Brazilian joint venture. The siren lasts for an immense 40 seconds, but is finally substituted with droning orchestra drums, polyphonous marimba chords and a clarinet which is responsible for the main melody that is additionally backed by paradisiac flutes and hey-hey male chants. Funnily enough, the siren also returns for the last 40 seconds while the song fades out. I don’t have a particular problem with its inclusion, but I guess that listeners of the Tropics or people who are affected by this siren in one way or another will probably raise their brows, to put it mildly.


Ary Barroso strikes again with the following Brazil which is splendidly interpreted by Magne. The beginning consists of beautiful church bells; again, these bells are so unlike our clichéd interpretations of a tropical album, but so unexpectedly good once you hear them. Mad laughter of dozens of people is suddenly woven in, and boldly Brazilian percussion is intermixed with the main melody played on tubular bells which is accompanied by an ebullient female singer. The track ends as it began, with laughter and church bells. Side A is done.


Two Silhouettes opens the second side, and it returns to paradise that is full of birds, tropical percussion and a wonderful silky trumpet melody that is in constant interplay with a trombone. The accompaniment consists of cascading xylophones and the surprising inclusion of a warmly quavering Hammond organ which thankfully takes over the track in its second half and harmonizes quite well with the omnipresent bird calls. Coming up next is Sahara, a special song because it is the second of two eclectic compositions written by Magne himself. Dark drones, thundering drums, screaming chimpanzees and a perfect imitation of whooshing trade winds paint the vista at the beginning. Staccato clashes of various percussion instruments coupled with a sky-high Yma Sumac soundalike break through the fake field recording. The whole song is built upon the female voice, various mallet instruments and fulminant drums.


Sahara is not overly bold in the depiction of a clichéd Orient but is rather rumbling along perniciously, and even though the screaming apes are a funny inclusion, the composition itself is ominous due to its convoluted drums. Most impressive and intimidating. Solamente Una Vez is a beautiful vibraphone song that consists of cuckoo screams – these birds screech more than they chirp – and gentle percussion. The inclusion of an organ is yet again most appreciated. While Jacques Larue’s Quzás, Quizás, Quizás is yet another bird-laden ditty that presents a mélange of portentous brass bursts and the most melancholic flute melody accompanied by a shawm (or a good mimicry done with a trumpet), Besame Mucho completely changes the shift of Tropical Fantasy which is already overloaded with different styles. A Flamenco guitar solo at the beginning builds the stage for a lamento on a trumpet, accordion backets and overly vivified flutes that try to break the distinct mood. The song ends on the same Flamenco note.


While Perfidia begins with a sped-up tape of a conversation and integrates a gorgeous vibraphone solo with with slightly Far Eastern xylophone melodies, but otherwise remains in the clime of the preceding Besame Mucho, the closing track, Morton Gould’s Tropical, is traversed by chirping birds, thunderous orchestra drums and the gorgeous melody on the vibraphones. The Yma Sumac double is heard one last time, gently singing along to the catchy riffs.


Tropical Fantasy is without the slightest hint of a doubt the most colorful Exotica album of the 60’s, even though it was primarily created to cash in on the craze and to mock the established artists. Only Orienta by the Markko Polo Adventurers can keep up with the lifelike scope of Magne, and that was released in 1959. If you adore field recordings at least as much as exotic instruments, gorgeous melodies and surprises on every corner of the album, Tropical Fantasy is one of the best albums you can buy in this regard. Church bells, screaming monkeys, thousands of different birds, mellow organs, bongo and conga grooves whose plasticity is breathtaking, sun-lit vibraphones and shedloads of additional exhilarative instruments and sound devices make this the cream of Exotica’s crop.


Michel Magne is the nexus between the intimate Exotica trios or quartets and the huge orchestras with their overflowing lushness created by their strings, therefore capturing all of the meanings of Exotica on one single album, regardless of whether you want the beautfiul female chants found in Robert Drasnin’s Voodoo albums, the intimacy of Arthur Lyman’s moonlight pieces or the glitzy animal-related field recording extravaganza found in Mike Simpson’s Jungle OdysseyYou find everything on this album. Even though only two songs out of 16 are unique compositions by Magne, all remaining classics are arranged creatively but are yet recognizable. Once again: Tropical Fantasy is the most shimmering Exotica album of the 60’s, so go grab it for a very fair price on iTunes or Amazon if you don’t want to be pestered with the original vinyl version. It is highly melodious, tremendously cool in its stylistic presentation and a great album for Exotica novices who will be blown away by the phantasmagoric, gargantuan flow of sounds and melodies Michel Magne created. It's the holy grail of cheerful Exotica!


Exotica Review 065: Michel Magne – Tropical Fantasy (1962). Originally published on May 5, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.