Eden’s Island is one of exotica’s more interesting relics.
For a brief time in the late 1940s, a man named eden ahbez was a media phenomenon: a 40-year-old man who lived under the Hollywood sign, ate raw fruits and vegetables and funded an itinerant lifestyle by supplying massive hits like “Nature Boy” to Nat King Cole. Had he been born a few decades later into the hippie movement he anticipated, he might’ve made folk music or psychedelic rock. But in his time, the escapist music du jour was exotica, and his lone album Eden’s Island is one of that dubious genre’s more interesting relics.
Eden’s Island plays like an advertisement for ahbez’s lifestyle. It imagines a paradise called “Eden’s Island,” far from the constraints of Western living, where “boys and girls fall in love” on palm trees and sandy beaches. You’d think unmooring his conception of paradise from the South Pacific or Southeast Asia or Japan would lead to an exotica album free from exoticism. Not so: the fake Caribbean accents we hear in so much pop of the era make their way to “Mongoose” and “Banana Boy,” the latter of whom seems so desperate to sell his bananas we wonder how much of a paradise Eden’s island really is.
Certainly it’s a conception of paradise that would’ve been more appealing 60 years ago. In 2020, we look at the gaunt, ragged man on the cover and wonder how much we’d really want to live on an island run by that guy. ahbez’s philosophy of self-sustainment and self-improvement hadn’t been commodified in those days like it would be in the hippie era, and an entreaty to live on an island off the grid would’ve been seen a lot less cultish; audiences would’ve been as likely to take ahbez on his word as Willy Wonka.
Unlike so many other easy-listening genres in the “chill” era, exotica has not been and likely will never be reclaimed. It’s too reliant on infantilizing stereotypes of non-Western people and a perception of the Third World as a vaguely mystical paradise. So why listen to Eden’s Island over Arthur Lyman, an actual Hawaiian working from a place he knew rather than imagined, or latter-day deconstructionists like Mike Cooper?
Captain High Records, the exotica label that put it out, seems to genuinely buy into its far-flung appeal (they’re almost certainly not based in Ulaanbataar, as they claim on Bandcamp). For most skeptical modern listeners, the reason to come to Eden’s Island is its rich weirdness. The sound design is genuinely fascinating, from the creak of boats at bay we hear on “Old Boat” to the percussion that scrapes across the stereo field on “Island Girl.” Two instruments are constant: ahbez’s homemade wood flute and his poetry, which even at its silliest manifests as a sort of shaggy-dog ASMR.
At its best, Eden’s Island is enough to convince us that the most daring and mind-bending music of the pre-beat ‘60s came from exotica. The creaking boats might’ve made an impression on Brian Wilson, whose best works have a lot in common with records like these but are exponentially smarter and spikier. Captain High calls it “psychedelic music before the term was even invented.” True, perhaps, but it’s not much of a substitute for the real thing.