Perfect Tiki Bar: The Music

The Exotic Moods of Les Baxter, a CD compilation (out of print)
The Exotic Moods of Les Baxter,
a CD compilation (out of print)

This is the third installment in my ongoing series on what makes the Perfect Tiki Bar; my earlier entries addressed The Lighting and The Drinks. The Music… this one’s a bit of a tougher nut to crack.

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.

Robert Mitchum's Calypso Is Like So...
Robert Mitchum’s Calypso Is Like So…

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.

9 thoughts on “Perfect Tiki Bar: The Music

  1. Ah, music. Now we’re really getting into subjective territory. My specialty!

    I don’t suffer any cognitive dissonance listening to surf in my home bar, but then I’m pretty picky about what gets played: I stick to newer instrumentals from the likes of Dick Dale, The Mermen, The Woggles, and Los Straitjackets. I find the more recent stuff often contains deliberate nods to older lounge and tribal beats, so maybe that’s why I don’t find it so jarring in a tiki context.

    For smooth, jazzy tunage, I often find myself putting on Brazilian Tropicalia by Gilbert Gil, Caetano Veloso, or Os Mutantes.


  2. I rarely play Exotica in my bar. It’s Hapa Haole and Hawaiian stuff. Exotica is just too sleepy.

    I think you are quite right that the music is all ambient and not meant to be noticed. I was at the Mai Kai many times before I realized the tape was on a loop. I mentioned it and Kern and Pia begged for more music. I was happy to oblige.

    It’s a mood. But just like lighting, it’s a mood you will trip on when you walk in the door if it’s wrong!


  3. Interesting comment from Swanky because I find that I am exactly the opposite: I prefer Exotica in my tiki bar over Hapa Haole and Hawaiian. But, and Humuhumu nailed this one, my tiki bar is on my jungle-y patio. In that environment at night, with all that greenery surrounding you and the tiki torches lit, Exotica sets just the perfect mood (strange, exotic, primitive). But too much of a good thing is just too much, so I mix in some Hawaiian to provide some relief from all those headhunters and cannibals.

    Oh, and though I’m sure everyone has music acts they would add to Humuhumu’s list, Don Tiki is one that I would defnitely not leave off. They are numero uno in my book for perfectly capturing the mood and spirit of the Exotica masters.


  4. Hi Humuhumu,

    Another stellar blog.

    As per the connection between surf music and exotica… well, you gotta understand that many of the wreck halls that surf bands played in were decked out in similar fashion to the tiki bars… nautical rope, shells, even tikis. We showed a video of the Raindrops and the Beachboys, circa 1962, that featured both bands on stage with a huge tiki looming upon the stage. That was shown at the Make-Out Room event we did with Ape in San Fran.

    However, as to the exact lineage between surf music and exotica, many of the A-sides on surf singles are what you commonly hear on surf compilations. There is an entire other genre of surf music, which Lee Joseph (of Dionysus Records) and Domenic Priore sort of uncover, known as Surfer’s Mood. There are four LP comps of Surfer’s Mood cuts… which is to say, these are the B-sides… often slow, moody, bluesy and even exotic surf numbers. I would even go as far as to say that a subset of Surfer’s Mood is Exotica-Surf, for which I myself compiled a tape of over 25 Exotica-Surf cuts from the ’60s. Some of them were named-checked in DUMB ANGEL #4, like “Jungle Fever” by Dick Dale & his Del-Tones and “Tioga” by the Frogmen (which is as good as anything on SMILE, in my opinion). But pretty much every surf band had one or two Exotica-Surf songs in their repertoire. I wrote an article for another magazine about Brian Wilson’s “Fire” song, from the 1966 SMILE album, and showed that there were a ton of other “Volcano” or “Fire” songs, both in exotica and surf music history.

    I don’t think that surf is meant to replace exotica in a tiki bar, and I can understand why a lot of people who want the lounge feel of exotica don’t dig surf in the background. As my friend Joseph Lanza likes to say, “It’s EEEEAAAASY Listening.” Emphasis on the “Easy.” Surf music has never been background music for me, only because I find the beat so compelling that all I wanna do is turn it up and dance. Whereas with lounge, it’s background music. Makes you want to put a log in the fireplace, pour a drink and snuggle up next to your soon-to-be sexual counterpart.

    That said, both exotica and surf music come from the beach towns, and their subject is about the tonal aspects of life by the sea. In the end, it’s all about the conch shell! So cast your net out to sea, and don’t be dissuaded from enjoying all types of music. The last thing we need in this world is more of this singular mindset crap. That’s what killed AM radio’s diverse playlists. And now you’re stuck with Jessica Simpson or talk radio, unless you do satellite.

    I hope that helps clarify things…



  5. Hey, love the blog!
    David at Renegade here. I Wanted to tell you all about this internet radio station I’ve been doing some work with, They play all sorts of weird, obscure, beautiful vintage sounds (exotica, surf, bossa nova, space-age lounge etc.) and they’re def. worth checking out. For the next two weeks they’re focusing on the sexier side of their sound, asking people to submit their favorite make-out songs (it’s “Get Turned On” time at LuxuriaMusic, what can I say. Check it out at!


  6. we are building a tiki bar, and i have found that most people like having elvis presley, macerna, nutbush and ABBA because everyone knows the songs, and theyre fun to sing and dance to!


  7. As far as the musical choices in modern Tiki bars, it’s “all over the map. This in itself is not a bad thing, but the fact that many modern bars and restaurants reduce their musical selections to lazy choices like rock, classic rock and pop or Top 40 stuff totally ruins the Tiki experience in my opinion. There’s nothing worse than gearing up for a visit to a Tiki bar, dawning the shirt and sandals and getting in the Tiki mindset, and then walking into the establishment to hear David Bowie (nothing against Bowie–I love him and I do listen to him, but it’s not even close to working in a Tiki bar).

    I think these musical choices are made because many proprietors in fact WANT to appeal to lowest common musical denominator because Exotica or the related Latin-rhythms, etc, are viewed as too adventurous and there is a fear that the clientele will reject it. Another problem is simply that a lot of Tiki bar owners and bartenders simply don’t know much about “authentic” Tiki-related music, or, simply, they do not emphasize related music as an essential element to the Tiki experience. This is a major oversight, though. The music in a Tiki bar affects the Tiki experience as much as the cocktails, the decor, the totems…

    One style of music that I have not seen mentioned in conjunction with Tiki bars is some of the Library and Cinematic music that came out of Europe, and especially Italy in the 1950s-1970s. This music today tends to be associated more with cocktail or “lounge” music, but even cocktail bars today do not play this music. Yes, I know cocktail bars are not Tiki bars, and this sort of music would more than likely have never found its way into an American Tiki bar in the ’50s or ’60s. However, this music can be seamlessly applied retroactively as much of it was influenced by an Italian interpretation of Exotica and ethnic music. Early Italian musicians like Piero Umiliani, Piero Piccioni, Ennio Morricone, Armando Trovajoli, Stelvio Cipriani and many many more were, especially early in their musical careers, penning soundtrack scores that aped the Exotica sound while adding other elements, not least of which is a very sensual tone that fits perfectly into the modern Tiki vibe. Listen to any of the early tracks with Italian soprano Eda Dell’Orso doing her daba daba vocal impressions and tell me me this does not conjure beaches and mai tais and sunbathing beauties.

    I also find that virtually any music from the Caribbean, Latin America, and some African music fits well into the Tiki vibe. Because Exotica cast its net far and wide into its borrowing of all kinds of ethnic styles, including mambo, rumba, calypso, cha cha cha, Cuban Son, some Middle Eastern and Turkish elements, some Persian influences, imagined sounds of the Orient, and also some African drumming patterns…all of this provides a wide palette from which to select music for a Tiki bar. That is not to say that any and all of the above styles will work. If a music selector does an investigation into the above, they will find a vast library of sounds that fit the Tiki mold. Bungalow Tiki, located in Beijing, for example plays many of the above. And generally when speaking of the above, I am referring to early to middle vintage selections. For example, a CD of Buena Vista Social Club (which is a prime example of the Cuban Son style) does not work for a Tiki bar. But digging a little further back into the Son from the 1950s to ’60s, mone will find tracks that are more reflective of a sound one could associate with Tiki-Exotica, especially since this was the era that Exotica musicians were putting their own twist on it, hence there is a more evident common thread between them.


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