Les Baxter
Que Mango!






It’s 1970, and it seems like Exotica has never left the hyped stage. Les Baxter’s Que Mango!, recorded with the 101 Strings of which Baxter has been a conductor once before, features very – I mean to say: tremendously – catchy melodies, tropical glitz, the good kind of romantic kitsch and, best of all, entirely unique material. Although being released 10 years after the so-called Golden Age of Exotica when everyone had an appetite for unknown exotic islands and the supposedly faithful traditional song-related treasury of Polynesian tribes and Melanesian wayfarers, Que Mango! is so colorful and vivid that it would have blasted everything away, had it been released in the late 50’s.


Indeed, much had happened in-between Baxter’s iconic Ritual Of The Savage LP of 1952 and Que Mango!, for he was a very busy film composer at the time who never turned down an offer to accentuate moving images with his music, be it schmaltzy love films or gritty horror flicks. While Baxter focuses on the strings as usual, other instruments are featured prominently. Not only do they enhance the exotic flavor but are also skillfully interwoven into each of the 12 songs, adding the much-needed variety that is not often found in albums where the 101 Strings are involved. Que Mango!, due to its track titles alone, caters to the yearning crowd that likes to travel around the globe. Even though the concept of travelog albums had worn thin in the 70’s and Baxter’s entry does not fall into that category in its entirety, the famous conductor surely wore his rose-tinted glasses; the mood is entirely upbeat and joyful, and if it isn’t one of these two, the songs usually contain a third style by being solemnly romantic. Come join me on my review of one of the very best post-Exotica albums that was perceived as outdated and nice to have in 1970, but has not been deemed essential back then. Decades later, I beg to differ and try to explain why this is my most favorite post-Exotica album by Les Baxter.


Having read the above paragraph, you might be more than a bit bewildered about the title track, Que Mango!, that starts the album. Baxter reaches a new high in terms of pompousness and cinematic aura: Shimmering polyphonous clarions that could have been taken straight from a movie about the Ancient Rome, thundering energetic cymbals and smashing guitars blast their way through every obstacle. After this introduction of about 15 seconds, the track moves into Exotica territory: staccato piano bits, majestic brass backings, hectic percussion, golden yellow glinting marimbas and the lushness of the 101 Strings make this an upbeat track that traverses through various stages of happiness and excitement. The instrumentation is top notch, already proving that Baxter is willed to present a variety of instruments at all times.


The next song is Tropicando, and one of my most favorite Baxter tracks ever. The dark six-note piano melody is an excellent framework that is complemented by gently shaken maracas and a gorgeous violin-flute combo interspersed by cascading harps. The number of violins is augmented as they play the typical warped, iridescent Baxter sound. A short surf guitar (!) interlude takes place in the second half, before the whirling strings mark the return to the main melody which is now played by sky-high strings. It’s always hard to describe melodies, but let’s just say that the track merges effervescence with solemnity flawlessly, and since it is full of verve, it is suitable for workout playlists. On A Warm Night follows next, and it already tells you all of its secrets in the track title already; this is a romantic piece with gentle harps juxtaposed to a mélange of seraphically whooshing strings, piano interludes and mellow alto flutes, though this is no overly intimate song rather than yet another blissful tune painted in the most vivid colors.


Flight In The Andes is foaming over of Hollywood violins and keen on depicting an adventurous aura that is nurtured by rash swashbuckling string melodies whose enchantment is expanded by careful brass backings and glimpses of a flute, while Felicia, My Love is an utterly beautiful dedication to any woman with luxuriant strings of felicitousness, splendid piano sprinkles that cause a reaction by choppy brass echoes and coruscating xylophones. The most underrated part of this piece is the percussion whose maracas are just shaken loud enough to be audible, but otherwise remain in the background. As usual, one has to hear the voluptuousness of the strings in order to believe the grandiloquent performance of the orchestra.


Les Baxter keeps the pace in terms of his romantic tunes with Affair In Aruba, the last song of side A, which is built upon an unexpectedly jazzy beat with eclectic percussion and rhythm-related changes as well as a vast number of string instruments that play in all colors and styles, ranging from euphonious dreaminess to whirling contentment. But this song contains another unique addition in form of a mixed choir who sings along melodramatically in the second half. This is, to my mind, one of the songs where Baxter loses sight of the coolness factor that even his romantic pieces imply. This is too schmaltzy a song for me, but one man’s schmaltz is another one’s pacemaker, so this is no bad song per se, just a bit overdramatic.


Side B starts with another terrific Baxter song which is the strongest piece on Que Mango! and one of his most exotic and surprising compositions in general. Jungle Montuno starts in medias res and evokes a humpy but expeditious drive through a languorous thicket of tropical magnitude. An up-tempo string melody is accompanied by a sole trumpet and a couple of paradisiac flutes. The orchestra drums are in the limelight and create a rumbling accent not often heard on this album. The remaining two minutes are the best part of this skit. The song seems to stop but resumes in a different constellation: mysteriously sneaky string bursts are put together with extraordinarily mellow counterparts that wash away over the listener while a surf guitar backs the melodies and the brimming flutes.


Even though Jungle Montuno is seriously melancholic and moony in its last half, it shows the conductor’s composing skills like no other tune on this album. An utterly gorgeous track and my top pick. Yep, this first song may be my favorite song of side B, but it doesn’t go downhill from here; on the contrary, things get in fact more interesting and varied. Soolaimon is the only rendition of the album, originally written by Neil Diamond and transformed into an eupeptic fanfare by Baxter. Incisive brass blasts clash with warm strings and omnifarious percussion. The result is far away from Diamond’s acoustic guitar intimacy and more akin to curvaceously phantasmagoric Exotica goodness. Yes indeed.


Boca Chica is yet another one of Baxter’s romantic pieces that fools the listener at first with its bubbly marimba droplets and the cozy, tenderly melting string melodies that are so warm, soothing and catchy. Devoid of any cliché, the second half is spiced with gentle maracas, louder strings and a jumpy but soft flute melody. Although being the shortest tune, its atmosphere is much more sophisticated than some of Baxter’s longer pieces. Come Back To Paradise offers a stark contrast to the endemic mood in form of a melodramatic maelstrom of desponded strings that is soon illuminated by slightly brighter colors, though Baxter still relies on turbulence and fortissimi strings. It is only in the last 18 seconds that the song ends on a sanguine high note.


While Night In Buenos Aires is without a doubt the most spectacularly optimistic song with gleaming brass melodies whose euphony is saccharine to the point, without crossing the line of bad taste, Morning On The Meadow is a gorgeously flowing but rather earnest and serious closing track that could have been titled Mourning On The Meadow. Sad harps, entrancing flutes and opulent violins that transport sweet and beloved memories of a pondering being. An unexpected finale with a mood that is extrinsical and alien to the world of Exotica.


Why do I love Que Mango! so much? It’s because of its boldness that is nonetheless light enough for multiple listening sessions in a row. While Baxter’s melodies of the 50’s were often vestigial and jumpy – but still flawlessly orchestrated and absolutely catchy – his skills grew over time, as did his perception for melodies. The work with the 101 Strings turns out to be the great advantage of this record, for they are able to capture the Exotica spirit of Baxter’s input with great success.


It is unbelievable how lush, glistening and colorful the strings are. They are often over the top, but in a good way, I believe, for they are the signature ingredient of Que Mango! and carry every of the 12 songs. Another most excellent addition is the variety of various instruments like flutes, marimbas and trumpets, and while they are not particularly exotic, they add undertones at worst or broaden the esprit of each song at best. The melodies Baxter comes up with are so catchy that they got me hooked with ease. Tropicando, Jungle Montuno and Baxter’s rendition of Diamond’s Soolaimon are perfect examples of the former exotic vividness combined with the funky surf guitars of the 70’s, while the romantic side of the spectrum is valeted by On A Warm Night, Boca Chica, Come Back To Paradise and the serious Morning On The Meadow.


Depending on your definition of the Exotica genre, this album either resurrects the stylistic particularities and picks up the threads of Baxter’s preceding offerings, or is a bit of a let-down due to the missing exotic instruments such as bongos, shawms, kotos or even just a plain old vibraphone. This viewpoint is equally justified, but I really think of Que Mango! as Les Baxter’s best post-Exotica work that perfectly captures the spirit of the 50’s and dilates it with small sparkling glints of the 60’s Surf movement and the 70’s Funk rising. Thankfully, this album has been re-issued in 1996 on CD with new liner notes written by Skip Heller. Whether you’re in a dreamy mood or up for sporty outdoor activities, Que Mango! is eclectic enough to deliver all of this. Recommended – with an exclamation mark!


Exotica Review 071: Les Baxter – Que Mango! (1970). Originally published on May 19, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.