Mike Cooper – White Shadows in the South Seas: Exotica for the dawn of a new age. (music review)

When Arthur Lyman shouted those bird calls into the audience at the Shell Bar in 1951, he had no idea he was teetering drunk on the edge of a revolution. Not just a revolution in sound with the birth of Exotica, but a revolution with the discovery of Island Kitsch igniting a national mania for all things Hawaiian, including tiki idols, exotic drinks, aloha shirts, luaus, straw hats and Polynesian-themed restaurants. Despite the rest of the world moving on from faux-Islander music, Lyman’s combo was still playing to tourists in Honolulu in the 70’s, 80’s and of course had a new burst of popularity in the 1990’s with the lounge music revival. He was a prolific musician, dedicated to his music no matter what happened to the world out there. But somehow Islander tourists could always be depended upon to want the westernized version of Islander culture, even when on the Islands.

The mantle for Islander lounge was taken up seriously in the new millennium, but for all the passion for Exotica, its sound tends to remain firmly in its original, recently revived heart.  Bands like Tipsy would give it a new sort of polish and play around with the sound, but still it all remained a little too reverent to be true to the genuine history, and its place in time seen through our twenty-twenty hindsight.


Move forward in time to Mike Cooper, the master deconstructer, the man with an ironic passion for Islander kitsch, that is laced with a dedication to an implication of the kitsch as a cultural reference point. Particularly when we talk Polynesian or South Pacific style music.  So much of the Western cultures relationship with the Pacific is laced in a kind of cheap, easily accessed  and marketable product that it has become an important symbol of understanding the complex relationship between different cultures.

So Mike produces Rayon Hula, a thinking person’s version of Exotica for the new millenium. And then in a kind of follow up, we have the beautiful White Shadows in the South Seas, recently released through Room40 records.

Part of what makes a Mike Cooper album so special is his unique relationship with history and the way he is able to infuse his music with a translated version of his political insights. I Saw it first in his Radio Paradise album that I reviewed last year – an album that challenges the notion of Blues at its core, allowing for the history within a newly created history as it were. He does a similar thing with White Shadows in the South Seas, takes something that meant something at one point in history and somehow moves the politics of the sound. I’m not sure how he does it, but I am not the only one who hears it in the work.  After a concert where I heard Mike live recently, I chatted to a fellow attendee on the bus trip home and he compared Mike with GYBE – a connection that can only be explained through the political.


Mike has had a passion for the Pacific for some time now.  Commissioned to do several art works out of his research and immersion in the cultures, he’s well equipped to tell the sorry tale of Western invasion and the complexities of relationships between Islander people and those visitors who so freely and easily took the native sounds and formed chasms where connections should have been the priority. Mike isn’t one to judge history – after all, its happened. He incorporates it into the now, and he does this through the assimilation of sound.  On White Shadows in the South Seas, Mike includes sounds from the other Islander inhabitants – the animals – while still travelling back to those halcyon days of the spacy synth sounds with small odes to Esquivel doted throughout the thoroughly modern sound text.

rm454 mike cooper white shadows

In anyone else s hands, this would morph into a safe sort of ambient stroll, but Mike Cooper knows too much about where he is taking the listener to accidently leave it there. Sound is constantly rescued from its history on this album, combined in unexpected ways and intended to behave against the grain. Grasping at the familiar of the exotica, Cooper shifts and slices his way trough the fourteen tracks, shutting of a melody suddenly, combining ocean sounds with his familiar bluesy slide, or mixing bird song with 60’s sounding keys.  The combinations are as welcoming as a Tahitian sunset and as surprising as the depth and complexity of the Islander people themselves.

This is an album to listen to closely, at the end of the day, in front of a sunset. Let it wash over you, reach you and teach you.

Mike Coopers White Shadows in the South Seas is available through Room40 Records here.