tiki bar music

Building A Tiki Music Playlist for Your Tiki Bar: Serve Up A Lush Mood By Mixing These Genres

There’s no easy answer to the question “What is tiki?” As tiki fans, we just seem to know it when we see it.

Is Creature from the Black Lagoon tiki? Maybe for thee; not for me. But it’s your tiki bar and I’m loving it.

The question “What is tiki music?” is no different. What makes a good tiki soundtrack with the songs that send you to your special place is for you to determine. But where to begin?

Main kinds of tiki music

A good starting place for making a perfect tiki bar playlist is with the two main genres of tiki music: Hawaiian and exotica.

Songs from these two genres serve as key ingredients for a tiki party soundtrack capable of capturing the fury of an erupting volcano, the languid swaying of a tall palm tree, and the moods that come between. Garnish with a few personal favorites – a kitschy tune or a catchy jazz number, and voila! You have the mixings of a personal playlist worthy of a fourth round of Fog Cutters.

Exotica

Born of the same post-war yearning for an escape to Shangri-La, exotica music goes back to the early roots of tiki bar culture. The sound blends elements of Latin rhythm, jazz, and lounge music and is evocative and tropical. This is the true music of tiki.

Exotica kicked off with a roar. It can be argued that the seminal 1951 album Ritual of the Savage (Le Sacre du Sauvage) by American composer Les Baxter has never been equaled.

Consider its signature track, “Quiet Village”, the base camp from which an exploration of all other songs and artists in the genre begins. Even if Baxter peaked early after adopting exotic music, his other contributions to the genre in the two decades that followed are nearly all classics. Les Baxter is the kahuna.

Les Baxter's Ritual of the Savage album
More Les Baxter albums to Explore:
Tamboo!, 1955
The Sacred Idol, 1960
The Soul of the Drums, 1963

Martin Denney and Arthur Lyman were two Honolulu-based jazz players who very successfully took the compositions of Les Baxter and scaled them down to a loungy, small-group format. It was the Martin Denny group with Lyman (who would soon spin-off to create a similar and rival band of his own) who introduced tropical bird calls to the music. I think just a little of that goes a very long way, but it became a staple of the style still emulated today.

The Martin Denny group
The Martin Denny group Photo Credit: Discogs
Exotica album cover by Martin Denny
Martin Denny
Exotica, 1955
Forbidden Island, 1958
Arthur Lyman
Taboo – The Exotic Sounds of Arthur Lyman, 1958
Taboo Vol. 2, 1960

A couple of prominent figures from the exotic era who were as weird (weirder?) than the music they created were eden ahbez (he spelled his name in all lowercase letters) and Chaino.

An L.A.-based sort of proto-hippie, ahbez was a bearded, long-haired vegetarian nutritionist who lived on the hillside beneath the Hollywood sign and happened to write a number one hit for Nat King Cole in the 50s.

The hit, “Nature Boy”, led to some solo work in the studios and ahbez’s best album in the exotica vein, 1960’s Eden’s Island.

Chaino, born Leon Johnson in Philadelphia, was the yang to ahbez’s tranquil yin. His sweaty, furious bongo-driven tracks are punctuated with grunts and cries in the made-up pidgin language only Chaino could understand: something halfway between Spanish and Bantu.

Chaino’s most outrageous songs are so exploitative as to be almost unbearable. Nonetheless, no exotica playlist is complete without a selection from Chaino’s greatest hits.

A few other classic exotica artists and albums from the 50s-60s:

Robert Drasnin: Voodoo!, 1959
Don Ralke: The Savage and the Sensuous Bongos, 1960
Milt Raskin: Kapu (Forbidden), 1959

There are several modern bands that have revived the exotica genre, too. Check out The Martini Kings, Ixtahuele, and The Tiki Delights if you wish to start exploring the modern throwback exotica sound.

Hawaiian

Did you know that the first electric guitar was made to play Hawaiian music?

That’s right: when Chuck Berry was barely more than a baby, the first recorded electric twangs were picking out Hawaiian-themed hits like “Maui Chimes” and “Hilo March.”

Hawaiian music was to Depression-weary mainlanders what tiki bars and mai tais were to their kids in the post-war decade.

In the darkest days of the great financial collapse, island music swept the nation – and swept away a bit of the blues with it.

Hawaiian musician
Photo credit John’s Old Time Radio Show

Vintage Hawaiian recordings from the 1930s are widely available. Some of the quickly-written novelty songs from this period – hits like “I Want to Learn to Speak Hawaiian”- leave something to be desired, but from this period you can also find wonderful old singles by important Hawaiian masters.

To start, explore the music of King Benny Nawahi.

Nawahi was a masterful lap steel guitarist whose groups recorded in both English and Hawaiian. Hallmarks of King Benny’s languid but swinging music are virtuosic mastery of the steel guitar and ukulele, harmonized group vocals, and lead verses that were sung in a distinctive Hawaiian falsetto.

Menehune souvenir figurine
Figurines of the legendary Menehune people were given to travel agencies to advertise United Airlines’ flights to Hawaii.

Tunes recorded by his contemporaries, Sol Hoopii and Mike Hanapi with the Kalama Quartet, offer more to explore, but be warned: the recording quality of these early tracks is primitive by today’s standards, so you’ll have to bear a good deal of fuzziness. I actually like it. Just imagine you are hearing the music through an old tube radio from across the island airwaves.

The popularity of Hawaiian music didn’t really wane in the decades that followed. From Pearl Harbor to Surfin’ Greg Brady and beyond, Hawaii has held a proud and popular role in American culture.

Hawaiian music rarely broke the Top 40 (Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles” a notable exception), but it always had a market. Explore the music of crooners like Alfred Apaka and the sublime native vocalist Genoa Keawe. Explore anything and everything recorded by the Lehua Records label.

If, like me, you grew up seeing this little guy in your local AAA office window, you will love a lot of the somewhat-schmaltzy 70s-era Hawaiian music from that label and others. 

Don’t forget to consider adding some instrumentals by The New Hawaiian Band to your mix. And if you want my pick for the best single album of laid-back, traditional Hawaiian music from later in the 20th century, check out 1984’s He is Hawaiian Music by the great Benny Kalama.

As tiki is certainly not just about Hawaii, seek out recordings from other Pacific cultures like Tahiti, Tonga and Samoa. No matter where your searching takes you, you will find unique and wonderful sounds.

Benny Kalama
He is Hawaiian Music, 1984

Ok, so what about Hawaiian slack key guitar? Not tiki if you ask me. Big Iz’s “Over the Rainbow”? Has no more place in a tiki party playlist than “Margaritaville”, if you want my opinion. But, again, the only rule is – you get to make the rules.

If you love it; if it sends you, go ahead and add it to your list.

Other   

Other? How’s that for being specific, right?

Well, here is where you get to fill in the gaps in your playlist with the moods and colors that appeal to you.

If you are hosting a festive party and want spirits to be high, you’re going to need more rhythm than what old Martin Denny can provide. Adding some upbeat Latin and Carribean tunes may be your fix. Is that against the rules? Well, did you ever realize that the infectious “In the Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room” song is actually a calypso? If it works, it works.

Cal Tjader was a terrific West Coast jazz percussionist and vibraphone player who very successfully melded mid-century cool jazz with the Latin rhythms of Cuba and Brazil. Tjader’s music and that of his compadre Mongo Santamaria could make a terrific addition to your party playlist. And go ahead and explore Samba and Bossa Nova hits of the 60s to add some Latin beats … start with Sergio Mendes if you want. Don’t end there. 

How about a different sort of party? If you and your friends are decked out in your sleaziest tiki attire and want to get lampshade-on-the-head blotto, you’re going to need some gonzo novelty, lounge and mid-century period tunes to set the mood.

Add in some Esquivel if you like. The sky’s the limit here. Everything is in play. Henry Mancini? Sure. James Bond themes of the 1960s? “You Only Live Twice” is my pick. How about some surf guitar? Queue up The Ventures and Dick Dale.

Building a tiki party playlist is ultimately a fun and rewarding task that will be appreciated by you and your guests.

The more work you put into exploring the various artists and genres that fit into the nebulous, floral-printed bubble we call tiki, the better your playlist will become.

And the great joy of building a list of tropical tunes is that you can continue to grow and shape it as your exploration takes you to new and farther reaching corners of your Shangri-La.

Richard Cervantes is an expert in Asian antiques who appears on the Antiques Roadshow and in his home tiki bar, which he shares with his wife, Alice, in Philadelphia.


3 thoughts on “Building A Tiki Music Playlist for Your Tiki Bar: Serve Up A Lush Mood By Mixing These Genres”

  1. Mark Clelland

    Thanks for sharing your years of collecting expertise! I started my Tiki music journey with the various Martin Denny ‘best of’ collections and that still feels like my safe place. 🙂 I agree that the bird calls get old in a hurry, but there is a mocking bird that comes around my pool cage to listen and he seems to enjoy them immensely!

    Maybe it is the size of the band, but I generally don’t enjoy Les Baxter as much – many of the songs sound like background music for a Disney nature show to me. But some of the Spotify stations I listen to have him in rotation, so it is starting to grow on me. I know they came along much later, but lately I’ve been enjoying the Tikiayki Orchestra. They have a very upbeat and fun style that gets me in the mood.

    I listen to just a little Hawaiin music (again whatever Trader Brandon may include on Spotify) but will follow your advice and check out some of the masters of the genre.

    Thanks again!

    1. Thank you, Mark, for your kind words. I am glad you liked the article and am sure you will enjoy some of the artists and albums I suggested. You bring up something interesting I considered mentioning but ultimately didn’t: the heavily orchestrated nature of Les Baxter’s music. It isn’t for everybody, especially those who prefer a more intimate, small-band sound. I suspect many tikiphiles are split on Les Baxter. As for the Hawaiian stuff, prepare to be amazed at the number of recordings available on Spotify! Put the time in and I am sure you will find a lot of music you will like. Mahalo.

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