Mike Cooper is a treasure of underground music.
Mike Cooper is a treasure of underground music. Born in 1942, the guitarist came up amid the British blues boom, made a few astonishing folk-jazz albums in the early ‘70s, and spent the ‘80s in free improv land. In old age, he got into sailing and even more into Hawaiian shirts. And since 2004, he’s quietly released a run of excellent albums that deconstruct exotica, that postwar easy-listening genre that approximated “ethnic” music for Western ears.
The best of these albums is 2017’s Raft, but Rayon Hula – freshly remastered and reissued by Lawrence English’s great Room40 label for its 15th anniversary – is the first. Rayon Hula established a template to which Cooper’s adhered almost exclusively since: Hawaiian-style steel guitar, vibraphones that approximate the clangor of boats at berth, eerily close-sounding samples of bugs and birds, a pall of static that laps like a swelling ocean.
The later albums are more ambient. Rayon, at 11 tracks in 43 minutes, bears the proportions of one of the albums Cooper might have made with the Rolling Stones had he accepted an early offer to join. Drums have a stronger presence here than in most of his work, but instead of providing momentum, they lock these songs in place. The eleven tracks on Rayon Hula feel eerily still, looping in dead space, making no effort to hide their roughshod construction. There are no human voices, just the laughter of seagulls and the screech of crickets in the underbrush. There’s something a little unsettling about how unpopulated Rayon Hula is. It’s like visiting a resort that’s just been abandoned.
The lack of human presence allows Cooper to sidestep one of the unfortunate facts of exotica, which is that it tends to portray the natives of the places it evoked as savages. Though Cooper plays every bit into the conception of the South Pacific as a paradise, he’s not interested in inflamed visions of cannibals and dread jungle rituals so much as primordial elements at war. Cooper’s social media presence indicates a strong commitment to social justice and anti-colonialism. Perhaps he liked what he heard on those old Arthur Lyman albums but wished they were a little more respectful. Rayon Hula doesn’t confront exotica’s inherent racism head-on, but it corrects some of its problems.
The joke with exotica is the people who made it never visited the places whose music they desiccated. Cooper, an avid mariner, takes inspiration from places he has been. He recorded Rayon in part in Kiribati – which, per the album’s liner notes, “was one of the last places to be settled by humans and will be one of the first to disappear as the waters rise due to Global Warming (sic).” Is Cooper working on a geological timescale rather than a historical one, imagining the vast stretches of time before humans populated the island – and the silence that will linger once we’re gone?
Cooper likes to scramble his ethnic cues, most mischievously on the Bali-meets-blues of last year’s Tropical Gothic. Listening to his music can be like looking at a map with no borders; we have to readjust the way we think about the world to separate the arbitrary lines we draw on it from the greater fact of its geology. Cooper isn’t just providing a musical experience; at his best, he’s showing us a different way of seeing the world.