You see, as far as I’m aware, we don’t really have a record (pardon the pun) of what music was played. We have postcards, photographs, menus, and in some cases still-standing restaurants to give us an idea of what the decor, food and drinks at these places were like, but when it comes to the music that was played, it mostly comes down to rememberances of patrons and employees. And apparently, the music wasn’t really memorable, as it’s not something you hear a lot about. The music of the era gets relatively little coverage in Sven Kirsten’s Book of Tiki.
When people hear the phrase “tiki music,” generally their mind goes directly to Exotica. It makes sense — Exotica rose to prominence during the same era as tiki bars, and certainly aimed to capture the same mysterious and idealized view of the tropics. Most Exotica is a perfect fit for a tiki bar. The thing is — Exotica may not have actually been played very often in tiki bars. Exotica was born from live performances in bars in Hawaii, played to an audience of vacationing mainlanders who probably frequented stateside tiki bars (especially upon their return), but the tiki bars found outside of Hawaii may not have actually played much Exotica. A mix of traditional Hawaiian music and hapa haole songs, especially recordings done to capitalize on America’s growing love affair with Hawaii, might have been more common to hear in tiki bars. It’s also possible that many tiki bars simply played what they had available to them — whatever local small combo jazz act was available, or whatever records the owner had compiled.
Much as midcentury tiki bars were an idealized view of Polynesia, our modern view of tiki bars has become idealized into a perfect vision of something that probably was a bit more fractured. But like I said, this might be a bit of an exercise in futility — let’s not talk about what was played in tiki bars, since it’s very debatable, and instead focus on what works well today.
I think it’s no mistake that there aren’t many tales out there that shed light on the music played in tiki bars. In my opinion, that’s as it should be. The music in a tiki bar should be like a great film score — creating a mood and giving subtle cues as to the character of the joint, while not calling constant attention to itself. It should be quiet enough that conversations can be had — tiki bars are not throbbing discotheques.
For traditional, Hapa-Haole and Hapa-Haole-inspired stuff, the variety of LPs out there is terrifically broad. This class of music has its own standards, which were recorded over and over again, to an amazing extent. Selector Lopaka, a name familiar to Critiki News readers, has created some great compliation disks that he likes to share. If you want to track down music on your own, you can go down to your corner thrift store and pick up all kinds of crazy albums for about a buck a pop. Look for song titles like “Lovely Hula Hands,” “My Little Grass Shack,” “Pearly Shells,” “Aloha Oe,” Little Brown Gal,” “Hawaiian War Chant,” and “The Hukilau Song.” Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad. To my ear, a good set of these sorts of songs provides the absolute best backdrop. Modern acts like Haole Kats, Maikai Gents and the Crazed Mugs are carrying forward these great standards.
Exotica music by folks like Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, Les Baxter, Yma Sumac and Robert Drasnin work really well in tiki bars, though they’re my second choice behind more “traditional” stuff. I adore Exotica, and I prefer it for just general listening, but I find traditional stuff just a wee touch better for tiki bar mood-setting. Exotica is my first choice to be piped into outdoor jungle-y patio areas, though. Modern acts like Fisherman’s Burlesque Trio and Waitiki are continuing the tradition with new Exotica recordings.
Later in the evening, as the crowd loosens up, sometimes it becomes more appropriate and natural to go up-tempo. Equivel is a great Exotica wee-hours sound. Bossa Nova and Calypso work well, too — I know, I know… “wrong body of water!” I’m generally pretty quick to remind folks of the big difference between Polynesian and Carribbean, but some Calypso just fits. After all, the Enchanted Tiki Room’s theme song has a Calypso, not Hawaiian, beat. (Plus, rum comes from the Carribbean, and I’m not about to say rum doesn’t belong in a tiki bar. You’ve just gotta mix & match with some careful consideration.) Try the album Calypso Is Like So…, from actor (and sometime singer) Robert Mitchum — it’s a surprisingly great album. The modern band APE plays songs that pull from many different influences, and they sound just right in a late-night jumpin’ tiki bar.
There is lots of music that obviously doesn’t belong (Polka, Whitesnake, Celine Dion…). But there’s sneakier stuff — steel drums, reggae, salsa, Jimmy Buffett… sure, they’re tropical, but here’s where I will assert that they just don’t play well with the Polynesian Pop mystique. It becomes less of an issue later in the evening, as the crowd has already gotten into the mood of the place. Selector Lopaka has sneakily segued an evening of great Hawaiian and Exotica classics into reggae without my noticing. But that takes some high quality music, and a DJ’s skills of discretion. They don’t call them selectors fer nuthin’.
So, there is an indisputable and tangled-up-tight connection between surf music and tiki. Surf music grew out of the burgeoning surfing teen community in Southern California in the 1960s, and tikis are an iconic image that was all over the place for them (most notably as good-luck charm necklaces). This is a group that skewed a bit younger than the folks typically in attendance at tiki bars back in the old days, and to my ears it sounds like a mismatch to be sitting in a mellow tiki bar listening to surf. Which isn’t to say it didn’t happen. Maybe the Dumb Angel guys can paint it all in for me and smooth over my cognitive dissonance. They actually do tie together Exotica and surf in their latest issue, All Summer Long, but not enough to make it sound natural to me in a cozy, dimly lit tiki bar. Surf music to me conjures up images of either bright sunshine or gritty, boisterous parties — things I love, just not things I love in a tiki bar.
So, there you go. That’s my take on music in the Perfect Tiki Bar. There are lots of folks more knowledgable than I in this arena, and I welcome hearing their input on the topic.