The Shangaans
Jungle Drums






Oh, those beatniks. Will they ever learn? Why, indeed, five South African beatniks have learned their lesson and deliver one of the few truly unique Exotica records, despite a long list of renditions on board, but since these are seldom heard and are of a humble, truthful origin, the album of twelve tracks called Jungle Drums by The Shangaans, released in 1965, is a cozy work of art, taking ingredients of Surf Rock and Exotica and merging them with balmy layers of organs, occasional streams of bongos and related drums. Various mallet instruments together with lyrics and chants round off the positive, embracing aura of this album that has been released during the sunset phase of Exotica.


I consider Jungle Drums and the quirky, similarly titled Jungle Odyssey by Mike Simpson to be the most important South African releases that target a genre that was back then totally dominated by U.S. conductors and groups plus a few British composers. The five-man band comprises of leader, vocalist and whistler Alain Woolf, guitarist and drummer Grahame Beggs, pianist and vibraphonist Mark Barry as well as the brothers Glen and Bill Muller, the former a percussionist and bassist, the latter the second drummer. Unfortunately, the debut album by The Shangaans is also their last LP despite a follow-up of two additional singles, and since it is so good-natured and cheerful, this fact is all the more saddening. If you love Exotica Pop and are interested in seldom-referenced South African classics, this pinnacle is not to be missed, although it has its flaws and inconsistencies, especially so when linked to its promising title. But more about this below.

Margarita Lecuona's Taboo is the gateway to the secret potion of The Shangaans, for you can really see why the sound of these Fab Five is so intriguing. Glen Muller's repeated six-note bass guitar motif adds a cool, almost spiteful twist to the lamento-heavy original, and it is up to Mark Barry's performance on the piano to counteract by presenting the original melody fully intact thanks to the melancholic chords. Grahame Beggs' maracas are shaken in the typical Brazilian style, adding an exotic flavor to the otherwise more Surf Rock-oriented take, but it is the middle section that truly surprises thanks to an audiophile field recording of whispering thickets, chirping birds of paradise and a tribal drum pattern. All melodies are gone, making this a proper segue. The song ends as it started, with all previous instruments playing another round of the famous theme. It's one of the more memorable piano-driven versions of Taboo because of the reasons mentioned above. The bass guitar is a little bit too baneful and cool for my taste, and it sounds even more out of place in juxtaposition to the warm piano chords. But it is one of the signature ingredients, I have to admit, so it's simply a matter of taste. 


Up next is Yellow Bird, an old Hawaiian classic of the 19th century made famous by Norman Luboff in 1957 and then further refined by Arthur Lyman. The Shangaans are clearly inspired by Lyman's version, as Barry's vibraphones are definitely in the spotlight, but there's room enough for an alternative viewpoint, and the band delivers it with a sunny acoustic guitar frame whose twangs are lively and perfectly warm, emphasizing the lullaby qualities of this ditty. The sky-high vibe ornaments are almost too cute and saccharine, quite a contrast to the acidic particles of Taboo

The following
Afrikaan Beat is taken off Bert Kaempfert's 1962 album of the same name and is one of two Kaempfert songs on board. Since this is a world-famous, highly memorable composition, the band decides to build on the jumpy strength of the main melody, presented here on a car horn-evoking organ that is coupled with a penny whistle played by Alain Woolf. Both are accompanied by the already known sun-soaked acoustic guitar backings, while the spiraling bass guitar has lost any traces of its previous spite and is harmoniously trembling along with the jocular aura. A syrupy incarnation very close to Kaempfert's original.


While the overall lousy Watusi is the first South African traditional piece the band presents, chock-full of six-note honky tonk piano riffs, a toasting Alain Woolf in the background and a blithesome but nerve-racking flute accompaniment, Skokiaan, a 1954 composition by the South African composer August Musaruwa, is a wonderfully catchy acoustic guitar-driven and ultimately celeste-focused song in 6/8 time that may be yet again overly saccharine, but since the cheerfulness is coupled with an earthen humbleness, it's a truly wonderful rendition. Side A is closed off with one of the band's signature performances of Salomon Linda's 1939 world hit The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh). Woolf's lead vocals are answered by the band members, and there's lots of cheerful clapping, tambourins and gentle breezes of acoustic guitar backings as well as organ goodness involved. 

Side B inherits the warmth and glee of side A, as
Nico Carstens' Zambezi is transcoded into a maracas-fueled groove with soothing organ backings and vibrant bass guitar accentuations. Despite the overall sound quality, the instruments create a blurry flow and melt well together, and the yellow-tinted melody has written happiness all over it. Coming up next is the second Bert Kaempfert song, the equally famous A Swingin' Safari of 1962. It's the pinnacle of sugar-sweet, care-free ecstasy, nurtured here by celestes, delicately quavering organs and acoustic guitars, but it is the stomach-massaging bass guitar next to the Surf guitar improvisations that add that certain something to this Easy Listening anthem. I'm not a fan of Kaempfert's original, although I acknowledge its utter importance for his career, but The Shangaans neither spoil nor enhance the original, which is the best compliment I can give the five guys in that regard.

Right after
A Swingin' Safari, an African triptych is presented by the band: Ntjilo, Ntjilo is an unexpectedly intimate song with anything but an acoustic guitar, balmy kalimba droplets and Woolf's bilingual vocals in Afrikaans and English, referencing the particular success the band enjoyed in Great Britain. It is his voice that carries the whole track, and the intimate setup allows the sustain of the guitar strings to fade properly. Inhlazane brings back the cozy sound washes with many frolicsome flutes that display a glaring cacophony more than once, but it's in good fun, especially since they're so well embedded in the mellow acoustic guitar stream. Despite a similar minimalistic approach in terms of the used instruments, this song feels fuller and richer.


The final African piece, Jikal 'Emaweni is without a doubt the most terrific composition of the band. The guys sing incomprehensible – to me – lyrics as they are embedded in-between the warmest possible layers of organs, bass guitars and classic drums. The melody is beyond catchy, with a distinct Rock flavor. The tempo increases in the last phase when the song ends on a warm, monotonous sustain of the organ and the guitar. The last piece of side B is the titular Jungle Drums, and it's a splendid take on vintage Exotica that's merged with a tribal third-stream theme. The field recording of Taboo is re-introduced and placed behind croaking guiro shakers, deep piano chords, delicate kalimba melodies, cryptic chants and gargantuan savage drums that have been used far too scarcely on this record. Another magnificent song by the Shangaans and a closing track to remember. 

Jungle Drums is a valuable entry in the Exotica hall of fame, even though such a hall has yet to be erected and depends on the kindness of each listener, for this genre is more versatile than you might imagine. Together with Mike Simpson's Jungle Odyssey, these South Africans teach the U.S-centric Exotica scene a tiny lesson. Despite the one single time where the bass guitar is a bit too calamitous in the opener Taboo, the album is so mild-mannered and innocent that it's a pleasure to listen to it. Beautiful renditions are followed by traditional African songs, and it's this moment of truth and humbleness that is seldom found in the genre and which is all the more delightful and enlightening at the end of the day.


Curiously enough, side B is way more successful and gets better and better with each song, making room for the last two pieces to outshine everything else, the mighty rays of thermal heat found in Jikal 'Emaweni as well as the earth-shaking and less-used power of the drums in the title-lending Jungle Drums. But from whatever angle you may view this release, it's a mellow, sugary pinnacle of humble, truthful (!) Exotica music with certain Surf Rock flavors, piano motifs, organ goodness and mallet instrument extravaganza. The omission of the vibraphone in every song except Yellow Bird – a clear nod to Arthur Lyman – makes this album less dreamy, but what it lacks in dreaminess and glacial particles, it delivers in acoustic guitars and African chants. Exotica Pop of the highest order, only the slightest bit schmaltzy thanks to the inclusion of Bert Kaempfert's hymns, but otherwise positively catchy. Recommended for sure.


Exotica Review 118: The Shangaans – Jungle Drums (1965). Originally published on Sep. 8, 2012 at