Today, Real Gone Music brings back a lost little gem from the absurdly extensive catalog of easy listening kingpin Les Baxter: His 1963 multi-ethnic set for Reprise, The Soul of the Drums.
Along with Martin Denny and Esquivel, Baxter was a big part of the “Exotica” sound that took off in Middle American living rooms in the late ‘50s. The marketing promise, underscored by the outlandish and sometimes racy covers, was simple: Put on a Baxter record, and in no time at all, you’ll be transported to some sultry destination where the Mai Tais flow and the steady call of the conga drum melts your cares away. Don’t worry, those comforting strings will be there too.
Baxter was constantly on the lookout for sounds and trends he could colonize. He wrote full albums devoted to a single region or style; he did mambo and samba at commercially advantageous times. He coordinated and produced a few great vocal albums (Yma Sumac’s still radiant debut Voice Of The Xtabay and a gauzy vocal group called the Balladeers that once featured David Crosby). Baxter sometimes mixed and matched his regional explorations to simulate a lively evening of society-function dancing – that’s what happens on The Soul of the Drums, it’s a tour of cha-cha and ballroom samba and lots of other vaguely exotic “exotica.”
There are reasons beyond kitsch to spend a few minutes with this light, undemanding music. Baxter’s arrangements were solid and jauntily choreographed, with fanciful Disney string swoonings punctuated by staccato percussion or rhapsodic harp glissandi. Even during intricate passages, the studio musicians sound at ease and unflappable – it’s nice to hear pros doing their thing. The drums that are the “stars” here are well recorded.
And here’s another music geek lure: The Soul of the Drums features Nigerian master percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, who, no surprise, gives the album a steady, profoundly grooving yet understated kick. There’s even a full drum ensemble feature, “Ceremony.” Music snobs might want to go there first.
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