Finding your voodoo
The delicate touch of Robert Drasnin
Exotica became big in the 1950s and had a revival in the 2000s which fuelled modern lounge. It's a reimagining of exotic settings in mostly the South Seas, Asia and Africa. The sound is mallet instruments, wispy flutes, hand drums, Chinese gongs, imitated animal noises and wordless vocals that are mostly sensual, sometimes eerie. The album covers typically feature a woman in skimpy animal print outfit, surrounded by ethnic musicians against a stylized island or jungle backdrop. “At its best, it's smooth and melodic, warm and exotic, sophisticated, sexy, and won't give you apoplexy!” said Robert Drasnin, who produced one of the genre’s classic albums.
One track is enough to convert you to the music of Robert Drasnin. It is “Chant of the Moon”, the opener on his classic album Voodoo. Just over two minutes long, it has everything that defines exotica. Delicate bongos set the scene, a triangle comes in and then wordless, dreamy vocals carry the tune – the perfect start to one of the style’s best-loved albums.
Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman and Les Baxter were the big names in late fifties lounge. Robert did mostly TV themes until he was asked by a record label to write some of that “exotic stuff”. He was given free rein – he could compose 12 new pieces and do what he liked with the orchestration. He came up with Voodoo, which was enough to make him join the ranks of the greats.
This is how Robert described the recording in an interview with music historian Jeff Chenault: “The personnel were slightly different on the two sessions. I was only able to use the singer, Sally Terri, on one of the sessions and John Williams (yes, THE John Williams) played piano on the first date. One interesting aspect of the recording was assigning the distribution of all the various percussion sounds in the stereo field – a fairly recent development at the time. Of course, we recorded everything in complete takes – no cutting, splicing or over-dubbing.”
His take on exotica was minimalist – short, precise tracks by an artists who clearly had a solid grounding in arranging and composition. There are hints of his jazz background throughout and the quiet piano is a highlight.
Robert was born in Charleston in 1927 and did some war duty before he majored in music at UCLA and hit the road as an alto sax player with Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown, and other big bands. After time in the Korean war he studied music composition and became an associate conductor of the UCLA Symphony. As musical director for CBS he wrote scores for shows like Twilight Zone, Hawaii 5-0 and Mission: Impossible, while finding time in between to do soundtracks for films like The Kremlin Letter.Four decades after Voodoo, there was a sudden surge of interest in exotica again. Robert did a sequel, 48 years after the original release, and started performing the music live. His take on the lasting appeal of the genre: “At its best, it’s smooth and melodic, warm and exotic, sophisticated, sexy, and won’t give you apoplexy! It's not Stravinsky or Charlie Parker, but it does go nicely with tall, cool drinks and thoughts of a faraway tropical paradise!”
Robert Drasnin died on 13 May 2015 at the age of 87. He’s remembered as an elegant composer, teacher, mentor and musician. The 39 minutes of Voodoo is just a small part of what he achieved.
A country of music
For a serious music fan, this is quite a confession to make. I listened to Giant Sand for the first time last week. I know. A venerated, influential band that's been around for three decades, with an intriguing front man, Howe Gelb, often called the godfather of an entire genre.
I read about music the way some people devour recipe books. Recently I got the idea to work through an old edition of 1 001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. The plan was to give all of them a listen, to expand my taste and shake up my brain a bit. Once again, as in similar books, Giant Sand loomed large. This time I lent them my ear. I tracked down one of their mentioned classics, Chore of Enchantment, put my dislike of all things country on hold and listened.
I don't see myself investigating every corner of alt. country, but Giant Sand is bigger than the genre they pioneered. While listening, I browsed for more about the group and came across an excellent overview in The Quietus. It includes this quote from Gelb: “Perhaps people's allegiances in this world aren't so geographical, nationalistically speaking, but their nations are more sonic. The same music is being heard and cherished in Japan, as well as in Denmark, as well as in South Africa. What if existence is so much a state of mind that you determine your own country by what you listen to?”
There I was sitting in Cape Town in the name-checked South Africa, being drawn in by songs in a style well outside my usual musical habitat. It is adventurous, melancholy, insightful, unbound by genres or trends.
Music might not define where you fit in, but it does have the power to make you feel part of a bigger world even when yours seems to be shrinking. This happens before you know it - work, chores, routine, tedium can put blinkers on even the most inquisitive eyes. There comes a day when you find yourself not looking around and taking in any more, but rather treading overfamiliar paths. Music often pulls me out of this rut. Reading about music and digging for new or old treasure can open my bleary eyes again.
1 001 Albums… covers hundreds of albums I would never have tried, could not find, or missed for whatever reason. Many still don't move me even though I can appreciate their strengths and appeal. Giant Sand, though, tug on a few dusty strings that haven't been plucked in a while.
At the end of my trip through all those rated albums, I'll hopefully be left with spirits lifted, mind refreshed and several new musical allegiances - one of them will be to Giant Sand.
Playing the outlaw
The Voëlvry album
On Saturday 1 October 1988, Northern Transvaal was beating Western Province by one point in the Currie Cup rugby final in Pretoria. I was in the studio in Crown Mines, Johannesburg, with sound ghuru Warrick Sony. We were recording Voëlvry. It took self-control not to drool on the rack of pro synths with their full-sized, touch-sensitive keys, especially once my little bassline boomed from the studio monitors.
For a man who had made the demo on a Yamaha Portasound, this was heaven. Loops and samples were not an option, so I had to play in every synth line by hand and start over if I made a mistake. Then I moved in behind the microphone. I'm so shy about singing in front of people that I asked Warrick to turn away.
The next night (I think) some of the musicians featured on this ground-breaking album gathered at the Shifty Records studio to dream up a name for the compilation. We couldn't. Next thing I knew, I got my free copy of the record in the post and saw it had been named after my song. Voëlvry means "outlawed" and fitted perfectly with the movement and the lively campus concert tour that followed (I didn't perform, obviously).
Another surprise on first listening to the record: I had an idea for a guitar solo in the bridge. It sounded horrible and mercifully producer Lloyd Ross replaced it with a mimimalist synth bit. He might have saved the song from extinction.
Soon after we shot the video at a popular hang-out in Cape Town. I don't remember the date or much detail, but I must have been the director's worst nightmare, since I came from the Robert Palmer school of vocals: like a bad ventriloquist, I moved my lips only slightly. One of the UCT drama students who were acting as extras diplomatically asked: “Can't you try to open your mouth a bit more?” I couldn't. One last ordeal was a live TV interview to explain the meaning of the song before the video debuted on an SABC youth show. They were worried parents might take it the wrong way.
Thanks to Lloyd for uploading all the videos in Shifty's 25th anniversary month. I got to see mine after many years. Not that bad, actually, and our three-year-old is running about shouting: “Pappa was on the ’puter, he sings ‘fool fray, fool fray’.” For the time being, his dad is his hero along with Spider-Man.
Watch the clip on Youtube. It's from an album that made a strong statement and was great fun at the same time. Thanks to Shifty for letting me be part of it.
There is something free and reckless in the art of budding stars in their late teens or early twenties. It's as exciting and volatile as spring weather and passes as quickly as it appeared.
Science says the prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain that matures. It's fully functional at around 22, when it starts planning, making decisions and moderating behaviour.
Wild teens, reckless students… Blame a premature prefrontal. Those young guns don't give a damn. Yet. And that comes in handy when making art.
When she turned 15, Mallu Magalhaes asked her folks to give her money instead of presents. She had been playing guitar since eight and writing songs since 12. With the cash she recorded four demos, shot some videos and uploaded them. A year later she recorded her debut album and soon became a Brazilian star.
She made her US debut with Highly Sensitive, a batch of songs picked from her three earlier albums. She sings the English in a casual American drawl. Some tracks are in Portuguese or French. The overall sound is bright, playful and refreshing. No compromises — if it sounds right, it stays. The lyrics are all heart: “Lonely, no you'll never be lonely again ”.
Hopefully that prefrontal cortex won't rein Mallu in too much. Overthinking and too much control would spoil what she offers. There's nothing wrong with maturing, but no reason to become inhibited. Sometimes it's good not to give a damn.