Exotica – A Musical Perspective on Tiki
Polynesian Pop, Punk and Phonographs
By Darin Mecher
Every culture and lifestyle has music surrounding it. It is just a human fact that music is joined to everything we do and aspire to. Just like with any culture, Tiki culture has its own music and its own sound. There are many crossovers and some people in Tiki culture might not listen to specifically Tiki music, but there are some albums and some bands that just need to be mentioned for one to have a fuller experience and knowledge of what it means to be a part of the spirit of Tiki.
I am by no means an expert on music, but I do love music. I have some favorites and I have some gems I have discovered that I would simply like to share with other music lovers. I am constantly discovering new music and new bands and new views of music in the Tiki lifestyle, so I am evolving and fine tuning my tastes just like anyone else. But I have some personal favorites I want to share with you now:
1.) Most agree that it really all began with the experimental and instrumental sounds capes of Martin Denny. In 1957, he released his first album, Exotica, and it has been the seminal album for Tiki lovers ever since. I’m not sure if it is the fact that the album really sounds like Polynesia or if people have grafted their Tiki loves onto it or what. Maybe it’s the cover. A famous cover of a gorgeous woman behind a bamboo looking curtain. I own the album and found it at an antique store. I paid $12 for it and it is in near mint condition. I play it from time to time, but it really only elicits the sounds of the islands once you get quiet and have a tropical libation and get really into the Tiki décor. Then it makes perfect sense. I highly recommend the album for shear artwork and presence alone. It is kind of a gateway drug to the other great music to be found in Tiki culture.
2.) You can peruse the music of any Salvation Army Thrift Store or any thrift store for that matter and find a wide collection of “Sounds of Hawaii” type albums. I’ve found them at flea markets and at antique stores and at garage sales. The 1950s and early 1960s were full of record labels trying to capitalize on the phonograph sales and the voracious musical appetites of the post war generation. Just look for island scenes, the word “Hawaii”, and any reference to Polynesia. These albums can usually be had for a dollar or less. Normally in great condition and for optimal enjoyment. I have a personal favorite that is a tourist album that guests got as a souvenir from the Hawaiian Hilton back in the late 50s. Great stuff. “Luau” is another great buzzword to look for.
3.) Don Ho. Nothing says Hawaii like Don Ho. And he’s more than “Tiny Bubbles”. Believe you me.
4.) Ok, I fear I might be losing you with all this dapper gent with his high ball tunage, so how about some stuff from the 1990s? Look up the band The Bomboras. Their album Savage Island is one of my personal favorites. How can you go wrong with some great riffs and cover art by none other than Shag himself! I got a copy on vinyl right off Amazon.com Another great band is The Mermen. They have a multitude of albums and played together for years. If you have a great music app on either your smart phone or computer such as Pandora or Spotify, simply put in those band names and watch the others cascade for you to check out. There are a great many surf punk / surf-a-billy / surf rock bands out there and some are just frickin’ fantastic.
5.) Dick Dale. Trust me. One of the greatest guitarists of all time. If you watch movies, you heard his stuff without even knowing it. A cultural icon. I named a Tiki after him. He once signed the top of my wife’s breast at a show. Who’s the dapper gent now?
6.) The Hula Girls. Ok, this is a personal plug. I saw these guys at Viva Las Vegas and listened to their vinyl for probably a month afterward non stop. The vinyl is green. They have 2 wahine dancers. What more could you want? Look them up. They deserve to be famous – outside the Tiki culture as well.
7.) New in my music que: Ding Dong Devils – Tassels, Mai Tais, and Mischief. The Tikiyaki Orchestra – Aloha, Baby!. The former took a bit to grow on me, I loved the latter right off the bat. Both are on heavy rotation right now. You should give each of them a listen!
8.) Marty Lush. Is it music? Is it comedy? Who cares? It is swank camp at its finest. You may find that he has his hands in a number of volcano bowls.
9.) James Bond movie soundtracks. The early ones. My Tiki Room truly seems enchanted when I put on the soundtrack to Dr. No. Believe it or not, I know where to get at least three copies of the soundtrack for Thunderball right here in my Midwest city. And they usually sell for around $5 used.
10.) Messer Chups and a plethora of other bands from what they used to call “The Iron Curtain“. The Berlin wall fell in 1989. 10 or so years later there are all these crazy ex-Soviet block bands doing surf and rockabilly. Check them out. Never a boring moment when you get a bunch of Russians together with vodka and hollow body guitars it is pure perfection.
Also, you can check out Tiki Magazine sometime – look it up on the internet. Borrow a copy. Go to a Tiki lounge that has it in the atrium. You can discover new bands all the time that way.
Well, that should give you at least a starting place on the Tiki music scene. If you find anything interesting out there that we just have to hear – let us know!