Joël Vandroogenbroeck
South East Asia






In my short attempt to pinpoint the characteristic traits of the Exotica genre, the first sentence does already disqualify Belgian pianist, flutist and New Age traveler Joël Vandroogenbroeck's (born 1938) album South East Asia, released in 1985 on the Coloursound Library label. "Exotica listeners always have to keep in mind that they're not listening to the truth," I state, and either my assertion is entirely wrong, or South East Asia should better not be linked to that very genre. I am voting in favor of Vandroogenbroeck's album, which is tremendously exotic, but nonetheless unique and oh so real. The artist usually resides in the Jazz genre but comes up with a metamorphosis akin to the one of Tony Scott who left both his signature instrument, the clarinet, and the United States in order to create the first ever New Age album Music For Zen Meditation (1964) which he recorded during his travels through Asia at the time. This opus formed the way for many other Music For entries, even yoga records were on Scott's agenda.


Joël Vandroogenbroeck creates a similarly enticing album with an – at least to Western ears – alienating soundscape of tranquility and peace. The many bells, chimes and whistles would make any producer of Exotica music proud. These highly exotic and plinking devices were even featured beforehand in a truly tropical context, for instance on Martin Denny's Buddhist Bells and M'Bira off Primitiva (1958). Whereas these records are mostly about melodious compositions, the 15 tracks of South East Asia are basically all about textures, surfaces, repetition and the interplay of sound, sustain and space.


Bulan Indonesia is the gateway to South East Asia. Brightly clinging wind chime-resembling spectral devices – so-called Indonesian gamelan bells – gyrate round a quiescent bongo beat like liquedous spirits, mellow bass bursts drone majestically in adjacency to them. At times, the bells resemble the depth and plasticity of a lower vibraphone tone, but apart from this allusion, the soundscape remains in transcendental territories. Jalan Jalan presents a marimba-esque arpeggio of Far Eastern tone sequences in tandem with a spiraling side aorta. The melody is only slightly cheeky, a good mood definitely attached. While Matahari Terbenam slows down the marimba notes and meshes them with an exotic flute melody of the tranquilizing kind and crunchy shakers, Wayang returns to the gelid reverberation provided by the gamelan bells. An eight-note motif is repeated time and again in adjacency to slowly bubbling drops which glitter gently in a rhythmic fashion.


Wono Sari places an enchantingly quavering Indian flute in-between iridescent bells and whimsical faraway guitar backings, whereas Malay Archipelago unleashes fizzling maracas and a finger-tapping beat to the omnipresent gamelan bells whose repetitive motif lures the listener into a languorous mirage. Borneo Mood then paints the aura of a forest at dawn, with wooden exotic percussion, bamboo rods and frosty bells.


Sunrise Over Singapore, the best song of the album, does not only evoke the clichéd naming convention of Exotica material, but lives up to its title by launching with a Chinese gong. Utterly beautiful flute melodies are carefully enhanced by Chinese zithers and a gentle river of synthesizers. A very strong track and one I keep coming back to time and again! Mandarin Road unites a tick-tocking metronome-resembling clave rhythm with a Chinese string instrument. This composition might be solemn, but the ensuing darkness creates a subtle uneasiness that cannot be fend off by the clicks. Whereas Han Dynasty features a marvelous post-Space-Age Chinese zither next to a balmy alto flute and thus creates a pitch-perfect Asian soundscape, Peking Opera is the most experimental track, for it lacks any trace of melody and only comprises of claves, kettle drums and Chinese gongs. The stereo effect on this one is remarkable.


Taiwan Tan brings back the melodies, and regardless of whether tan is the English description for that worshipped state of a sun-seeking globetrotter, this song includes many zithers in tandem with other string instruments and the occasional bell. A serious, contemplating mood is maintained. The second-best inclusion on the album is next, at least in my opinion: the splendid Evening Meditation contains aqueous Chinese harps whose reverb conflates with the sunset-red panorama. No percussion is needed, the tune shines on its own. The two-part outro Cambodia Mood morphs from a cowbell-infused dreamlike state of quiescence and solemnity to a slightly drier incarnation, as the bells gain a different tonality and are accompanied by a kalimba. The album has come full circle now: carved out melodies are exchanged for interesting textures.


South East Asia is a serious, meditative, mediating work of art. If there are totally enchanting melodies, their state of existence is usually reached due to the lush and interesting textures or implied surfaces rather than convoluted melodies. This is no Jazz album after all, despite Joël Vandroogenbroeck being a Jazz musician and capable of creating sophisticated tone sequences. But these are decidedly not the point here. And most importantly: this release is not gimmicky. You will not find it at the cash till area in a gas station next to a tourist area. It is probably closer to the New Age genre, the Ethnic label or the less than optimal World Music categorization. Exotica listeners, however, who love and buy many of their LP's, CD's or the download versions for the large pool of instruments rather than the jazzy or symphonic frame among them will find South East Asia to be a great addition to their collection.


The novelty factor might be slim, for there are loads of similar albums, but I honestly do not know too many of these serious works anyway, as I prefer the plain old-fashioned vintage side of Exotica. Given these prospects, Joël Vandroogenbroeck's work is highly intriguing to me and adds both a great depth and honest transcendence which are usually out to lunch on virtually all convivial Exotica releases of yore, so to speak. The centerpiece to my mind is undoubtedly the zither-heavy Sunrise Over Singapore, followed by the dusky ambience of Evening Meditation. Don't let the stereotypical track titles fool you! Both compositions are gorgeous entities that unite the vestigial melodies with the exotic aura of their textures and characteristic traits. Listening to the whole album in one go might cause an overdose of that certain New Age flavor that is usually so despised. So entangle it with your favorite Exotica cuts, and you should be fine. At the time of writing this review, South East Asia is available at a fair price on iTunes.


Exotica Review 199: Joel Vandroogenbroeck – South East Asia (1985). Originally published on Mar. 30, 2013 at