Tak Shindo
Far East Goes Western






Takeshi "Tak" Shindo (1922–2002) is best known for his imaginative blending of Far Eastern instruments with Western brass sections. While his Exotica debut Mganga! from 1958 is a fully fleshed-out faux-African diorama and might always remain his exotic centerpiece, his follow-up album Brass And Bamboo of 1959 encompasses a stunning symbiosis of North American big band hits that are traversed by exotic Japanese instruments such as the koto, various claves and temple gongs.


Since his 1960 release Accent On Bamboo put the horns into the limelight – thereby making the title somewhat misleading and inaccurate –, Far East Goes Western returns to the formula of a properly balanced entanglement of the stylistic counterparts between East and West and is hence a fitting addendum to Brass And Bamboo, even though it is strictly instrumental this time. I write addendum, not foil or conclusion because Far East Goes Western carries the burden of "same old." It is an intriguing album, no doubt about that, but its eleven North American and Latin tracks rely on an already known formula. However, I won't be overly critical any longer, for this album makes many a listener dizzy in the end, leaving him or her in a state of a hopefully positive bewilderment. Read on to find out why this is the case. In short: the mysterious reason I've hinted at is a splendid example of a specific perception being crushed by a cultural clash, but this time, it's the other way round and the supposed victims differ. 

J. J. Lilley's and Frank Loesser's Jingle, Jangle, Jingle marks the beginning of Tak Shindo's Far Eastern treatment, and its point of departure will move many Exotica fans: clanging wood sticks, cascading harps and dark Asian temple gongs with a very long rumbling sustain depict a Japanese landscape that boosts the yearning of the audience. An additional shamisen is prominently interwoven… and from here on, the song loses its delicate aura, I'm afraid. Classic drums, cymbals and timpani as well as various horns mesh and play a convivial melody. Even though this is exactly what the song promises, there are too many elements in this mix, the song feels overproduced. However, the last 13 seconds provide for a lush listening experience as the gong fades out all the while glinting vibraphones and wind chimes gleam dreamily.


Luckily, Bob Nolan's Tumbling Tumbleweeds – a well-known theme for an entirely new generation since the thriving success of the Coen BrothersThe Big Lebowski – is presented in an amusing fashion here, complete with abyssal gongs, the six-note main melody played on a Japanese bass flute, spiraling glockenspiels and silkened cymbals. A short intersection consists of both jumpy shamisen twangs and cowbells in high regions. It's probably the most noteworthy rendition of Nolan's hit out there, and while there are a lot of instruments fading in and out incessantly, the song feels lofty, strictly Far Eastern and yet faithful to the original. On The Trail by Ferde Grofé is next, and it is a very vivid piece with hand claps, staccato shamisen bursts and muffled vibraphone accompaniments. The various flutes are screeching, and it is the use of the bamboo flute that makes a mellow stance against the good-natured frenzy.


While Dimitri Tiomkin's The Green Leaves Of Sommer is without a doubt the best song of side A due to its phantasmagoric quiescence that is realized with spiraling koto licks, bamboo flutes, backing gongs and clanging bells, Buttons And Bows by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston is a perfectly hummable jazzy piece that merges shedloads of coruscating bells with rising and falling double bass backings, eupeptic flute melodies and triangles that altogether provide a glaringly Asian flavor. Deep In The Heart Of Texas, a 1941 Folk song by Don Swander, provides an almost surreal listening experience. Texas and kotos? Sure, Shindo succeeds in doing just that, and it is the opening ambience of wind chimes, shamisen and droning gongs that bewilders the listener at first, but soon morphs into a drum-heavy hillbilly song that is probably one of the strangest arrangements the Exotica genre has ever encountered, as frantic vibraphone drops, liquid harps, ubiquitous gongs and frizzling snare shakers bring the Texan anthem to life. Whether this is a successful hybrid or an audacious move is up to the listener.

Side B is opened by a take on
Peter DeRose's and Billy Hill's Wagon Wheels, and it is due to the majestic euphony of the various flutes plus the playful martelato xylophone tones that this song encapsulates the strongest feeling of a Far Eastern track yet. It is still a jaunty track, but tends more than a few times to a solemn mystique that, weirdly enough, meshes quite well with the quirkiness. But it's getting better: The Last Round-Up, another track by Billy Hill, allows a fascinating interplay between space and sound to take place. The punchy shamisen sounds more banjo-like than ever, the streams of the bamboo flute float warmly throughout the track and the xylophone chords inherit the typical Japanese tone keys.


The following High Noon is one of those overly comical and jumpy tunes I despise with a passion, as the melodies are scattered and distributed too arbitrarily. A highlight consists of the improvised drum sections that are used as short bridges. Circus-like drum rolls and eclectic patterns interchange, but again, this song is going on my nerves and I just resurrected it for the purpose of this review. Begone for the next few centuries, you High Noon ditty! I'm An Old Cowhand (From The Rio Grande) by Johnny Mercer is embedded in a jazzy base frame with smooth cymbals, shakers and tom toms, but it is the clichéd and delicious Japanese tonality of the polyphonous flutes plus the enigmatic rapid-firing harp strings that make this another great interpretation where Shindo accomplishes the harmonious unity of opposing styles.


The conclusion of the album is a take on Bob Wills' San Antonio Rose. The most unexpected ingredient is surely the clarinet, but it is only heard for a moment, as the main parts consist of overly saccharine flute couplings, underlining xylophones and an overall blithesome mood. Unfortunately, the superimposition of the Far Eastern style doesn't work here. There aren't even traces of mystique besides the temple gong, which, on a side note, is heard one too many times, at least to my mind. A lackluster closing track of a non-essential album.

Tak Shindo presents a new spirit of Exotica, and nowhere is this more perceptible than on
Far East Goes Western. It's downright funny to listen to songs whose titles contain places like Texas or the Rio Grande, and what you hear doesn't correlate with the information you've saved in your long-term memory about these places: Asian instruments and clichéd Far Eastern tone keys don't match with these sites. And this exotic bewilderment factor is the selling point of Far East Goes Western. Now North and South Americans experience the feeling firsthand when a purposefully wrong impression is given about Western locations, as many Latin and U.S. composers come up with faux-Chinese songs time and again which are altogether far away from the truth and aura of the real locations.


Shindo accomplishes once again to show this discrepancy in a playful-benign and – best of all – sophisticated and creative way. However, he doesn't try hard enough and the signs of fatigue are bolder than ever before. For instance, where is the female choir? Why isn't there the occasional brass section that would integrate much-needed glimmers of pompousness on this release? These were the ingredients that made Brass And Bamboo such a success. Far East Goes Western is as coherent, but too jumpy. The omnipresent drone of the gongs is overused, and the focus on the banjo-esque shamisen leads to the demise of other interesting Asian instruments. There are still a few gems on this release: Wagon Wheels and The Last Round-Up are great interpretations with gorgeous bursts of proper Far Eastern tonalities. Likewise, Tumbling Tumbleweeds is as exotic as it can probably get (minus the Heavy Metal versions that are out there, I suppose). Dreamy realms are maintained by The Green Leaves Of Summer, the only resplendent composition that captures the tranquilizing spirits.


If you love exotic blends of East and West, consider Shindo's Brass And Bamboo before you go for Far East Goes Western. It is too indecisive and hectic most of the time, it lacks the great cinematic scope and occasional darkness of Mganga! or the sizzling-hot horn eruptions of both his Bamboo albums. But if you actually prefer Exotica music without horns and with a sizzling-hot bonfire flavor, Far East Goes Western is a good choice in the end. As is the case with most of Tak Shindo's works, it is at time of writing not available on CD or in digital download stores, but the vinyl version pops up quite often on Ebay.


Exotica Review 105: Tak Shindo – Far East Goes Western (1962). Originally published on Aug. 11, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.