The first time I heard exotica music, it was strange, only somewhat familiar and I didn’t know what to do with it or how to react to it. It had a hypnotic beat but was a strange merging of big band, Lawrence Welk ((I’m dating myself), a little space-age but with a carribean cha-cha-cha flavor and definitely that retro ‘50s and ‘60s sound that makes some of us nostalgic.
I recently heard Brian O’Neill, the founder and leader of exotica band, Mr Ho’s Orchestrotica and the Exotica Quartet, recently interviewed on NPR and it was fascinating. They were playing at the Cambridge YMCA January 14th and it was a CD Release show called “The Unforgettable Sounds of Esquivel”. A film crew was documenting the event as part of a documentary on Juan Garcia Esquivel, one of the early pioneers of this music. O’Neill’s band was paying homage to this great band leader on this night. I arrived to a packed theatre, which surprised me. I was sure that, besides a couple of other people, I was nearly the only one who heard about this sort of music.
I wasn’t prepared for this amount of audio and visual stimulation. A 23-piece band and every possible sort of instrument you can imagine mesmerized this audience for about 90 minutes. The front of the theatre and the stage was packed with instruments of all sorts. Five keyboards including a beautiful, wooden xylophone about 20 feet long, percussion including timpanis, congas and other sorts of drums and percussive instruments, an accordion, pedal steel guitar, upright bass, and four talented vocalists—all on the floor area of the intimate theatre with a Leslie to propel all this. Eleven wind and brass musicians crowded the small stage.
My musical preferences are towards jazz, blues, R&B and pretty much anything with a beat. But this was all new to me. Some of the tunes were beautiful arrangements of jazz standards but with a quirky and sometimes humorous twist. Night and Day, Take the A Train, Sentimental Journey and Dancing in the Dark were just a few on the standards I remember from this memorable evening.
The sound filled the room. It was stunning. It was humorous. Most notable is that every musician there was at the top of their game (It seemed like all 23 had a solo) and in total step with each other--and O'Neill was spectacular, with seemingly effortless motions as he conducted this enormous collection of talent and glided from one instrument to another. They were having fun and never missed a beat͟, perfect precision every step of the way. I was blown away. Really. So I’m on the mailing list and this won’t be my last exotica experience.