"Raices? Never heard of that!" All the better I say, if we are talking about Julio Iglesias' album of the same name. But don't you worry, for I want to introduce you to an album which typical Exotica fans – even those who own several hundreds of genre-related LP's and releases – probably do not even know of. Raised brows are pretty much expected by me, for the release date of 1975 alone tells you that something must be fishy about it: the Exotica craze was long gone at the time and only partially survived in the transformed states of Jungle Jazz and Funk. Funny, as these two genres are exactly what the septet of Raices (meaning roots) has in mind on their self-titled eight-track debut which, alas, is also their final release in this formation. Released on Nemperor Records, recorded in Miami and supervised by The Doors's regular producer Bruce Botnick, the aforementioned two genres are spiced with bold doses of Exotica, namely the occasional birdcalls, ritualistic but melodious flute tones and an unexpectedly large amount of exotic percussion instruments: coconut shells, cabasas, quikas and other devices join the more usual bongos, congas and bamboo rods. In tandem with funkier instruments such as the electric piano, the Moog synthesizer and the claviochord, Raices create seven unique pieces and one rendition that mostly evoke life in the jungle. A friendly plastic jungle of neo-savages, mind you. But nonetheless a tropical jungle of the heart.


The band setup comprises of bandleader, flutist and percussionist Rafael Cruz, bassist Roberto Puras, the three additional percussionists Sammy Figueroa (co-founder of the band), Gonchi Sifire and percussionist-saxophonist Juan Melendez, guitarist Carlos Melendez as well as pianist Amaury Lopez. Indeed, four of the band members are percussionists, and you hear their impetus in every second: while this is a jazzy album with many rhythmical changes, they do not present all too complex patterns. It is the entanglement of the instruments and the different tonality of each ingredient that make the difference. Likewise, the incessantly perceptible Funk genre reminds of another Exotica-Funk band of the 70's, the British Mandingo project. If you distantly like their music, chances are that you adore Raices as well, even tough their approach is much dreamier and softer. But anyways, here comes Raices.


The point of departure and gateway to this largely unknown gem is called Lenguas, written by Amaury Lopez. Background chatter, chants and clap(trap)s provide the expectedly joyful way of life, but this remains the only clichéd instance of this original cut, as Juan Melendez's fast-paced saxophone notes mesh with the plinking high plasticity of the decidedly exotic percussion. Several shakers, high-pitched triangle-like instruments and Rafael Cruz's allotted bass droplets create a thick but not overly complex accompaniment that shows the high number of percussionists involved in the creation. Amaury Lopez's own piano chords transport a warm-hearted, non-Latinized majesty. The best thing, though, is the occasional polyphony of the saxophone notes that is caused by one of the vocalists mimicking the timbre of the saxophone via his voice, thus adding a gleeful ornament to the seven-to-eight-note riff of the main melody. Lenguas is rounded off by a frantic percussion prowess, and it is a joy to be captured by the tribal scheme of this showcase section. Lenguas is a superb opener thanks to its rather silky if also jumpy soprano saxophone and the percussion-related craziness. The high tempo enthralls the listener immediately, as does the large amount of percussive devices.


The following Karmanalia by Juan Melendez decreases the tempo and offers a more melodious approach. His paradisiac eleven-note melody on the flute is both smooth and carefree, providing a technicolor jungle setting which is further augmented by classic drums, upwards spiraling Moog synthesizer blebs and a sleazy wah-wah guitar backing by Funkmaster Carlos Melendez. Fans of Mandingo will rejoice, as this track is based on their well-known formula of 50% Funk and 50% Exotica. The middle section sees an improvised flute melody by Juan Melendez which conflates with refreshingly gelid electric piano crystals. The flow of the arrangement is breathtaking, the flute never piercing or spiky, but perfectly embedded in-between the lush soundscape. This is a marvelous 70's take on the Exotica genre; so great!


Side A continues with the 7+ minutes long aural diorama of Amaury Lopez's Bamboo, not to be mixed up with the occasional Exotica songs of the same name. As its long runtime suggests, the composition traverses through many metamorphoses and rhythmic shifts. It opens with utterly dreamy electric piano chords in tandem with mysterious wind chimes, mellifluous cymbals, ticking bamboo rods and chirping birds of the Tropics before it moves over to the eclectic main melody as created by saxophone bursts and aqueous electric piano accentuations. The focus on the percussion side is again perceptible, for the melodious interplay is often paused in order to let the percussionists unleash large amounts of congas, glittering triangles and hollow coconut shells. The saxophone is much more jazzy and lively on this song, but never is it towering over the soundscape. I still prefer the conga-focused aorta with the gorgeously ethereal synthesizer infusions, but regardless of my personal taste, Bamboo depicts – better yet: transfigures – a phantastic journey through a resplendent jungle in Brazil. Its uplifting vibe is enchanting, and the clear-cut addition of electronic devices does not turn this Tropical Jazz anthem sour, but adds deliberately artificial filters to the arrangement through which the soundscape becomes even more auroral. A huge favorite of mine, it never gets boring through the course of its runtime.


Up next is Parallax, a song co-written by Amaury Lopez and Gonchi Sifire. It expands and alters the intrinsic style with English lead vocals by Sammy Figueroa whose voice reminds me of Don Tiki's legendary frontman Delmar DeWilde. This tune is about a blend of Far Eastern tone sequences with graceful spirals on the clavinet which are both sunset-colored and truly good-spirited. Amaury Lopez is able to prevent his piano chords from being too Latinized or jazzy. Parallax is hence another marvel, even more so since so many things could have gone wrong due to its focus on the piano structures, but no, the tonality is catchy and unexpectedly free from any kitsch whatsoever.


Side B is able to keep the pace. It cannot top side A, but it comes quite close in this regard. Carlos Melendez's Parata Gua Gua launches with a delicately exotic and unexpectedly truthful jungle feeling: smooth alto flutes, enigmatic shakers, wind chimes, claves and birdcalls provide a segue to a slightly more electronic approach with electric pianos and Moog synthesizers. However, the flute melody remains in the spotlight all the time, its timbre being honest and convivial. It is curiously melodious and yet hard to grasp. The awesome middle section sees an expansion of the drums and shakers and is successfully intertwined with Melendez's electric guitar which adds a maximum of Funk. And yet is the Funk approach neither sleazy nor cool, but subordinate to the mélange of flute tones. Juan Melendez truly goes wild on this instrument. Again, I have no complaints at all. While Juan Melendez's second addition El Tropical is a conga-interspersed rhythmically shifting take with a similar focus on the flute but an even greater concentration on Latin piano notes – a first on the release –, Raices' take on Oscar Castro Neves' and Sebastiano Neto's After Sunrise places la la la chants in-between acoustic guitar scents and harmonica-fueled bonfire allusions, creating a rendition that oscillates between a deliberate loneliness and Mediterranean schmaltz. I am probably not too fond of this version due to the missing jungle scheme. And indeed am I spoiled by side A.


The final piece is Juan Melendez's third contribution: Bluegarian Funk Dance turns its back to the tropical Jungle Jazz realms in favor of a metropolitan concrete jungle scheme. It adds a major dose of a heretofore unused sleaziness in the veins of Mike Simpson's Jungle Odyssey (1966). Claviochord tones clash with staccato saxophone spirals and megacity-evoking electric guitar twangs. The Moog synthesizer screeches and whirls through the arrangement and elbows everything out of its way. While the coolness factor is indeed a nice change, the Exotica flavor is low, the innocence of the junglescapes gone for good. The self-titled debut of Raices ends with the weakest tune; a tune that nonetheless provides a wonderful link to Simpson's sound of the South African soils. In this regard, Bluegarian Funk Dance is a great choice.


Raices is a gargantuan album. It remains largely unknown to most Exotica connoisseurs, and this is a pitiful state that can only be blamed on the decade it was released: 1975 is clearly influenced by the glitzy Funk genre, and the septet tries to branch off into various directions and styles. Exotica fans aren't even specifically targeted – and if they are, it is a twofold accidental coincidence – by the group, and yet are the ingredients delicious to the follower of a faux-primitive lifestyle: the pool of exotic instruments used on this debut is almost larger than life, topping off many vintage Exotica LP's, even those which contain the trigger term Percussion in their titles. Fans of Geoff Love's British session musician-based Mandingo project will fall in love with the fusion of Jungle Jazz, Funk and Exotica.


Side A is a blast and features four consecutive hits in a row, each of them dreamier and more melodious than the other, while at the same time featuring dynamic percussion sections and gorgeous flute and saxophone melodies. Both of these instruments can destroy the mellowness of an arrangement if they are played over the top. This does not happen here. Each instrument is well-embedded and merges deliciously with all others. Only the final track presents overexposed electronic devices and organs, but this is due to the deep bow before the Funk genre. I therefore cannot name any top pick this time, but want to stress how much enjoyment this debut brings me. I am probably more responsive to this music due to its fast rhythms which provide a great experience while I am running. Exotica fans who are up for dynamic cuts and do not mind an injection of funkiness will be surprised about the jungle setting with its occasional bird calls, many congas and the less heard amount of sea shells, berimbaus and cachichis, the latter of which I did not even know before I encountered Raices. It is highly recommended by me, one of the lost gemstones, and unfortunately the first and final album by this band. It is only available on vinyl at time of this review's publishing date. A serious crime, for this music must be released in digital form!


Exotica Review 164: Raices – Raices (1975). Originally published on Dec. 29, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.