James Last






Voodoo-Party is a singalong Funk Exotica critter by the world-famous bandleader, arranger and songwriter James Last (1929-2015), released in 1971 on Polydor Records at a time when the hippie movement belatedly reached German shores. Now it has really come to this: I am reviewing a James Last LP! But the reasons the Hamburg-based leader gives with this work are good and justifiable. While all of his albums with the term Party in their title altogether draw from hippiedom, unleash quirky lyrics and are draped in a cheesy aura of togetherness and comradeship – not to mention the various bonfire and camping allusions – Voodoo-Party is quite a bit better than its brethren. Not only are there two instrumentals on board, no, the majority of the remaining ten tracks is good enough. Even though the choir might spoil a few of the arrangements, the euphony of the interplay and interdependence is tastefully concocted.


Bass guitars and electric guitars boost the funkiness further, so much so that Voodoo-Party could be seen as the rightful predecessor of Geoff Love’s and Norman Newell‘s Mandingo project, a group of session musicians who took the Afro-Bop movement as the base and ennobled it with Funk and Exotica ingredients from 1972–1975. James Last’s album is tamer and less sanguine in comparison, but a few sections cannot only compete with Mandingo, they occasionally outshine the British fellows’ visions due to the catchiness of the brass prongs. Voodoo-Party may be much lighter, easier on the ears and as colorful as the druggy front artwork, but it is certainly comparable. Read more about the dobs and duds below and which lively compositions today’s Exotica listeners never knew but should not miss.


The front artwork of James Last's related BeachParty (1970),
the first of six volumes, begging the question: where's Waldo?


Se A Cabo is the wondrously uplifting and fulminant opener, originally envisioned by Santana percussionist José Chepitó Areas and presented here in a well-balanced big band setting par excellence, i.e. without the almighty ubiquity of the band’s brass players. Launching the soundscape with mysterious congas whose staccato and pressure increase, it is the bongo blebs and plinking rhythm sticks which soon enough complete the percussive thicket and make room for bass guitars and towering horns which are silky enough to not destroy the balance of the arrangement. Show tune-like hooks, sizzling-hot Rock organ washes and electric guitars supercharged with coolness and independence round off the bustling atmosphere. Throughout its runtime, the percussion layers live up to the album title, that is if the listener is keen on accepting James Last’s audacity of somewhat ridiculing the Haitian voodoo custom. Se A Cabo is cool, it is positively hip – without any trace of hippiedom – and allows a form of escapism akin to car chases in Hollywood movies. A great intro! Sylvester Stewart’s Sing A Simple Song sees Last focusing on another style, as this long piece of almost five minutes depicts a strolling prowler in a cool city awash with light. After the futuristic-Gothic static noise-like glissando of a square lead synthesizer, the Funk appears big time in this midtempo critter, with euphonious brass stabs, bubbling bass guitars, conga blebs and yeah, yeah chants by the tousled mixed choir. Add the legato washes of the Hammond organ, and you got yourself a scintillating Funk anthem whose enigmatic prelude only adds to the polylayered goodness. Not particularly exotic, but the permanent presence of the hot percussion scheme adds a pinch of the tropics nonetheless.


The following Heyah Masse-Ga is a cagey concoction by James Last, allegedly based on a traditional Haitian song. No way, mein Herr! Notwithstanding my skepticism, the tune provides a wild ride due to its absolutely stunning percussion omnipotence: congas, bongos, hi-toms, kick drums and cymbals create a fluxion that takes everything with it, be it the titular lyrics by the muffled and lackluster choir, the superbly rising euphony of the brass prongs or the comparatively laid-back undulation of the organ, it all does not matter, Heyah Masse-Ga is fast, blithesome and accessible. Mamy Blue by Hubert Yves Adrien Giraud and Theophilus Trim then not only returns to the midtempo structure of Sing A Simple Song, but mimics its acroamatic-spacey launch phase as well, kicking things off with brazen gunmetal drones and wonkily elasticized dark matter pads which open the scenery for threnodic Italo house accents, "old Mamy Blue" chants and French Funk guitars. This is unfortunately one of those claptrap infusions James Last is known for. Despite the Pagan alto flute streams in the background, the dusky horns and the incessantly vigorous percussion fundament, Mamy Blue is simply de trop and not my cup of tea. Thankfully, the last two tracks of side A succeed and widen the stylistic range further.


Babatunde Olatunji’s consideration is already a corker in the given prospect, but that James Last goes for Jin-Go-Lo-Ba is a coup de main! For almost four minutes, tribalistic bongos and congas become intertwined with screeching electric guitars and rather melancholic organ rivers. The choir sings the song title and boosts the feeling of watching a sunset over the African Steppe. Especially the electric guitar foreshadows the Funk movement and Geoff Love’s Mandingo project which launched only a few months later. Jin-Go-Lo-Ba is a sign of the times, a hybrid fusion of Funk with Exotica. It is followed by the brutish Mr. Giant Man, co-written by James Last with longtime collaborator Joachim Bendorff and featuring Barry Roy Reeves. Faking the concept of voodoo most excellently in the first few seconds, the composition opens with a bone-crushing beat, clinging tambourines and belly-massaging overdriven guitar chords. A faux-African deep voice assures the listeners that he is their friend. More of a Santa Claus impression than a voodoo priest, this guy named Reeves toasts along to the easygoing five-note melody, with the mixed choir worshipping their guru in a smarmy manner, aptly underpinned by jocular horns. 


So far, Voodoo-Party succeeds with its friendlier, more amicable anticipation of the successful Mandingo shtick, and James Last continues to walk this path with ease on side B by interpreting Santana’s Everybody’s Everything. The impetus of the most frantic upbeat rhythm is unfortunately a bit lessened by all too schmaltzy mixed choir chants. The organ shrapnel and the coruscating brass blasts, however, work well really well in adjacency to the specifically strident percussion shrubbery. Another Sylvester Stewart tune is next: Everyday People unleashes fleshed out drum protuberances in an otherwise lackluster Gospel-evoking singalong shanty with awfully superfluous "na na na" portions whose flippancy led to carnage and mayhem when the band would walk down Haitian streets while singing this tune. Let us hope that no one assigns the seal of the best interpretation of Everyday People to the over-the-top performance of James Last’s band.


Thankfully, the very best song of side B follows in the shape of U-Humbah, another unique track by James Last which mirrors the opener Se A Cabo in that it unchains marvelously quavering organ vesicles, majestic drums and pompous horns draped in twilight. Wah-wah guitars, "u-humbah" chants and the reappearing climaxes make this the best faux-British tune, injections of danger and adventure included! A feast!


Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues is another hybrid which enchants with its tropical thicket, stomping piano chords and the illumined atmosphere of a concrete jungle, but suffers from the poor vocal range of the choir. A pity, for this city-based midtempo piece is strikingly catchy. The best treat for Exotica fans follows: Margarita Lecuona’s Babalu is a solemn downtempo piece with gorgeously silkened alto flutes, meandering bongos and a turquoise-tinted pinewood mystique which is irritatingly transformed into Mexican climes due to the gleaming horns. The euphony culminates into a gorgeous rhythm change with paradisiac flute spirals, but once the enjoyment is in place, the song is already over, making room for the partly psychedelic finale called Voodoo Ladys Love by the trio of Last, Bendorff and Reeves. Rolling thunder greets the listener, the titular voodoo lady – more of an antediluvian witch really – dishes her gibberish and laughs manically. Crows fly in the air, a traveler tells the story about how he decided to drink the witches brew. Once this happens, the song goes nuts with a synthetic glissando of synthesizer strings which fly to galactic orbits, leading to the final chorus of an all female choir who is underlined by blazingly bright organs and mirthful horns before the album ends for good.


Voodoo-Party is a very compelling album in terms of its arrangements, but not necessarily in regard to Last’s approach of the subject itself. As expected, the voodoo marker is only used for marketing reasons, not one single tune is a dedicated, truthful depiction of Haitian origin. Notwithstanding this price that has to be paid within the boundaries of plastic Easy Listening albums, Voodoo-Party makes one particularly important thing right, and that is the percussion prowess. The various congas, bongos and djembes sound punchy and intimidating. Thankfully, they are present in each and every arrangement. This is admittedly the only instrument-related remainder of Haitian proportions, with the over-the-top faux-rapping of Barry Roy Reeves on two tracks being a potential second Haiti-resembling peculiarity, if also an unnecessarily poeticizing one, to circumscribe it in a complaisant manner.


As usual, the mixed choir of young and hip people can be seen as a hit-or-miss affair, but its inclusion is expected in James Last’s albums of the 60’s and 70’s. Sometimes the lyrics work surprisingly well, especially so in the downright semi-psychedelic closer Voodoo Ladys Love, but there are enough occurrences which could be all too alienating to the listener. Naturally, Voodoo-Party is no dedicated Exotica album in the vintage sense, but its hyper-funky rhizomes are classy and fully embraceable. The horns gleam and shimmer in benign colors, the inclusion of an alto flute adds a Pagan flair despite the streamlined melodies, and the transportation of the listener to open cities is successful as well. From the material of Santana over Exotica fleeting visits in the form of Margarita Lecuona’s Babalu to the hyperventilating instrumentals with their eclectic drum patterns, Voodoo-Party is one of James Last’s better parties. Fans of Mandingo and African fusion should pre-listen. The album is available on vinyl, CD and as a download version. 


Exotica Review 248: James Last – Voodoo-Party (1971). Originally published on Aug. 10, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.