Korla Pandit
Tropical Magic






The name Korla Pandit rings an organ for Exotica fans who venture deeper into the obscurer realms of the genre. Born John Roland Redd (1921–1988), this inventive man from St. Louis, Missouri came up with many music-related stage personae, and although his alter egos weren't as colorful or high in number as the (sym-)pathetic roles of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, Redd's biggest success lasts on the moniker of Korla Pandit and the creative ways of tweaking the various electric, pipe and Hammond organs. As it is expected of the entirety of Pandit’s material, the listener must not demand wide arrays of instruments or resplendent landscapes, for Redd is a one-man army on the organ and doesn’t have any helping hands. But whenever art is deliberately limited – especially so in regard to synthetic arrangements – an artist can use the limits to create something convincing.


This is exactly what happens on the self-released ten-track LP Tropical Magic (At The Pipe Organ), with nine interpretations of classic Exotica material and one unique composition. As it is common with Pandit's style, melodies gleam more than usual, as they are properly carved-out – there’s anything else but the organ, so the melodies aren’t camouflaged, degraded or embedded in-between piles of strings or brass instruments, but very polished. Curiously enough, it might be the faux-Indian’s records that are the perfect introductions to the genre from a melody-related viewpoint, as their textures and tone sequences are perfectly in place and explorable.


Speaking of textures: Pandit’s music is as much about the textures as the melodies, maybe even more so, since the melodies are already well-established and known by most Exotica collectors and fans, so the question that turns up sooner or later is whether the artist can succeed with just a few pianos, Hammond organs and related devices. And once the question has to be answered, it is the textures, patterns and characteristic traits of the sound waves that decide about the success of an arrangement. Tropical Magic is an unexpectedly good album with a few horrific choices, but most of the time brightly-lit and not overly dark; it is only the Oriental or Middle Eastern settings that evoke a certain murkiness, but that is pretty much expected. 


Tropical Magic launches with a treat, at least for Korla Pandit devotees and Hammond organ fans, as Lotus Love – not to be mixed up with Cyril Scott’s Lotus Land is a unique composition. It is a decisively Far Eastern composition, with wonderfully mellow and glinting staccato organ riffs plus bass notes, galloping percussion together with reverberated shakers and a few purposeful dissonances thrown in. Even though the latter boost the quirkiness, it fits the tipsy stage persona of Korla Pandit quite well and doesn’t degrade the song to something all too comical. The Asian setting is the selling point here, and it is a wonderful ditty.


A rendition of Alfred Newman’s Moon Of Manakoora is next, and say what you will about this classic and its gazillion versions, I haven’t heard something quite like Pandit’s try. With anything else but an organ, he tries as best he can to build upon the dreaminess of the original. And he succeeds without any violin or mallet instrument! The organ bass line at the beginning might be a bit too spectral, but it does well fit the nocturnal setting in the end. It is when the first notes of the Space-Age bells hit the scenery that I’m awestruck. They closely resemble a vibraphone, but purposefully show off their synthetic origin. The main melody is also realized with a pipe organ-evoking preset, hence bringing in a glimpse of stadium atmosphere. It’s a wonderful Space-Age ascendant with borrowings of the slowly rising Cocktail Lounge culture of the late 50's.


While Friedrich Hollaender’s and Frank Loesser’s Strange Enchantment is the longest piece of the album with a strikingly hot Oriental snake charmer mirage with melodies played on both the organ and a classic piano, accompanying droning timpani and various clinging tambourins of real origin, Nat Simon’s 1936 classic Poinciana is truly magnificent thanks to Pandit's delivered interpretation, as the most saturated, festive organs blast their way through the ears of the listener. The song becomes quieter afterwards, and the design choice of presenting the main melody on a hybrid Middle Eastern-Scottish bag pipe organ is questionable, but luckily enough do the sunset-red colors of the vibrant organ return time and again. No percussion is interwoven, this is just an old-fashioned organ song, with many interesting textures though!


A take on Tango In D by Isaac Albéniz closes side A with warm synthetic strings and a sizzling-hot organ. Alas, the song is too pompous for this setting to work, and even though Pandit throws in all the organs and tweaks he possesses, this song reminds of good-natured but ultimately creepy get-togethers in retirement homes where the residents listen to a young apprentice tantalizing his Yamaha keyboard. The electronic shakers make things even worse, so make no mistake and avoid this melodramatic version!


Side B starts with Pandit’s take on Ernesto Lecuona’s The Breeze And I, and it is here where the Space-Age atmosphere wafts through each note once again, as an intensive theremin-evoking but darker synth string tremolo is unleashed, oscillating between eeriness and pompousness. The clinging tambourins are the only element of plasticity and vibrance, as the main melody remains curiously covered in the background. Pandit also plays this melody on the piano, paying tribute to Lecuona who, like every great composer, started his inspirational journey on this very instrument. The just mentioned Space-Age strings are terrific and truly creepy, but the remaining ingredients are too lackluster, and the Bolero-esque tambourins too unnerving. Pandit, however, succeeds big time with his following take on Blue Moon. This classic popular song of 1934 by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart has the same rhythmical crystalline structure thanks to the tambourins, but they are much more tasteful here. The phantasmagorically iridescent intro phase is marvelous, evoking mallet instruments and a jungle mystique with just one organ! Even though the main melody is then played by a second smashing stadium organ, the dreamy mood resides, with a strange but working interplay of quiescent scintillae, turquoise-tinted sparkles and a darkly droning classic piano. This is a hit!


It’s time for sunnier landscapes, alas, while the sun is shining outside, the listener is kept hostage in an organ panopticon of doom: Pandit’s presentation of Robert Alexander Anderson’s Lovely Hula Hands meshes ukulele-like (!) organ sounds with barrel organ-suggesting shatters of holidays in Rimini. The main melody is enormously syrupy and kitschy, so if you want to enjoy this song, you need to view it from a different angle. Once you realize that Pandit makes fun of this composition due to the many interwoven discords, you might as well enjoy it. It’s one of the most tasteless Lounge or Exotica renditions the world has ever witnessed. Translation: it’s very great in a weirdly twisted way!


And the album continues this path, with an equally intimidating version of Trade Winds, with thin siren organs clashing with actually tasty Space-Age warp whirls. But once the Latin lamento phase is reached, the warmth of the main organ destroys the spacey spirals which are supposedly resembling the eponymous trade winds. And the tambourins are once more shaken in the very same way. Boredom is a filthy beast. The final Tabu – also known as Taboo – is a rendition of Margarita Lecuona’s most-famous composition. The honky tonk organ stabs that schlep themselves forward sound very dated, but the ghostly, blood-red organ melody has to be heard to be believed: it’s dusky, melodramatic, and vibrant. It’s Space-Age par excellence, and it is a worthy inclusion on my annual Halloween playlist. Korla Pandit never sounded gloomier and scarier. The horror!


Tropical Magic caters to two audiences that pretty much merge in hindsight, especially so nowadays: Space-Age fans and Exotica listeners. If you like one genre, chances are good you like the other one as well. And so does the clear-cut Exotica material such as Moon Of Manakoora, The Breeze And I and Poinciana not only survive the transformation into organ-fueled arrangements, it is actually very euphonious and dreamy, its melodies being more upfront and easier to spot than ever, as no distracting ornaments, which are normally deemed essential addendums of the genre, can be found. The only percussive and rhythmic devices are a plinking tambourin and a deep pedal-caused organ bass, and that's about it. This material is highly enlightening for two reasons, firstly because of the vivacious and different textures of the organs, and secondly due to the sudden realization that Exotica songs don't just work due to their tribal drums and jazzy improvisations, but because of their beautiful main melodies. Since the genre is so multifaceted and loaded with many different styles, it is refreshing to be remembered about the real core, namely the lead melody which was once upon a time created by the composer on his or her classic piano.


The dreaminess only makes up one part of the album, as the second part is unexpectedly quirky, alienating and hazardous, even for Pandit's standards, oftentimes evoking short mind trips of alien invasions, sipping cocktails in space, or B-movie horror flicks; Tabu is a masterful example in this regard, but even the shiny Lovely Hula Hands grows into something mean-spirited, as its base frame is undoubtedly friendly, but the organs are occasionally cacophonous and baneful. It's a deliberately dim-witted performance in order to boost the charm and the tipsiness of the stage persona Korla Pandit. Consumed as such, these takes succeed as well, probably even more so than the true-spirited Exotica material. Unfortunately, Tropical Magic is unavailable in digital download stores, let alone on CD, but it turns up regularly on eBay and vinyl platforms. A few songs are also included on Best Of Korla Pandit collections. It's definitely one of the strangest Exotica albums that will be received much more favorably by Space-Age fans, I suppose. 


Exotica Review 129: Korla Pandit – Tropical Magic (1959). Originally published on Oct. 6, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.