Mondo Exotica

The most entertaining thing about recommending books is imagining the acrobatics that bibliophiles are obliged to perform in the Venezuelan desert of foreign currency in order to obtain foreign works. (Currency control has existed here for nearly eight years and Venezuelan citizens have a very limited hard currency allowance for travel or online shopping.)

Books on music fall into two categories: illegible technical farragoes and passionate free-flowing studies. I am inclined towards the latter. (Lacán demonstrated that mathematical formulae do not exist without their expression in everyday language.) Here is one of these books: Mondo Exotica: suoni, visioni e manie della Generazione Cocktail by Francesco Adinolfi (Italian: Einaudi; English: Duke University Press). In this fabulous compendium on the great cultural shift of the 1950s and ’60s – when an aesthetic of artifice and high-fidelity sound was birthed among caricatures of the exotic – Adinolfi explains, classifies and resurrects the passions of an era that sought only one thing: fun.

Exoticism is above all an escape from routine, and the complex roots of this movement, as this study reveals, can be found in the 19th century with Bizet, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy and later Ravel in the liminal phase of the 20th century. But these frontiers of Orientalist or Iberian exploration were shattered when Hollywood, that great creator and consumer of orchestral scores, shifted to Incan, Caribbean or African influences. At first everything was caricature, but from the uncomfortable crucible of Hollywood promiscuity arose languages that were appreciated forty years later for very different reasons: the Incan princess Yma Sumak and her orchestrator Moises Vivanco (1954); Juan García Esquivel, master of unusual fusions; mambo king Pérez Prado or Ray Conniff, who said that trumpets and girls’ voices made a good pair. Some would include trifles such as Xavier Cugat and his chihuahua or Mancini and his Pink Panther, but Adinolfi manages to portray the importance of the Mondo Exotica with great erudition, especially when he connects musical and cinematic plots, starting with Fellini’s aesthetic Big Bang La Dolce Vita, in which the cultural cocktail is the pinnacle of elegance.

Mondo Exotica is the account of an indispensable intrusion; of how extra-musical factors influence sound creation; a great tale of how fashion, that volatile whim, seeks artists capable of expressing its fragile and fleeting lightness. Space-age pop, spy-jazz, lounge music or bachelor apartment music, Hawaiian style, voodoo… From all this popularization of intermingled (and often imagined) languages emerges a cultural workshop, a laboratory of ideas that attain their ultimate value when the observer is distant enough to see them as alien codes, albeit decipherable or danceable ones.

We no longer hear this music firsthand. We study it as we might study a hairpiece of the era or laugh at a mask in a carnival. Through the complex process of intelligent listening we reach the core of what characterizes the exotic in relation to the European; we grasp the root concepts juxtaposing popular and cult, vulgar and refined. We rarely see texts that handle so many dates, discographies and filmographies, so much information and crucial biographical gossip, without losing the reader. Above all, music is not simply a universe of sounds but a universe of ideas.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

About pauldesenne

Composer / Writer
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