Thursday, September 22, 2011

Les Baxter - Ritual Of The Savage (Le Sacre du Sauvage)


This one was certainly worth it for more than just the album cover. But what what an album cover it is. Take a moment to appreciate the composition: a modern couple donned in formal attire embrace in a garden framed by large "primitive" idols. But take a closer look at the couple. Are they embracing, or is the woman rebuffing an unwanted advance from her male partner? Perhaps she is trying to control her mate's savage instincts. Or perhaps he simply failed to set the proper mood for their romantic interlude. If only he had played his copy of Les Baxter's Ritual Of The Savage for her, the evening might have ended differently. Should Baxter's elegant exotica have failed to arouse her inner savage, he could always have pulled out his copy of Jackie Gleason's subtly titled, Music To Change Her Mind.


Gleason's album is a sophisticated variant of what was known as "mood music," soothing instrumental takes on standards such as "Dancing In The Dark" and "You And The Night And The Music." But why should the desperate bachelor of the 1950s turn to Les Baxter's mix of melody and jungle rhythms for romantic help?

The genre of "exotica," of which Baxter's album is arguably the first album-length example, is a complex cultural phenomena that I could not hope to unpack here. If I really wanted talk seriously about exotica, I'd have to touch on Freud, Social Darwinism, colonialism, and the specific post-war historical circumstances in which the genre became popular. But, fortunately for you, I do not want to talk about exotica seriously.

Instead, I would caution against taking an album like Ritual Of The Savage too seriously, as the exotica genre was surely full of a lot of tongue and cheek humor. For the hipster of the 1990s (yours truly included), the rediscovery of 50s exotica provided a welcome respite from the increasingly humorless onslaught of grunge. But not all of the revivalists may have been aware that the progenitors of the genre were in on the joke as well.

Consider this Capitol Records promotional document for Ritual Of The Savage (subtitled, no doubt in a nod to Stravinsky, Le Sacre du Sauvge) from 1951 that I discovered on the I'm Learning To Share blog:

Capitol Records magazine promo for Les Baxter's Ritual of the Savage LP, 1951.
Sourced from I'm Learning To Share blog. Click to enlarge.

The premise is a parody of the Hollywood "excursion" films that were popular during the 1930s, with Baxter as "Serge Drek" who guides steel wool heiress Griselde Kittle (Dottie O'Brien) into the heart of Africa in search of her missing sister, who may or may not be the fabled White Goddess (Gisele MacKenzie). Clearly no one involved with this album was taking the concept too seriously at the time.

Fortunately, a highly refined sense of irony is not necessary to appreciate the music contained in the grooves of this record. Kitsch value aside, the melodies that adorn such compositions as "Quiet Village," "Jungle Flower," and "Kinkajou" are gorgeous, and the propulsive African-style percussion really does create a sense of excitement that is missing from much of the other "mood music" of the period. Highly recommended. The album is available for download at the usual places, as well as packaged as a CD-twofer with another Baxter album, The Passions, on the Rev-Ola label.

1 comment:

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