His Dark Exotica: Ennio Morricone - “Little Afro Flemish Mass”

[11 October 2010]

By Jason Cook

Perhaps the best and most descriptive title on the soundtrack to Exorcist II: The Heretic, “Little Afro Flemish Mass” is one of the post-exotica songs from which this series derives its name.

Exotica, named after the respectively titled 1957 Martin Denny album, was a musical genre born out of a strange 1950s need for suburbanites to escape the glamor of their picket-fence nuclear era with impressionistic, pseudo-Oceanic lounge music, similar to the “space age pop” also of the era. Les Baxter’s Ritual of the Savage is perhaps the most important work of the genre, offering a true escape for turntable-listeners of that decade’s twenty-something generation by way of stereophonic strings, tribal rhythms of all sort, vibraphones, kotos, gongs, bird calls, and nearly anything “exotic” (or not endemic to white, suburban, narrowly cultured, unable-to-listen-to-real-jazz-but-rather-Sinatra-&-Swingin’-Brass). Is it a good genre? Yes. Did it die with the JFK era? Mostly.

In the same way that the 1990s gave birth to post-rock by reinterpreting standard rock instrumentation in Bark Psychosis’ Hex or Slint’s Spiderland, Ennio Morricone, probably not unbeknownst to himself, borne post-exotica with “Little Afro Flemish Mass”. The piece is culturally-aware; it behaves exactly as its title claims. In the film for which it was written, at the moment it plays we find, by our definition, an exotic setting (Ethiopia); a ritual of sorts (the Afro-mass); and all the chants, trappings, and impressionist garb one might have conversely imagined for Les Baxter’s work. Morricone’s piece is aware of Baxter’s work, and one might take this argument and scold it for the fact that “Little Afro Flemish Mass” isn’t a postmodern interpretation of anything: It is what it is—an imagined mass, a recitation of Catholic circumstance in a weird setting. But that’s false, I say. “Little Afro Flemish Mass” is to Ritual of the Savage on the basis of its outlandishness, its inherent association with a genre known for cultural misappropriation.

The piece itself begins with the soul of a Massive Attack sample, emerging beautifully through glossolalia backed by hand drum passages and full choir ululation. It’s a great piece, haunting in an unexpected way. It’s also the greatest departure of the album, eschewing any string arrangements or—perceivably and generally speaking—much traditional arrangement.

Outside of Exorcist II and its faux-Catholic locust-cult, does “Little Afro Flemish Mass” lend itself to yesteryear’s space age pop? No, not at all. It contributes well to a horror film well misguided in its own right, and sounds like a bastardization of space age pop. It’s too ritualistic to be heard in a lounge. But remember that scene at the end of Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice where Betelgeuse supposes he can skip places in an afterlife waiting room by stealing a witch doctor’s queue ticket? Yeah. It could play there.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/131693-his-dark-exotica-ennio-morricone-little-afro-flemish-mass/