Vintage postcards let us see what Polynesian restaurants looked like, menus let us see what they were eating, recipes let us taste what they were drinking, but we lack a corresponding clear record of the sound of these places. To understand what might have been heard in midcentury tiki bars, let’s also learn about how music was heard. During the heyday of Tiki (let’s say from its origins in 1933 to it’s semi-collapse in the ’70s), there were only a few different ways music would be heard in restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
Very early on, it was live music, or often… no music at all. In the decades preceding the rise of Tiki, having music in restaurants was still often seen as counter-culture, outré, bohemian. The rise of jazz clubs in the ’20s did much to popularize music as part of the nighttime experience.
When tropical bars and Polynesian restaurants first came into being, starting in the ’30s and through to the ’50s, the music heard in them was live music. Hawaiian, hapa-haole and other Polynesian acts had already been touring the country for years thanks to the sound’s growing popularity after the Pan Pacific Expo in 1915. The many tropical bars, restaurants and nightclubs that were springing up were a natural destination for these acts. Some restaurants, like the Tonga Room in San Francisco, had their own house bands to play Hawaiian and hapa-haole music. (Later into the ’50s and ’60s, as the restaurants became more elaborate, they were likely to also combine their house band with a Polynesian dance show.)
Many Polynesian restaurants, possibly the bulk of them, simply had whatever standard “supper club” acts were available in their local community, or hosted other non-Polynesian touring acts. Music gets heavy mention in the Polynesian restaurant ads of the era, with many proclaiming “ENTERTAINMENT NIGHTLY.” This could have been a full band and a dance floor, or simply a guy at a piano.
With the smaller bars, ones that don’t seem to have had live entertainment, it’s possible that these places just didn’t have music. Today that would seem weird, but back then, it wasn’t. It’s possible these places may have had jukeboxes to play 45 records, but that would have been more common in diners, soda shops, teen hangouts… a decidedly different scene than your typical tropical getaway. However the original tiki bar, Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood, employed a sort of proto-jukebox, a lovely wooden cabinet by Capehart that was able to play a collection of Hawaiian LPs.
Deeper into the golden era of tiki, into the ’50s and ’60s, a new technology became widely available: Muzak. It’s reasonable to assume that many of the Polynesian restaurants during this time would have been playing these mild instrumental tracks as background music. I’d love to know if perhaps Muzak provided blocks of music tailored for Polynesian restaurants. It could have made good business sense to do so, as licensing hapa-haole tunes for re-recording in the Muzak style would likely have been relatively affordable, and these restaurants were a sizeable chunk of the market. As much as Muzak is derided, it would have been a nice fit. The eventual rejection of Muzak and of Tiki happened hand-in-hand, after all.
Over in Hawai’i, something magic happened: the live house acts in the nightclubs catering to tourists started to develop their own jazz sound, and it was good. Les Baxter, Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman each played roles in creating this new sound: Exotica. Recordings were produced that became massive sellers on the Mainland. “Quiet Village” in particular became one of the great musical standards of the ’50s and ’60s.
More bits and bobs of music inspired by other, non-Polynesian cultures made their way into the mix. “The Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Room,” the theme song for The Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland? Listen closely—that’s calypso. Duke Ellington’s jazz standard “Caravan” sits alongside these recordings quite comfortably. Oh, hello there, Yma Sumac! Much of the “Hawaiian” music of Billy Mure, from his albums Hawaiian Percussion and Pink Hawaii, has a Caribbean feel. The greats of Exotica music incorporated unusual percussion wherever they could find it, producing a mélange of early “world music” that fell into the broad “Exotica” category.
These Exotica and other early “world music” acts started to travel to the Mainland to perform as well, and this music was certainly being played in homes, but it’s unclear to me how much Exotica recordings would have been played in Polynesian restaurants. Perhaps in Muzak form?
It’s unlikely that surf music would have been heard much in these places. That was the music of the younger generation. As tiki bars and Polynesian restaurants started to fade and struggle in the ’70s, the ones that held on sometimes hosted a relative grab-bag of live acts. No Doubt played Kono Hawaii in Santa Ana in 1992, years before they made it big.
Today, it’s a pretty random mix out there. If you visit the Tonga Room, there is still a house band… but it’s playing dance hits of the ’80s and ’90s. Modern Top 40 is heard, karaoke nights are not uncommon, reggae and Jawaiian music… what you might hear today is so all-over-the-place, the misfit surf sound seems pretty good by comparison. At the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, the house band is still playing beautiful Polynesian and hapa-haole music, and there is still a fantastic Polynesian dance show. Many of the better-executed modern tiki bars tend to have playlists consisting of lots and lots of Exotica, hapa-haole, traditional Hawaiian, and some compatible vintage Latin sound to add a bit of pep. More and more modern Exotica and hapa-haole bands are cropping up, providing a fresh influx of sound.
In a future article, I’ll be sharing resources to elevate the playlist at your own tiki bar: online radio stations, music service playlists, modern bands, classic must-have albums, podcasts for inspiration, and ways to dig deeper into these musical styles. Do you have an online playlist, podcast or radio station to recommend?