Tahitian Rhythms and Jungle Drums

Thurston Knudson - Augie Goupil & Their Jungle Rhythmists
Tahitian Rhythms and Jungle Drums LP (Decca, 1956)

There is International music and then there is the major label approximation of it: Exotica. In the last 20 years, plenty has been written about exotica, so I will be brief. For the few of you who don't know what it is: Exotica is an easy listening style which attempts to give the listener an "exotic" experience by mixing tropical/jungle sound effects, "tribal" drumming, and musical cliche that invokes a "foreign" sound with small group cool jazz. Sometimes the music has a dark or noir feeling to it, something that evokes the mysterious - in this case distant lands and unknown people. There is often a back "history" to music, such as story of the "Inca princess" Yma Sumac. The image is also important - the sexy, slightly foreign looking yet mysterious cover models of Martin Denny records or the undeniably exotic looking Korla Pandit and his mesmerizing stare. Those with surface knowledge of exotica think that the music must have tropical sound effects in it and hears the sounds as kitsch. Exotica does not need sound effects, what it needs is a mood. In fact, while exotica might come off as kitsch, what it really is is a con. That the sleight of hand (or in this case ears) sounds kitsch, just shows that the con is dated. But at the time (1950s & early 60s), many people bought the exotica story because they were looking for something outside their 9 - 5 suburban existence. Kids had rock & roll, but what of the adults who had spent some time overseas in WWII and wanted something that reminded them of adventure and discovery? Exotica fulfilled that need. (And for others their restlessness was soothed by bebop. Think of exotica as the Holy Ghost in the trinity of American, post War musical escapism.)

The knock against exotica is that it is "fake," that it is sold on a false notion of what International music really is. But the argument against exotica's lack of authenticity can be made of Dizzy Gillespie's Afro-Cuban jazz, for Dizzy took bits from Latin music and incorporated them into a jazz medium? And what about soundtrack music? Does that not attempt to manipulate the listener by creating a mood in nontraditional ways? Or Aaron Copeland's Billy the Kid? Copeland mixes "traditional" cowboy music and "classical" in order to invoke a feeling of the Wild West. Is that authentic? Is the objection due to the jungle sounds? Are they any more inauthentic than Erik Satie's use of sound effects in his work? Again, others have argued about this elsewhere so I won't waste too much more space with this, other than to write that it is best to listen to exotica as a musical form and try to forget the tribal masks, the tiki torches, and the record covers and listen to the music as music.

I ask that you approach these recording with the above in mind, because if you are looking at Tahitian Rhythms & Jungle Drums as a close approximation of Island music, I am going to fail you. Thoug one of the artists, Augie Goupil was born in Tahiti, he was, from the age eight, raised in Berkeley, California. Thurston Knudson also spent some time in Berkeley (and Oakland and San Francisco) as a student and teacher, as well as a drummer. In the Bay Area, he came up with some crackpot theories about slavery and music, and sought to find the origin of "jazz rhythm patterns." Where better place to crack the jazz code than Tahiti? I'm not sure if it was in Berkeley or Tahiti where Goupil and Knudson met, but their meeting was fruitful. Together they made some records of "authentic" Tahitian music and worked on soundtracks of movies set in the South Pacific. Goupil also made some "Tahitian jazz" records, while Knudson made a few more "jungle drum" records. This is one of their makings.

Finding real traditional music from Oceania takes a little bit of work, especially if you are taking the used record route. Much of what was made under the tag of Polynesian, Tahitian, or Fijan is really slightly traditional music watered down for the consumption of tourists. You are more likely to hear an island flavored version of Norwegian Wood than you are authentic folk from Fiji. There are also hundreds of volumes of "traditional" drum records (this one included) that propose to give the listener insight into the primal rhythms of the Island Nations. While some are real traditional songs done by real Islanders on real island instruments, too many are either a bunch of guys pounding on shit in some Los Angeles studio or dudes like Goupil & Knudson knowing just enough to pull a con but also being in the thralls of show biz. My advise for those wanting a real Island listening experience is to check out the Ethnic Folkways and Nonesuch Explorer series.

That Goupil and Knudson are not doing traditional Tahitian music is pretty obvious to anyone with a bit of knowledge about both geography and International music. While the liner notes claim that G & K are the real deal, how does one explain a song like Rhumba Uganda or Samba Tembo being on a Tahitian record, other than Knudson's interests in African music (and even so, here he is approximating a Latin American bastardization of African music). And what of Goupil's vocal effects? Scat singing? The Oceanianic origins of freestyle? Or more show biz? Think about this as what it claims to be, as the conmen would like you to, and the music fails. So, as I advise with all exotica, look at it as exotica and forget the con. The con is dead and has been for at least 40 years. Take in the music as music and be entertained.

Great anaylsis of the exotica phenomenon. For all the renewed attention '50s/'60s exotica has gotten since the Incredibly Strange Music books, it's the records that masqueraded as "authentic" (like Tahitian Rhythms) that seem to be forgotten in favor of the Baxters, Lymans, Dennys, etc. Tahitian Rhythms is very National Geographic.

Anyway, I love all of it.
Hey Scott,
Great review of this LP(Tahitian Rhthyms) and your great observations and theories on the whole exotica thing.
I've been a collector of tiki-exotica-bachelor pad-Hawaiian-bossa nova-misc. latin records since about 1975, long before it was a common "genre"... this exotica thing(real or authentic).
I actually loved the 2 volume book Incredibly Strange Music, and always hoped for vol. 3, 4, etc. as there are just so many cool/strange LPs out there.
I like that most of your LPs cost in the $3 to $5 range.
I go to thrift stores in my travels and love crate digging(usually 50 cents to $1 each) in the overflowing stacks they have, even better if most of it looks like the same-old-muzak stuff... this keep the average rare Beatles, Moog and other collectors/dealers from wanting to dig thru the crates. Many of them have no patience and want or need to keep a very narrow focus on what they will buy.
It's even better when I find a rarity in my crate digging at record stores. I was at one today in Los Angeles where they have impressive display of high-priced rock, blues and jazz LPs on the wall($50-1,200 range). In their $1 each bargain boxes on the floor I found this same Tahitian Rhythms LP in good shape... for $1. One copy of it on eBay currently at $100, and it's a colorful Decca label. Mine is the black and silver Decca label, DL 8216, hard disc, likely more mono than the newer edition.
It's amazing that a record store that prides itself in having the rare Hendrix, Hondelles, Miles Davis and John Lee Hooker LPs can overlook such a gem as this one.
Thanks for your great blog site! I'll explore it and read lots of it in the coming month.
-Hunter, Highway Cinema (a 16mm cinema)
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