The Board of Tiki Idols Speak: “Get Down!...

The Board of Tiki Idols Speak: “Get Down!” says Dr. Bamboo

tiki dance of desire Big Al Art caricatures
Dr. Bamboo was the first Tiki Idol to speak, doing so at the start of Tiki Month 2009. Since then, I have added another question for the Board, “what is the most important non-liquid element of Tiki.” Well, the drums have rolled and the mountain grumbles. Dr. Bamboo has spoken once again!

I’d have to say music. Aloha shirts, some form of fire, and a totally thatched-out tiki bar are all wonderful to have, but I think appropriate music ratchets up the tiki experience more than anything else. Good genre tunes (particularly the “Exotica” category) really bring the mood home. A good selection of artists like Martin Denny, Les Baxter, Arthur Lyman, Esquivel, Robert Drasnin, and Yma Sumac (just to name a few) will provide the perfect aural backdrop for your tiki shenanigans.

The good Doctor is (of course) correct that music possesses powerful mood-altering magic. Like the Hawaiian shirt, some good Tiki music is a swift and simple way to “flip the Tiki switch” and enhance your Tiki drinking experience. Find your favorite Tiki music CD… better, burn a disc of your favorite songs from various artists… best of all, just set up a playlist on your iPod (or lesser mp3 player if that’s how you roll, Visigoth). Lower the lights, rock some tunes, don the shirt, and off you go!

A fascinating example of the power of Tiki music is a tale that Bill Newton of told me when I interviewed him about Aloha shirts.

I’m actually Caucasian, but I was born in Hawaii. My father always wanted to move here since he was a kid. He heard this one song over and over on the radio, Keep Your Eyes on the Hands. It called to him and he could never get it out of his head. That slack key guitar wouldn’t let him go.

There are a ton of versions of that song. Here’s my favorite, from Kohala:

Keep Your Eyes on the Hands
Kohala - Island Treasures - Keep Your Eyes On the Hands

But what the heck is Tiki music, really? Dr. B’s suggestions generally fall into the category of Exotica, which is a style of tropical/Polynesian music that arose (like the Aloha shirt) about the same time as Tiki. Most Exotica has a wonderful flavor for getting your Tiki on, with its dark, mystical vibe, the hand-beaten drums, and lots of Hawaiian slack key guitar. It has the added bonus of being, like Tiki, gloriously inauthentic. The two greatest figures in Exotica, Martin Denny and Les Baxter are lily-white guys from the United States mainland. (The Trader and the Beachcomber come to mind in a similar vein.) It is a music crafted to appeal to a vibe and an image of a place that didn’t and doesn’t really exist, yet making it exist in the mind. Exotica sounds more like island music to the foreign ear than authentic island music does. This was especially true in the early days of Tiki, when Hawaii and the South Pacific were unimaginably far away and mysterious. Exotica pairs perfectly with Tiki in that both aim to create virtually the same place.
I’ve got a tons of Exotica links below, but if you want just one Exotica/Tiki collection, try Mondo Exotica from UltraLounge, the cocktailian-essential series of albums. Throughout this post, I’ll list songs or albums with a link to Amazon where I can find one, and below that a button that will send you straight to iTunes (or a web page for the music if you don’t have iTunes installed) where you can hear a clip or two. My personal favorites on Mondo Exotica are Swamp Fire, Caravan, and Voodoo Dreams. Exotica is a huge genre, so I’ll just add a few links to get you started with the real masters of the genre.

But is Exotica the only appropriate Tiki music? I don’t think so. The lovely Humuhumu wrote a good post a few years ago about Tiki bar music, in which she argues that Exotica was probably not always played in Tiki Bars, in fact it might not have been the most common music at all, even in the heyday of both genres.

As I’ve said before. “authenticity” is is hardly a prerequisite for Tiki, in some ways it is a contradiction in terms. What matters is that the music you play should get you in the Tiki mood. There are lots of other genres from which some songs could happily live on your Tiki playlist. I’d suggest you narrow your search for tunes that fit the right time period and are either instrumental of can otherwise feel good in a background role. When setting a mood, it is more powerful to do your work in the background than explicitly. As when spinning a good yarn, show, don’t tell.
For instance, a great song called Let’s Talk Dirty In Hawaiian (lyrics to be found at Dungeon- and Tiki-Master Tikitender’s blog) is a cool song, but hardly a Tiki mood setter. Crank it up later in the evening if you have a crowd that needs focusing.

Leopard bikini tiki dancer
Mambo is to me a great adjunct Tiki genre. The drums fit well, and the beat, while more Latin than “primal”, is still focused on the loins.
One of Dr. B’s suggested artists, Yma Sumac has an album, Mambo! that I think works well for Tiki. Five Bottles Mambo is particularly cool. Interestingly, I like her mambo better for Tiki vibing than her Exotica. Operatic Incan power vocals don’t really float my flaming outrigger.

Yma Sumac - Mambo!
operatic Incan power vocals
Yma Sumac - The Ultimate Yma Sumac Collection - Kuyaway - Inca Love Song

Surf music hails from the right period, and has an appropriate beat. Some works, most doesn’t. You’d similarly thank that Jimmy Buffet ought to be perfect (Tropical themes, drinking songs), but he also doesn’t quite fit the ambiance. That said, if you like him, stick a parrot on your Tiki bar and go with it. His song Tiki Bar is Open is a pretty good place to start.

Tiki Bar is Open
Jimmy Buffett - Live In Hawaii - Tiki Bar Is Open

And by no means is all the good Tiki music a creation of the original Tiki era. The Swing resurgence of the ’90s brought out some great new Tiki talents that are worth listening to.
The Tikiyaki Orchestra is wonderful. Their album Stereoexotique is full of winners. You should especially listen to Sneaky Tiki, Koko Sufu, and my favorite, Mai Tais On the Moon.
For a more up-tempo modern Tiki band, try Los Twang! Marvels’ Jungle of Twang. Kaha Huna is a good song, but their real winner is their take on the classic Balihai.

There is a ton of good Tiki music out there, and it is worth a bit of time to search out what works for you, because it will save a ton of effort later when you want to get your Tiki on. I’ll leave you with a last, full-fun, half-serious suggestion, Walt Disney’s immortal tribute to Tiki, the theme of the Enchanted Tiki Room:

If you want a clean sound copy of the song, here’s the best one I’ve been able to find:
Thurl Ravenscroft, The Mellomen, Fulton Burley & Wally Boag - The Sherman Brothers Songbook - The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room


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