A Night With
The Voodoo Family
The front cover — and AmbientExotica's header image — may sport a stock photograph taken in bright daylight, but A Night With The Voodoo Family shares a sentiment or two with crepuscular interstices and twilight jungles. Then again, brightness and cheerfulness are embroidered throughout its complexion as well. Released in 1965 on Columbia Records’ Sound 2 Stereo series for exceptional recording techniques and audio playback, the 12 compositions – five of them unique – are presented by one Don Tracy who is introduced to the potential buyer as an “authority of the voodoo cult with years of study.”
Not much else is known about his persona, but the liner notes do add tasty bits of information for a change that overcome the state of pointillistic language. It is revealed that eight vocalists, nine instrumentalists, two guitarists (melodies and rhythms) and five percussionists are the principal authorities of this drum-infested record. Brass flares, marimba molecules, piercing flutes and multiple layers of congas, timbales and other drums grace the craze. A Night With The Voodoo Family is one of those albums where British composers show off their skills. The works of Mandingo provided similar opportunities a few years later. Speaking of opportunities: Don Tracy’s work misses a lot… but also anticipates styles and trends! Here’s a closer look at an ultimately successful and very tempting drum record.
And off we go with the title track A Night With The Voodoo Family, one of many compositions written by Brian Fahey specifically for this album. A British arranger with a knack for drums, he sure knows how to make them viable in the given surroundings. After the gorgeous drum-infested parallax layers at the beginning, dark brass accents and jungle flutes enter the scenery, providing a kind of majestic sunrise whose verdured freshness works both as a counterpoint and a fitting injection in the wake of the battery of mephitic drums. The uplifting tempo is taken over to Dry Bones, a marimba-accentuated horn helix and interpretation of James Weldon Johnson’s Dem Bones. The drum fusillade is yet again breath-taking, and in tandem with the joyous brass blasts makes for a wildly convulsive experience as congas, djembes and bongos reach out to the listener from every corner.
Fahey’s One For The Pot then revs up the tempo yet again, resulting in a tachycardia made of woodpecker punctilios, pressing brass staccatos and wild flute profusions, whereas Rupert Bopape’s Tom Hark empties the bones via incredibly staggering drums and fittingly nasty Dixieland-esque trumpets. While Galt MacDermot’s African Waltz provides a benthic/viscid listening experience due to its moist swamp drums and matutinal yet cheeky melodic patterns, Don Tracy himself provides the finale of side A with Ritual Choir Dance, a fantastic piece complete with savage Space-Age males and a leading coquette within a complete ballpark of drums. Witticism and fun are the main ingredients, but the drums are of equal importance, making this the stellar highlight of the whole album.
Dante’s Inferno opens up side B and proves to be another concoction realized by Don Tracy. The result is especially polylayered, providing a fusion of oompah rhythms, the recondite aura of Bohemian horns, bellicose brass blasts and Afro-Cuban drum salvos that somehow manage to fit in the greater scheme. Up next is Candido Dimanlig’s and Xavier Cugat’s Jungle Flute which is greatly augmented here by an almost hypnotic galloping beat resembling more of a ride – or raid – through the prairie than a trip through a rubicund jungle, although the shrill fife with its turbulent vivacity sure enough provides the necessary link. Farting tubas and occasionally dreamy woodwinds round off a particularly memorable piece; the drums may be perfectly tame and in order, but this change of pace works well in the intrinsic realm of said track.
Don Tracy’s third submission is also his last: Wedding Of The Painted Warrior is a half-serious marimbalicious drum-filled void with incisive trumpets, dark counterpoints and semi-aqueous conga bubbles. The tone sequences themselves breathe dedication and contempt, the track’s occurrence on this album however annihilates any perception of this being a transcribed phylogenetic artifact. Arthur Wimperis’ and Mischa Spolliansky’s Canoe Song brings back that Hollywood angle of Africa, whatever that means. It usually means plastic but cheerful dreams. Sunlit male vocals are grafted onto percolating drum driblets, making this the most good-natured shanty of the LP. The penultimate song brings Brian Fahey back and is called Cannibals Carnival. Sporting a slightly Middle Eastern and lachrymose mood, the drum sections remain the best constituents, as the dark red of the melodies seems so out of place after the blithesome Canoe Song. The finale, however, brings back the good mood yet again, as it is an interpretation of the Mexican folk dance La Bamba. The cavalcade of drums works really well and gives the otherwise mellifluous melody are harder, more vibrant edge without neglecting its celebratory origin.
A Night With The Voodoo Family is a stupefying album that arrives a tad too late, yet just in time: it misses the important phase of 1959/1960 where shedloads of percussion albums flooded the market. Then again, it is a British record. The drum craze manifested itself a bit later there. Even more importantly though, Don Tracy and his fellow writers and studio musicians actually anticipate – and maybe even set – a trend that turned out to be big in the early 70’s, and that is faux-African music and songs inspired by the continent. Those albums are usually realized by big bands or inject the first cautious Disco and Funk vibes.
Don Tracy’s album is situated right in the middle of this well-crowded field, with these genres not yet established and the Exotica train riding into the sunset. So the release of A Night With The Voodoo Family turns out to be a great move in hindsight, although it isn’t considered a classic nowadays, unfortunately so. Don Tracy’s own compositions are the grand superstars of the album. In all of his pieces, the oomph of the drums is skillfully merged with great contrapuntal forces, weird but powerful melodies, sudden protuberances and eclectic intercommunications. One quickly adapts to the plasticity of the drums and their huge amount, so once this characteristic trait merges – or clashes – with histrionic melodies and other vivid transfigurations, astonishment and awe ensue. As is the case with most of Columbia’s Studio 2 Stereo material, A Night With The Voodoo Family is only available on vinyl, with a reissue pending in purgatory.
Exotica Review 470: Don Tracy – A Night With The Voodoo Family (1965). Originally published on May 11, 2016 at AmbientExotica.com.