Les Baxter
Soul Of The Drums






The Soul Of The Drums is a mercilessly tropical album by composer, arranger and Exotica luminary Les Baxter (1922–1996), released in 1963 on Reprise Records and licensed to various other labels, sporting 12 tracks in total – two of them renditions – and multiplexing the two Latin styles of Cha Cha Cha and Samba with superb symphonic Space-Age strings, bucolic big band brass bursts and cavalcades of drums par excellence. The album is a culmination point of some sort, a superimposition of the composer’s utterly drum-focused Skins! (1957) and his more melodious adventures such as the aquatic Jewels Of The Sea (1961) and countless other examples.


The Soul Of The Drums is no more remarkable than any other of Baxter’s albums of one’s choice, but does thankfully emit a strictly uplifting, mirthful aura which is only fugaciously interrupted – or alternatively improved – by mystical heterodynes, otherworldly phantasms and ritualistic drum patterns. It is not as cineastic as his first forerunner and pre-Exotica blueprint Ritual Of The Savage (1951), but this works to its advantage, as the flow or fluxion is uninterrupted. While there are a few pinpointable real-world locations such as Kowloon and Rio on board, this is no dedicated travelog LP rather than a concoction of delight. What role do the drums play? How do the melodies unfold? And why are these things of importance in an Easy Listening work? Someone’s gonna explicate these things below.


This would not be a Les Baxter album if there were no compositions dedicated to adolescent girls and women on this album, and sure enough, the opener The Girl Behind The Bamboo Curtain both glorifies female intuition and beauty; this, however, does not happen via whitewashed strings but in the shape of a rather uplifting upper midtempo Latin base frame. The congas, tonewoods and diffuse maracas create a dense thicket which is lit by polyphonic fairy flutes, warmhearted pianos, short vibraphone additions and many brass instruments. Shuttling between excitement and soothingness, the opener is everything at once, but first and foremost utterly exotic. The odd follow-up Lord, What A Morning by Michael Carlton Clough is a true-spirited Gospel gone wild. Launching with rufescent sunset guitars and yearning strings, the constant bongocalypse nurtures and drives the tempo ever-forward. Mellifluous flutes and distant horn spirals traverse through the percussion placenta, which is later revved up, as are the strings around which a female vocalist orbits. Occasional show tune-resembling protrusions round off a Latinized corker.


Another girl comes along, it is called Coffee Bean And Calabash Annie. In true Cha Cha style complete with ligneous guiros and an enchanting mixture of jungular marimbas, moist vibraphones and Crime Jazz-evoking towering brass instruments, the composition is torn into two parts, with the latter augmenting the alternative rhythm scheme with glowing piano chords and mellower horns. Whatever the current state ofthe composition, it evokes the verdure of a rain forest.


Sunrise At Kowloon, meanwhile, sports the archetypical but utterly welcome string lachrymosity Baxter is predominantly known for even outside the Exotica bubble. Instead of painting a still life, said sunrise is jazzed up with clinging tambourines, orchestra bells and drum goodness and thus depicts the bustling scenery of Hong Kong’s famous harbor. Ending with a harp glissando and oddly dubious, almost portentous tone sequences, it eventually makes room for the riminiesque critter Which Doctor?, a James Last-like singalong tune loaded with la la la lyrics sung by a joyful mixed choir that becomes increasingly histrionic. The drum textures are very much in the spotlight, Italy’s Capri panorama clashes with São Paulo’s tropical density, with the stupefyingly silkened string panorama Mai Tai rounding off side A. Envisioned by Los Angeles discjockey Ira Cook, Baxter grafts pizzicato strings onto the cowbell-interspersed percussion riverbed and adds legato counterparts as well as glockenspiel-backed flute tones in order to boost the cute beatitude. A highly delightful piece that is mercilessly euphonious.


Side B opens with the swinging A Day In Rio, and what a trip this one is! Injecting heavily churning and scrawling percussion helixes which are nontheless soothing and streamlined, they are slaves to the flute-reed couples and slapped harp strings. The mood is all about laissez-faire, neither all too euphorious nor too introverted. Big props to the choir who bursts into wordless Space-Age chants which saturate the greenery of this parallax diorama. River Of Dreams follows, the only truthful piece with an entirely mellow circumambience of softened drums and flute washes and adjacent helical vibraphone droplets, and indeed, this piece is explicitly enchanting, but sports a second part with frantic drums that harken back to the album title. While the third and last femme Nina features a breakneck physiognomy whose densely layered speed is supercharged with gorgeous pizzicato strings, benign legato brethren and vibraphone vestibules, it is the slow Cha Cha Cha theme Shadow Of Love And The Enchanted Reef which is truly superb and carefully balanced to happily unite the dun-colored arcana with an incandescent exoticism. Rose-tinted string washes and Pagan flutes on the one hand meet downwards spiraling marimbaphone turbulences and majestic brass scents, all of them held together by croaking guiros and vesiculating drums.


Whereas Jacaranda sees a Samba rhythm unleashed, with many plinking cowbells and screeching flutes added to the aural landscape whose endpoint is the one (and only) instance of a Chinese gong, the closer Ceremony looks back to Baxter’s aforementioned Ritual Of The Savage concept-wise and to his drum-heavy Skins! texture-wise. Fans of Chaino or Tito Puente’s Top Percussion (1957) will rejoice, as this is a pure, adamant drum escapade, showcasing anything else but… the soul of the drums.


The Soul Of The Drums is not cited or considered as often as Les Baxter’s other shiny Exotica albums. Considering that in 1963, the artist already has 12+ years of experience in a genre whose term was not officially coined until the beginning of 1957, and taking into account that Baxter aurally revisits tropical climates till the late 70’s, this particular album can be seen as a melting pot of ideas, genres and styles. Sure, the drums are upfront, but The Soul Of The Drums could have been named entirely differently, for even though they are dense and multilayered, the melodies and surfaces live, breathe and shine as well. Shuttling between Latin Cha Cha Cha and Samba rhythms, Les Baxter makes sure to inject his trademark ingredients such as dazzlingly beautiful strings, flute and brass embroideries as well as strongly hummable melodies, for once a choir is on board, even shower singers can sing along to the scenery.


The Soul Of The Drums is never opaque or pernicious, the only odd mood range consists of mildly enigmatic tone sequences – Shadow Of Love And The Enchanted Reef comes to mind in particular – or outright savage drums as in the outro Ceremony, but the rest is a wondrous journey through harmonious overtones and colorful vistas. The best, I think, is yet to come: if you deem this album valuable and worth your while, check out Don Tiare’s quintet renditions of Baxter’s symphonies on the album The Music Of Les Baxter, released in the same year and featuring four tunes off The Soul Of The Drums in an obviously less pompous but even more exotic way. Les Baxter’s album is available on vinyl, CD and in a digital version on iTunes, Amazon MP3 and cohorts.


Exotica Review 288: Les Baxter – The Soul Of The Drums (1963). Originally published on Dec. 7, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.