Graded on a Curve:
Les Baxter,
Skins! Bongo Party
with Les Baxter

Bongo-curious? Oh, come on. You know you are. We all are, deep down. So go ahead, take a walk on the wild side with Les Baxter’s 1957 bongo opus Skins! Bongo Party with Les Baxter.

One album. One man. One set of bongos. What could be more exciting than that? Well, an all-cowbell LP would be more exciting than that, but make no mistake; Les Baxter—the musician and arranger who from the 1950s to the late 1990s produced a massive discography of relatively queasy-making easy-listening world music that he called exotica—has come up with the next best thing.

I’m joshing, of course. Does anybody out there really want to listen to an entire album of bongo solos? It’s like my pal Steve Renfro, who is paraphrasing Allen Ginsberg, says: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by bongos, starving hysterical naked… “ I don’t know about you, but when I hear a bongo solo coming, I run for the hills.

But I’ll be damned if Baxter doesn’t almost pull it off. Ninety-nine percent of the Muzak Maestro’s output may be treacle—I’ve just been listening to 1958’s Space Escapade (saccharine intergalactic laid back!) and 1951’s Ritual of the Savage (the natives are restfully orchestral tonight!) and frankly, my ears hate me. But on Skins! Baxter eschews schmaltz for at least a semblance of Afro-Cuban jazz authenticity, and if the album ultimately fails to satisfy it has less to do with Baxter’s propensity for populist pablum than the limitations inherit in producing a record revolving around a percussion instrument with limited musical and emotional range.

Skins! wouldn’t work at all if it were, as I inferred before, truly a one-man, one-set-of-bongos affair. But not even the Muzak Mooncalf was mad enough to attempt such a patently crazy thing. No, he had the good sense to add additional percussion, some sparse harpsichord, and the occasional chanter. The results may not be the nonstop frenetic hand blur I was looking forward to, but the interplay between instruments is subtle and, at times at least, almost enough to make you cry, “Go daddy, go!” And while I doubt this album will hold much interest for the general listener, you just may love it if you’re, I don’t know, an unreconstituted beatnik or, far worse, a drummer.

Because it’s the drum kit on “Shoutin’ Drums” that makes the song work, if work is the proper term, and without the added percussion “Bustin’ the Bongos” would be a bust. “Poppin’ Panderos”—the pandero is a kind of tambourine popular in Veracruz, Mexico—boasts both vocals and lots of frenetic percussion, and frankly the bongos are just along for the ride.

But whether the rhythms derive from Africa (“Afro-Deesia”) or Brazil (“Brazilian Bash”), Baxter must be credited for his refusal to sweeten them up. That he didn’t add strings to this baby is a miracle, as you’d know full well if you’d ever listened to the “authentic” sounds of 1959’s African Jazz (colonial exploitation at its most nefarious) or (God help us) the “I’m hep!” stylings of 1968’s Moog Rock. Or if you’d ever suffered through another of Baxter’s forays into percussion, 1963’s monstrous The Soul of the Drums.

Baxter scored Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe films for American International Pictures, to say nothing of such immortal B-films as Beach Blanket Bingo and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, and for this reason alone I’m sure he has his faithful legion of camp-loving fans. But Skins! is as close to an undiluted exploration into world music as the hopelessly squarejohn Baxter ever got, and for this reason alone it’s worth checking out. It has a great cover too. The woman sprawled across the floor of that crazy beatnik pad looks bongo-curious indeed.

Alternative title: Bongo Fury!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-

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