Tiki Music: Exotica

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Exotica. The term is often misunderstood and confused with erotica, which is a completely different animal. Although it’s sometimes accompanied by scantily-clad dancers, Exotica is really about music. Tiki music.

Like Tiki, Exotica is about escape. It’s a form of music that takes its listeners to a faraway place and time. One could argue that the earliest Exotica music was created by Romantic-era composers, e.g. Ravel’s Bolero and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. There is some merit to this idea, but the term “Exotica” was coined in the mid-20th Century to describe the music of Martin Denny. It’s a style of music heavy on percussion, including many types of drums, keyboards, and vibes. It also can include exotic animal noises, like bird calls and monkey screams, usually created with a human voice. One variant of Exotica, known as Hollywood, added lush arrangements of strings and horns to make the escape even more dramatic.

So, here are the Exotica albums I’ve come to enjoy over the years, covering a broad spectrum of the genre.

Raymond Scott

Raymond Scott Quintette: Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights (1992). Recorded between 1937-39, the Raymond Scott Quintette’s music sounds as vibrant today as it did 75 years ago. This was the precursor to Exotica: music evocative of a distant and exotic place. Anybody who grew up watching Loony Tunes or Ren & Stimpy would instantly recognize Raymond Scott’s amazing music.

LesBaxter

Les Baxter: Ritual of the Savage (1951). This has been called the most important album of the entire genre. It sounds like a Hollywood movie soundtrack to me. Les Baxter was a pioneer in mixing lush, orchestral music with primitive instruments and vocals, but I prefer the more stripped-down version of Exotica that was soon to follow.

MartinDenny

Martin Denny: Exotica (1957). For my money, this is the greatest Exotica album of all time. Hell, it gave the genre its name! Martin Denny’s version of Les Baxter’s Quiet Village set the standard for everything that followed: a simple arrangement of percussion and animal calls that still manages to transport you to another world.

ArthurLyman

Arthur Lyman: The Legend of Pele (1959). Taking Exotica a step further, Arthur Lyman used his Hawai’ian heritage to focus his musical getaway. On this album named for the goddess of fire and volcanos, he even does a cool version of Scheherazade. If you know of the story of Pele, this is a very appropriate anthem for her.

Tikiyaki

Tikiyaki Orchestra: Aloha, Baby! (2011). These guys from California ushered in an Exotica revival. Their Polynesian theme and Hawaii Five-O references breathed new life into this mature musical style. How many bands do you know with their own airline, resort, and shuttle bus complete with a Mai-Tai bar? Aloha, Baby, indeed!

Ixtahuele

Ìxtahuele: Pagan Rites (2013). Exotica from overseas should not be surprising, and Ìxtahuele from Sweden does not disappoint. Their percussion-heavy sound is directly descended from Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman, but their rhythms and melodies are uniquely beautiful. If Thor Heyerdahl and his team of Norwegians could chase Tiki, why not 5 guys from Gothenberg?

ElliotEaston

Elliot Easton’s Tiki Gods: Easton Island (2013). Yup, that Elliot Easton, lead guitarist for the ubiquitous rock band, The Cars. Easton Island is his side project making Tiki music, but driven by guitar. This is an unusual move that really works, thank’s to Easton’s clever melodies and homage to a broad range of music, from Surf to Spaghetti Westerns. Let the good times roll!

LeftArmOfBuddha

The Left Arm of Buddha: Exotica Music and Other Savage Stuff! (2013). Another import from across the pond, this time from Belgium. I just saw this group perform at The Hukilau, where they made their American debut. What a show! 8 musicians, 3 dancing girls, 1 wacky fez-wearing emcee with broken English, a video screen playing campy old movie clips, all added up to great Tiki theatre. Shades of Les Baxter and Hollywood, Belgian style!

GolDustLounge

Gold Dust Lounge: Lost Sunset (2014). It’s hard to categorize this band I also just saw for the first time at The Hukilau. Leader Russell Mofsky claims many diverse influences, including Ravel’s Bolero for the title track, Lost Sunset. I hear Arthur Lyman when I play that song. Gold Dust Lounge spans many of the Tiki music genres (and beyond!), but for the purposes of this post, I will declare Exotica.

What amazes me the most about these artists is that they all created original compositions. There are very few covers in Exotica (with Martin Denny’s version of Les Baxter’s Quiet Village one notable exception). With new performers from around the globe playing this diverse style of music, Exotica is in good hands. It is the brightest star in the Tiki galaxy of sound.

Aloha Spirit Ramblings

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What is Aloha Spirit? What is it about Tiki that has captured my attention for the past 10 years? Have my travels during this time frame, to places like New Orleans, Jamaica, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Chicago, Los Angeles, all been cosmically connected somehow? What does the word Mahalo really mean?

Okay, let’s start with an easy one. Mahalo is a Hawai’ian word that has come to mean, simply, “thank you.” I saw evidence of this going back to the original Hawaii Five-0 television series, which I’ve been watching the first season of lately on DVD, where Chin Ho and Kono would toss out mahalo like candy, I guess to make them seem more authentically Hawai’ian. I don’t think they really needed to do that, but I guess the screenwriters weren’t convinced we’d believe it unless they talked the talk. As if “Zulu as Kono” in the opening credits wasn’t convincing enough!

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I’ve looked into the etymology of the word mahalo and found a much more meaningful definition. Mahalo literally means “may you be in divine wind,” which to me is the same as saying “may the Holy Spirit be with you.” Hawai’ians say mahalo as a blessing or a one-word prayer, which I think is really powerful. You must be careful not to cheapen the word by using it without truly meaning it as a blessing. Mahalo must be experienced more so than spoken. Easy, right?

So, back to this aloha spirit stuff. What does it mean? To me, it seems simple: aloha spirit is the feeling inside you that is constantly grateful for everything, that keeps you happy when things aren’t so great, that gives you grace during times of stress, that puts a song in your heart and the spring in your step. Hawai’ians have it. Tom Brady has it. I have it, most of the time. Jesus really had it and tried to teach it to all of us: “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). That’s what aloha spirit is all about, Charlie Brown.

Jesus Palms

So, since we’ve given props to Jesus, let’s give Buddha his due and talk about karma. This one’s a little tougher to explain, since I’m not a Buddhist, nor do I play one on TV, nor have I read or learned much about Buddhism in my few years on Earth. What is karma? I know some people say it’s a cause-and-effect thing, you know, you get what you deserve, he had it coming, blah blah blah. I think it’s more complicated than that.

To me, karma is more a sense than action. It’s a feeling you get that you’ve been someplace before, it’s worlds colliding in some strange mashup of life’s pursuits, it’s coincidences that just seem too good to be true. I don’t believe in fate. I do believe in tempting fate. What I mean by that is we make our own fate. People say they’d rather be lucky than good, but I say be good enough to make your own luck. Karma is an attitude.

I was born in 1965. This was an interesting time in America: Tiki culture was nearing the end of its first good run; space-age bachelor pad music had peaked as well, swept away by the British Invasion and soon enough, the Woodstock era; the Mad Men sensibility of conspicuous consumption would be pushed aside in favor of the minimalist ethos of the Hippie and drug culture. The Baby Boomers of my parents’ generation changed the world, and not for the better, in my opinion. It was my fate to grow up in a world where the Hippies were running the show. It was my karma to revert to the culture from the year of my birth, albeit some 40 years later.

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So I believe karma introduced me to Tiki. I’ve seen many signs in my travels that have confirmed this for me. I’ll share some examples in my next few posts. Mahalo!