I’ve been on a little bit of a ukulele music kick lately. I was kicking around the web back in January, looking for material for the Tiki culture portion of Tiki Month and ran across an nice article in The Atlantic entitled The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Ukulele. It is an excellent little history of the ukulele in American pop culture, and well worth a read. The word “Tiki” doesn’t actually appear in the article, and mentioning that is a good way to note that while they are often connected, the ukulele is not at all exclusively a Tiki music instrument (especially of late). I’ll just focus on the fact that the arc of the ukulele’s popularity closely matches that of Tiki culture in general, and for much the same reasons.
In broad strokes, the ukulele (in its Hawaiian-perfected form) first came to mainstream attention in the early 20th Century, before the invention of Tiki. With its exotic origins and ease of play, the ukulele was a fun and easy way to transport yourself through imagination to exotic lands, just like the Tiki culture which followed and adopted the uke. By the 1950’s, the instrument was huge, reaching a peak of popularity, with nearly one and three-quarter million ukulele players in the US alone. If your image of the ukulele is of ridiculous nerd Tiny Tim, “tiptoeing through the tulips”, remember that Elvis’s ukulele soundtrack from Blue Hawaii was number one for five months.
But with the 60’s, the culture started to move on. The Beatles, with their big, sexy, throbbing guitars made the little ukulele seem childish. Also, I imagine that the burgeoning of the recorded music industry hurt the ukulele too. One of its chief draws is how easy it is to learn and to play this little guy. As technology made it less and less important for people to be able to make their own music, instruments whose leading draw was their ease of play lost a lot of their market edge. Besides, if you liked a piece of ukulele music, there was the mortal risk that your Dad might whip his out and try to play it!
Among the frustrations I’ve experienced recently is the discovery that The Rock—The Freakin’ Rock!—has a better voice than I do….
Eventually, like other aspects of Tiki culture, the ukulele was virtually forgotten by pop culture. This paved the way for its revival, as its cultural baggage lost its potency. The things that made it popular to begin with remain true, of course. It is easy to play. It is versatile. It is just intrinsically fun. Again, just like other elements of Tiki culture, the ukulele’s revival comes in a form more integrated with mainstream culture. The web is rife with ukulele covers of distinctly non-tropical music. And the thing is, they work. Sometime when you are definitely not at work, listen to this semi-perfect cover of Cee Lo Green’s most famous hit. (No really, it is not the radio version!)
Of course, as Tiki culture in its purer forms makes its boutique, and hopefully sustainable comeback, the ukulele is still a staple for musicians such as Don Tiki.
Search around for ukulele music. You’ll like it. And if you have the least musical inclination, whether you want a first instrument or you are a musician who’d be interested in an easy extra to pick up, consider a ukulele. You can get a Starter Ukulele, with extra strings, case, and introductory instruction book from Amazon for $32.50. And that’s a Prime Eligible price. I bought one shortly before posting this.
And yes, I am aware I just reduced the chance that anyone who reads this will risk visiting my home in the future….
Over the years of doing Tiki Month, I’ve tended to focus most of my drinking evaluation on the older Tiki drinks, mostly those from the 30’s and 40’s. There’s a couple of reasons for that. First, I’m an historian at heart. I like old stuff. It is why I love Beachbum Berry so much. His ability to uncover so much about this interesting little slice of American culture is amazing. Mmore importantly, the Tiki drinks from the decades of the Tiki era tend to be sweet, boring, and insipid, in keeping with American tastes in drinking at that time. (There are exceptions, but this is a pretty good rule of thumb.)
I was asked Wednesday night by a visiting Cincinnati bartender who is just getting into Tiki exploration why the delicious Mai Tai I’d just served her had devolved in modern days to the sweet, fruity mess most everyone thinks of now. The reason is those changing tastes of American drinking. To an experienced cocktail palate, one used to multiple spirits and the profound ways that sometimes just a change in ratios can alter flavors, a Vic Bergeron Mai Tai is a fantastic drinking adventure. The strong, discordant yet somehow perfectly harmonious flavors demand the attention of the serious drinker.
Well, they demand the attention of the casual Vodka and Soda or Cosmopolitan drinker, too…. but not in the same way. To them, the reaction is more like, “Whoa! What the Hell? This is tasty, I guess, but really… what the Hell?” The food world equivalent would be just wanting a quick, good hamburger, but being asked instead to sit down for a four-course meal featuring Osso Buco. In the 70’s, as you needed to medicate yourself to tamp down the knowledge that your President was named Nixon or Carter, you were stressed enough at being thought square for drinking cocktails at all, instead of doing lines of coke like all the cool people. You did not need or want to be challenged by your damn drink. In today’s world, where even self-medication isn’t enough, people are moving back to food and drink that they want to pay attention to. And thus, the older style of thought- and palate-provoking tropical drinks are rising once again.
So recently I’ve been looking more and more at truly modern Tiki drinks, those invented during the current revival of the genre. A lot have been inventions of A Mountain of Crushed Ice or Rated-R Cocktails, two of the best full-time Tiki blogs out there. You should visit and subscribe to both. Go on. I’ll wait.
More encouragingly to the likes of me is that there are also a lot of excellent modern Tiki-style drinks being concocted in non-Tiki bars today as well. In olden days, when Don and Vic rode their triceratopses to work every day, really good Tiki drinks were restricted to specialty bars. The overhead of fresh juices and exotic syrups was too much for normal pubs. But in today’s Craft environment, arrays of juices and syrups (and cocktails with lots of ingredients in small amounts) are par for the course. There is no reason that Tiki drinks should not nestle in among the other marvelous offerings in any top flight bar.
To illustrate my point, here’s a delicious concoction by the hardest working blogger in the cocktail business, Fred Yarm of Cocktail
Virgin Slut and the current Guardian of Mixology Monday™. (Scheduled for release as a major motion picture by Marvel in 2023.) For his sins, Fred works a bit at the Russell House Tavern in Boston. His Tiki drink, the Mytoi Gardens sits proudly on the Russell’s extensive Craft menu, among Algonquins and modern bitter bombs like something called a Sottobosco. Here’s my take on it. Read Fred’s post for his slightly more price-friendly version.
- 1 1/2 El Dorado 12
- 1 fresh pineapple juice
- 3/4 fresh lime juice
- 1/2 Allspice dram
- 1/4 simple syrup
- 5 drops vanilla extract
- 1 dash Angostura Bitters
Combine in a shaker with ice and chill thoroughly. Strain into a transparent vessel (not a Tiki mug!) filled with crushed ice. Float 3 dashes more of Angostura on top and garnish with pineapple in one or more forms.
As I told Fred as soon as I tried my first shot at the Mytoi Gardens, this is one big-time, old school Tiki drink. Sweet though it may be, the undeniably exotic notes of the vanilla and the allspice, along with the redolent… demeraraness… of the El Dorado combine to provide that uniquely Tiki experience: a slightly disorienting, slightly transporting melange of flavors that provides a unique escape hatch all its own.
One of my favorite parts of Tiki Month is busting out my lightbox, and setting up a semi-permanent studio behind the utility curtain in the basement. Every time I make a new drink, or just a really good-looking one, I rush back to the box and yell “Work with me baby!“. I madly change aperture settings and move my KICK LED all over the place to try to get the light right. I usually take about 20-30 shots of each drink. Yay, digital photography!
Tiki mugs can be gorgeous works of art. Combine with just the right garnish, whether five minute’s worth of knife work or simply the perfect piece of fruit, and a Tiki mug is a traffic-pushing photo opportunity waiting to happen. Sometimes they can be a pain to shoot, like this little guy below. All black objects, be they Tiki mugs or cats, will lose all contrast unless you wander quite far afield form any normal automatic settings.
Here’s a counter-intuitive tip: Use a dark or black background when shooting a solid black subject. A white or light background gives lovely contrast to your naked eye, but unless you have the time, patience, and money for a hand-held light meter, that background will cause your camera’s internal light meter to plunge every single detail of the mug into indistinguishable darkness. Also, while you are waving your meter around and calculating settings, your drink is getting diluted, or your cat has stopped doing that adorable thing and instead started licking his… well, you know. If you aim your lighting correctly, the lack of contrast with a black background will let the ceramic’s detail pop. It is not a perfect shot, but I rather like the way this one illustrates what I’m talking about.
I wish I’d figured this out back before my black and white cat died. If I had, I wouldn’t have a collection of photos that look like the CIA redacted all the cats in a begrudging FOIA response.
So the joy of Tikiblogging is that it is easy to have a great collection of arresting photographs, each different from the last, that your readers will hopefully enjoy and that may even tell a story….
The frustration is that you can’t tell a damn thing about the drinks in any of these pictures! Are they flash blended? Blended smooth? On the rocks? Brown? Creamy white?
What if they are a glorious, suddenly fashionable again blue?
What if there isn’t actually a drink in any of these pictures, just a mug and some garnish? I’ll give you a hint, that is exactly the case in one of these shots. What I’m saying is, don’t put away your glassware just because it is Tiki Month. And understand why there won’t be a super cool mug in every post.