Jungle Echoes






Pennsylvania-born bongo player Leon Johnson (1927–1999) was literally ruling over the whole Exotica world under his disguise Chaino, you will not find a crazier artist in this already vivacious genre. Sure, John Roland Redd was much more famous as Korla Pandit, having been featured in his own TV shows and on the covers of various glossy magazines, but Chaino takes the cake when it comes to the bizarre wildness and tribal eclecticism, as there is no better unique percussion album than this one. He even took things so far as to create a faux-background and CV, stating that he was the orphan of a mysterious tribe rescued by missionary workers. An article at SpaceAgePop and a Wikipedia entry about Chaino offer more insight into his inventive fake biography.


Whereas Don Ralke's bongolicious works such as The Savage And The Sensuous Bongos or But You've Never Heard Gershwin With Bongos (both released in 1960) intertwine saccharine melodies and convivial brass sections with great percussion solos, these albums are good-natured felines in contrast to Chaino's toothy tiger and fourth exotic work that is Jungle Echoes. And don't get me started on the many percussion albums of that era, among them Terry Snyder's Persuasive Percussion (1959) or George Cates' Polynesian Percussion (1961), to mention just two works which are pastel-colored fairy tales in comparison to Chaino's complete work. Jungle Echoes is released in 1959 on the Omega Disk label. None other of the well-known big labels would have wanted to release this album anyway, and for good reasons: most of the album's nine unique tracks are tremendously energetic, absolutely mind-blowing to this day and – here comes the intrinsic twist – glaringly sexualized and suggestive, if not via their track titles, then because of the moaning females and groaning male chants.


This tribalism has never been heard in this boldly audacious clarity, as the Polynesian Exotica genre at the time was all about the transfiguration of danger-free lush green jungles, the paradisiac Tropics or the yearning for the open sea and far away places in Asia or Old Europe. Chaino cuts through this phantasmagoria and keeps things terrifyingly real and acidic: there are no classic music instruments to be found, only a steelpan-like device and a few marimbas are included in a track or two, all other melodies derive from Chaino's chants and uttered gibberish. His work features the widest array of condensed exotic percussion instruments there ever was. I make a bold statement right now which I further explicate in the following paragraphs: Jungle Echoes is a masterpiece.


The album launches with the filthy critter called Jungle Chase, and the opening phase proves a particularly tribal and ritualistic focus seldom heard in the poetic-romanticized material of the Exotica genre: a moaning, whispering, heavily breathing woman is in close proximity to Chaino's cool ugh chants, a gorgeous bongo groove and a cozy concoction of guiros and maracas. The plasticity is very high, the decay of the bongos and goblet drums quite punchy and vivid. For its time, the sexual tension that is depicted in this dob is remarkable and only justifiable due to the implied tribal setting. Jazz quartets and famous conductors would have never been allowed by their record labels to even suggest the prospect of such an arrangement. This opener is huge in every way, offering a soundscape that only Chaino could come up with.


Torture Of The Mau Mau is next, and it boosts the eclecticism of the drums, with pernicious laughters and baneful growls by Chaino as well as a brighter percussion layer with much more shakers than before. No melody is attached, it is just the interplay of these devices that makes up the song. Turn up the volume and feast on the threatening atmosphere! While Co-Gona Voodoo expands the soundscape via a leading clave, deliciously liquedous bongos and a good-natured Chaino who is preaching melodious indecipherable chants over an increasingly frantic beat with a much boosted tempo, it is The Feast Dance which is the first tune with a straight bassdrum, thus being the catchiest and uplifting one of side A thanks to its steelpan-like devices which inject the sun-dried feeling of Trinidad into the otherwise rather fulminant setting, making this the top choice for Exotica fans who long for scents of kitsch and blithe. Side A closes with The Limbo which unleashes Chaino's rich baritone voice on a decidedly sparse and laid-back percussion creek. This rustic minimalism is used to great effect, as the sustain fades into the distance and hence increases the wideness and intimacy of this particular arrangement. It later leads to a convoluted, unexpectedly Latinized bongo and conga infusion and a hyper-hectic showdown at the end, providing the stylistic range of Chaino in one single tune.


Side B is equally thunderous, no doubt about that. The auspiciously named Jungle Drum Variations is the gargantuan instrumental centerpiece that runs for a whopping seven and a half minutes full of gorgeously crunchy aqueous snare drums, muffled bongos, fizzling shakers, mellow marimbas, hell, you name your favorite drum and – open sesame – it appears in this showcase tune that presents all the drums used in the process of creating Jungle Echoes. Best of all is the maintained tempo, there are no rhythm experiments to be found; it is all about the textures and the various introduction and farewell phases of each respective device. A feast for drum lovers! The following Cum-Ba-See reintroduces that Latin spirit with convivial polyphonous vocals which mention the track title in-between the accentuating drums, quite a change of formula, as the drums are of secondary importance to the soundscape for the first time.


Up next is The Spear Dance with its particularly shaker-driven flavor; the shakers literally croak and bite, adding a terrifying acidity and portentous vibe to the album. It anticipates a postmodern Avantgarde piece by Einstürzende Neubauten or an artifact of the contemporary electronic Glitch movement, showing Chaino's truly creative and imaginative powers. The final piece is poetically called Safari Jungle Maze and launches with surprisingly low-level drums in the far distance which are soon accompanied by their louder brethren and added onomatopoeic ape screams, vivid birdcalls and hissing snakes. Naturally, this piece has the genre Exotica written all over it, as Chaino is finally mediating between the colorful panoramas of genre-related quartets and the bongo madness that is so intrinsic for this album. Naturally, Chaino's take on the animal side is much more brutish and voluminous than the dreamy mimicries of Augie Colón or Arthur Lyman, but nonetheless highly welcome, providing a superb closing composition which audibly links back to its title.


Jungle Echoes is a humongous release with not too many quiet undertones. The interplay of the various drums, the different patterns, rhythms, textures and surfaces create a tribal concoction that can only be beaten by one artist… Chaino himself. Despite – or rather because of – all the percussion-related albums that were released in the late 50's and early 60's, Chaino's work towers above these whimsical works in terms of their realism. The rustic roughness is only found in Chaino's work, making Jungle Echoes and his other albums highly successful in today's world. The manifold percussion instruments induce a thicket, an intimidating diorama whose small parts are perfectly placed in the mix. Audiophile fans will rejoice, as the album has not lost anything of its voodoo spell during the decades. It has in fact grown even stronger, showing today's artists what is possible when the focus is tightly set on the percussive side of things. There are literally no flaws, and while the lack of melodies might seem strange, the ensuing diversion makes sure that you don't miss them one bit. Besides, Chaino garbles along to his tunes most of the time, boosting the faux-African setup to the maximum. The sexual implication and savage lust is surprisingly adamant and never heard before – or ever since – in the Exotica world.


Imagine if Les Baxter's Tamboo! (1956) or Tak Shindo's Mganga! (1958) would have featured this high level of lustful screams… both conductors would have to kiss their careers goodbye, methinks. Chaino succeeds with his fake biography and wildly rolling eyes, his ebony skin and of course his big talent. If you are nonetheless put off by the strictly tribal attitude and want a few carved out melodies in adjacency to the bongo craze, I can recommend Pérez Prado's Voodoo Suite (1955) and the follow-up Exotic Suite Of The Americas (1962) as well as the Exotica supergroup The Surfmen's The Sounds Of Exotic Island (1960) who present complex rhythm changes and diverse percussion instruments in their renditions of classics and unique cuts. One thing is for sure: Chaino's harsh impetus outshines them all, and glaringly so. Jungle Echoes is a must-have masterpiece; it is available on LP and in digital music stores.


Further reading:

Both SpaceAgePop and the good old Wikipedia provide highly interesting background information about Chaino.


Exotica Review 166: Chaino – Jungle Echoes (1959). Originally published on Jan. 5, 2013 at