Basically, the ideal music for me is early ’80s exotic Japanese synth-pop with fretless bass and steel drums. —Patrick South
Haruomi Hosono is best known as the bassist in the Yellow Magic Orchestra, but his solo career is just as interesting. Before joining founding YMO with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi, he played with psychedelic bands Apryl Fool, the folk-rock outfit Happy End, and the lounge-pop group Tin Pan Alley before starting on what ended up being called his “Exotica Trilogy” in the seventies.
America dreamt of a magical neverland with cloudless climes and starry skies (not to mention nubile natives) in the fifties — Martin Denny, Esquivel, Arthur Lyman, and Les Baxter made countless LPs with bird calls, marimbas, and steel drums setting the stage for the post-war peace. The beaches weren’t something you had to storm any more, you could just lie there and soak up the sun. Hosono asks that the exotic dream continue, but with himself as both spectator and participant. He sees the exotica phenomenon for what it is — silly and patronizing — but adores it and revels in it, singing a cover of “Fujiyama Mama” knowing full well he sounds ridiculous: “and when you start elupting ain’t nobody gonna make you stop.” In the three Exotica LPs you find pastiches within parodies; “Roochoo Gumbo” is at once Okinawan pop song and New Orleans shuffle. If you think too much about how the parody is eating its own tail, that this is “the Japanese way of exoticising American exoticism,” it’s dizzying.
The music of Tropical Dandy and Bon Voyage Co. roams over both East and West mashing genres as it goes: Polynesian chants, resort-lounge steel-band music, Buddhist ritual, boogie-woogie and rockabilly, all with a Van Dyke Parks nostalgic sheen. The third record in the series, Paraiso, is different in that it feels less like a series of takeoffs and starts becoming something else. The new element is the synthesizer, the varied texture of which is used extensively throughout the record. Hosono at this point had met Sakamoto and Takahashi, as well as Hideki Matsutake, who would become YMO’s invaluable programmer in the days before MIDI. The combination of exotica and electronics would be the template for YMO’s initial success with their first single in 1978: Martin Denny’s “Firecracker.”