The Waitiki 7
New Sounds Of Exotica






New Sounds Of Exotica is the second album of the The Waitiki 7’s second band setup. After their 2009 hallmark Adventures In Paradise was met with critical acclaim and literally let the fellows among bandleader and bassist Randy Wong travel around the globe, for instance as far away from Hawaii as Berlin, the successor was relatively quick at hand. It took the band little more than a year to come up with an electrifying variety of material.


Things seem to be familiar at first, as nothing much has presumably changed; indeed, the material of ten tracks is taken from the same three sources as before, namely from the feather of Martin Denny, from the first incarnation of the band that was simply called Waitiki, and from new inspirations, resulting in a few songs that are featured first on New Sounds Of Exotica. But mind you, this album isn’t simply a continuation of the debut’s paradisiac mellowness, for there is indeed a surprising change in form of a wide gap: the added material is either tremendously lush and soothing – as before – or unsuspectedly eclectic and frenzied. There are wild bongo grooves and outstandingly savage saxophone interludes, both of which augment the vividness big time.


The formation hasn’t changed: Helen Liu remains the violinist, Zaccai Curtis plays the piano, Jim Benoit hits the many mallet instruments whose sonar waves are scattered throughout the release, Tim Mayer is the flutist and saxophonist, Abe Lagrimas Jr. is the drummer and vibraphonist, and percussionist Lopaka Colón’s golden voice is used for mimicking a whole zoo of tropical birds and exotic animals. Without further ado, lets walk into the thicket of New Sounds Of Exotica.


The opening track is already a first hint at the more dynamic and slightly more complex interpretation of the genre when The Waitiki 7 play the first notes of Martin Denny’s hit Similau off his genre-founding album Exotica of 1957; originally co-written by Arden Clar and Harry Coleman, Martin Denny made it a world-famous anthem. The band not only doubles the runtime of it, but also puts so many sounds and instruments into the mix that Denny’s original sounds rather bland and thin in direct comparison. Launching in medias res with hectic classic drum kit percussion together with frizzling cymbals, stunning vibraphone droplets and screaming apes, this introductory phase leads immediately to the well-known Similau motif played on a piano-vibraphone couple, all the while the tropical life is kept alive by Colón’s skillful cries.


The middle section consists of an eminently rapid-firing clave-and-shaker groove. Juxtaposed with it are Liu’s vivid violin and Mayer’s vivacious flute melodies. Stumbling bongo beats lead to the final section that introduces the majestic motif of Similau in moderate tempo and is ended with the effervescent superimposition of the drums and bird cries. This isn’t a cruddy rendition of Denny’s song, not at all, as the version of The Waitiki 7 lessens the latinized lamento of the piano melody by complementing it with rhythm shifts and shedloads of exotic sounds. A fantastic intro, and I have to admit once more that I prefer the band’s version over Denny’s original!


Up next is Flower Humming, an expected surprise, if you will. Originally written by Kit Ebersbach of Don Tiki and featured on their 2002 opus magnum Skinny Dip With Don Tiki, it was first considered by Waitiki on their 2006 debut Charred Mammal Flesh. I cannot decide which version of the three I love most: Don Tiki’s original is so perfectly lush and down-to-earth with its paradisiacal flutes, xylophone plasticity and positively weird Italo pianos, while the Waitiki band of 2006 turned up the tempo a notch and added a vibraphone-laden mystique as well as a cacophonous Jazz intersection to the almost six minutes long skit which relied very much on Brian O’Neill’s vibraphone-related skills.


Finally, the six-minute in situ version of The Waitiki 7 is once again faster than anything else. Of particular interest are its exotic bongo groove, the well-working flute and piano melodies, various rhythm shifts and freely flowing improvisations, of which the jocund, bongo-accompanied flute extravaganza in the middle section is especially outstanding and immediately followed by Lagrimas Jr.’s eclectic performance on the vibes. It’s up to you to decide which version takes the crown. One thing’s for sure: the listener wins in this contest. Once neo-Exotica bands start to reinterpret their post-modern compositions, something must go splendidly right in our times!


Bali Ha’i is next. This old tune of 1949 by the duo of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II is an Exotica standard that has been interpreted hundreds of times. It is statistically featured on every third genre-related album, and I’ve reviewed at least a dozen versions of it. A lasting impression is left by Tak Shindo’s featured version on his 1959 classic Brass And Bamboo, though it is by no means a benchmark for me. The take of The Waitiki 7 is special due to Helen Liu’s auroral violin string washes that outshine the piano sprinkles, staccato xylophone notes and flute melodies, although there is yet again a magnificent improvised section loaded with jazzily spiraling vibraphone bits. These improvisations prolong the length of the track once again, but the six minutes fly by really fast.


When First I Love is the second Denny composition that originally appeared on his album Exotica II. The mellow interplay of exotic percussion and vibraphone-piano melodies is resurrected by The Waitiki 7 and enhanced with rather Oriental sounding violin strings. Unfortunately, they are out of place in my opinion, for the unvarnished lushness of the original is circumvented due to the incision of the strings. However, this is definitely my personal stance, and since the inclusion of this instrument works out on each and every remaining track on New Sounds Of Exotica, this is simply a tiny exception where it didn’t work out all too well. Your mileage may vary, and rightly so!


There’s no discussion needed in terms of Tiki, though. This track by Les Baxter is transmuted into the definite Acid Jazz track. Exotica is farther away than ever on this version, but it is a welcome change nonetheless, for the iniquitous nastiness and mystique isn’t embedded in any other track of the album. It’s one of Tim Mayer’s two finest moments, as he carries the whole track with his mercurially screeching saxophone. The piano accompaniment is as mesmerizing as it is loungey, but at times its melodies are as jumpy as the feeling of the whole arrangement. The sizzling-hot vibraphone polyphony adds traces of mystique to the composition which ends on a wind chime note. It’s a rather rustic take on Tiki and not very exotic overall, but as I’ve said, it hits a nerve.


The standout track of the fast-paced material is definitely Voodoo Love, the third Martin Denny composition. It is transformed into one of the wildest rides of the whole genre. Frantic bongo-fueled percussion, gleaming saxophone eruptions, warm piano accompaniments and euphonious vibraphone iridescences are mixed together and form a tremendously delicate cocktail. The selling point of this version is the exotic percussion section in the middle. I cannot recount when I have ever listened to a similarly bare-knuckled, mercilessly portentous bongo blitz – this section is analogical to The Tikiyaki Orchestra’s car chase spy theme Kono’s Revenge, but actually much longer in duration. Drum kit and exotic percussion take turns, interchange and react with each other marvelously; Colón and Lagrimas Jr. could make a dark tiki God rise from the dead with this tribal infusion. It’s a gargantuan rendition of a well-known tune, and once more does Martin Denny’s original sound rather pale. It has earned a permanent place in my workout playlist, and it’s a pure joy to run when the track is, err, running.


While Ruby is a very mellow downbeat track with just the right dose of convivial bird noises, solemn violin washes, enigmatic wind chimes, vibraphone glitz and rattling shakers – altogether elements used in tracks of the dreamy spectrum of Exotica –, China Fan is the first of two original compositions written by Randy Wong. First featured on Charred Mammal Flesh, this is one of my favorite Waitiki pieces, regardless of the original source or the style. Starting off with utterly mellow piano chords and permanent percussive sizzles, the vibraphone-accompanied main melody is mind-blowing! I’m still not sure which two instruments were blended in order to achieve this perfectly kitschy Chinese key-laden melody. There's definitely a saxophone involved. Or is it? Maybe it’s a flute? It also sounds suspiciously like a shawm or even one of those synthetic Casio keyboard space flutes.


Maybe there isn’t even a specific trick involved in the process of creation, but the band surely got me fooled! This tweaked instrument – or their synergetic effect – has never been used before by any other Exotica band, so the novelty factor is huge. Liu’s violin is used to great effect here, as it almost melts away in the background. The same can be said about Curtis’ beautiful improvisations on the piano and the punchy vibraphone bits whose reverberated sustain increases the soothing qualities of China Fan further. A killer track and the perfect mixture of the band’s two styles: it is electric and yet relaxing.


The final Denny track on the album is Firecracker, a hyperactive, distinctly Japanese-flavored cut of mallet instrument goodness, drum kit breakbeats and several rhythmic changes ranging from military marches to free-style downtown dynamics. I am once more not too keen on this rendition, even though the variety of rhythms and the lumberjack-like harshness is already found in the original. I think that the flow of the track cannot be maintained due to the permanent shifts and drum-related peculiarities. However, it’s a feast for fans of percussion interludes and improvised drummer battles.


The final track is the second composition by Randy Wong: Sweet Pikake Serenade is an unbelievably spellbinding and entrancing piece of contemporary music; slowly meandering piano melodies and fitting vibraphone parts are surrounded by a terrific field recording of croaking frogs, gentle waves and various birds. The majesty that is evoked by the dreamy mesh of the involved instruments is awe-inspiring. This is my favorite soothing track of the band, all the more so since it’s an original production. The version on Charred Mammal Flash features Brian O’Neill on the vibes and is hence recommended as well. Their equally phantasmagoric titular rendition of their Waitiki 7 debut Adventures In Paradise reaches a very close second place. New Sounds Of Exotica thus ends on a wonderfully enchanting note.


All in all, New Sounds Of Exotica is a towering continuation of and complemental entry to The Waitiki 7’s two-sided formula. Whether a track is electrifying and thunderous or auspiciously rose-tinted and entrancing, the band is capable of keeping the vibe on both sides of the spectrum. A second quality consists of the willingness to improvise and come up with new sections and bridges in-between the well-known motifs and hummable parts. In fact, these very improvisations are a unique selling point, for they prolong each and every composition and put even the most established track into a new context.


No matter if it’s frantic bongo beats or auroral piano cascades, these surprising additions aren’t just exciting but live up the hype of the album title, implying that even if the band comes up with the umpteenth Denny rendition, they offer something new and exciting that will eminently surprise the most die-hard connoisseur of the related original. My top pick of the savage, tribal material is Voodoo Love due to its unbelievably hot-blooded bongo and drum kit maelstrom, while Sweet Pikake Serenade is so tremendously dreamy that it not only serves as a great counterpoint to my prior top pick, but is without a doubt one of the most soothing neo-Exotica pieces of all time. Its ambience has to be heard to be believed. New Sounds Of Exotica is jazzy, vivid, dreamy and at times cacophonous and rustic, but these non-Exotica moods have to be expected in contemporary Jazz formations, I believe. As the album features every mood and tempo (only the sky is the limit here!), Occidental and Far Eastern tone keys, mallet and brass instruments, bird calls and field recordings, you will be satisfied with the variety, I’m sure.


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The Waitiki 7 are on Twitter with their account TheWAITIKI7.


Exotica Review 086: The Waitiki 7 – New Sounds Of Exotica (2010). Originally published on Jun. 23, 2012 at