Panda’s Christmas Island

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Christmas Island. It is a magical place, where palm trees sway, Tiki drinks flow freely, and the music is very festive. In my version of Christmas Island, the soundtrack is made of all of the stars in Panda’s Galaxy of Sound: Surf, Hawai’ian, Exotica, Lounge, and Space-Age Bachelor Pad. It’s not exactly your parents’ Christmas music, but never fear: it will put you in the mood for Christmas. Tiki style.

This is my fifth Christmas compilation and first in 6 years. There’s a nice mix of old crooners, surf stalwarts, new Hawai’ian music, and some exotica that will leave you wondering how anybody could reimagine Christmas this way. I hope you enjoy it.

Mele Kalikimaka!

Here’s the playlist:

Panda's Christmas Island CD Playlist

And here’s a link to my 8tracks radio page where you can listen to this mix:

The Wide, Wild World of Tiki.

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Tiki does not exist in a vacuum. It was born out of the need for escape, and it both feeds and is fed by that need.

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I can trace the roots of Tiki culture back at least to the 1890s, when Paul Gaugin left France for Polynesia, looking to escape the constraints of Impressionist painting in search of a more primitive lifestyle to feed his art. The Hawai’ian music craze of the 1920s in America further fueled our desire for a world of faraway ocean breezes and swaying palm trees. The 1930s saw the invention of the Tiki drink and the nautical flotsam and jetsam-themed bars of Don The Beachcomber. In the 1940s Trader Vic’s upped the ante with full-blown Polynesian restaurants and the creation of the greatest Tiki drink of all: the Mai-Tai. The 1950s brought the return of American GIs from the Pacific Theatre of WWII and the rise of backyard luaus and basement Tiki bars. Tiki culture peaked with the admission of Hawai’i as the 50th state in 1959.

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In the Mid-1960s, it all started falling apart. The Summer of Love ushered in the drug and hippie culture. America had a new means of escape, as the children of the Tiki culture banished their parents’ artificial paradise in favor of a more natural (albeit drug-fueled) release. This back-to-nature movement continued through the 1970s.

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Another culture sprung up in the late 1970s to add insult to Tiki’s injury. Jimmy Buffet introduced Margaritaville, moving the tropical escape to the Caribbean and creating a more-accessible and dumbed-down version of Tiki to the world. Well-crafted cocktails were replaced with alcoholic slushies. Hawai’ian and Exotica music faded to catchy tunes about boat drinks and cheeseburgers in paradise. Carved Tikis and authentic nautical decor gave way to parrots and brightly-colored party decorations. It was enough to make Donn Beach roll over in his grave!

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The 1990s saw the beginning of the resurgence of Tiki culture. Like-minded enthusiasts, brought together by the rise of the Internet, resurrected the lost civilization from Mid-Century America in all of its artificial glory. Today, Tiki bars are opening with well-crafted cocktails made from rescued recipes. Basements are once again adorned with authentic nautical decor, lowbrow artwork, and real Tikis painstakingly carved by modern-day savages. New Exotica bands have brought back the music that was the soundtrack to the original Tiki craze.

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It is here that I should introduce the concept of the Tiki purist. Many of the folks who helped bring Tiki back are very protective of their work, and with good reason. We don’t want to see this wonderful escape relegated to the ash heap of history again. As Tiki gains in popularity, it runs the risk of jumping the shark and being watered down, like Margaritaville. This is why the tight-knit Tiki ohana tends to be wary of newcomers to the scene, until they can be vetted for their “Tiki cred.”


I am not a Tiki purist. Although I’ve been descending slowly down this rabbit hole for over 10 years now, I still value the eclectic nature of my journey. A. Panda’s Tiki Lounge has many of the purist Tiki elements I value most, like carved Tikis, bac-bac matting, bamboo, and cool artwork. I also mix up some pretty authentic Tiki drinks using many different rums and fresh ingredients. However, I’m not above mixing in atypical items to my Tiki space, like pink flamingos, a few tacky decorations, and of course the ubiquitous pandas! If my mother-in-law cross-stitches a sign for me that says “It’s 5 O’clock Somewhere”on it, then I display it proudly at the bar.


I belong to several Facebook groups devoted to Tiki ephemera like SHAG’s art, cocktails, exotica music, and home Tiki bar builds. Some of these groups are led by pretty hardcore purists, and that’s okay. I still enjoy being a part of these groups, but I’ve learned through a few intense but civil interactions that folks take their Tiki pretty seriously. It’s all good, as I can appreciate wanting to preserve the traditional elements that made Tiki great the first time around. I just hope that the newfound popularity of Tiki doesn’t lead to its second downfall. That would be ironic, don’tcha think?

Tiki has always been, and continues to be, an escape. It’s not the only game in town. But to Tiki enthusiasts, both purists and serious newcomers, I believe it’s the best. For an artificial creation to become such an all-encompassing passion, through music, art, drink, and decor, it could only happen in America. Happy Independence Day, mahalo and okole maluna!

Tiki Ohana – Musicians

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The Tiki lifestyle has a soundtrack, which is evocative of both the time and place of its birth. Tiki music, to me, is a blend of equal parts Exotica, Lounge, Surf, Hawaiian/Polynesian, and Space-Age Bachelor Pad. I wrote about this at length in my blog post, Galaxy of Sound, which prompted an entire series covering each of these genres. These current musicians embody the Tiki sound, as it was yesterday and continues today.

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Brian Mr. Ho O’Neill. Brian O’Neill of Boston MA single-handedly resuscitated the Space-Age Bachelor Pad music of Juan Garcia Esquivel. Well, actually, he did it with a 23-piece band, but Brian was the driving force behind Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica. I was fortunate enough to convince the folks at ArtsQuest in Bethlehem PA to bring Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica here for a concert a few years ago, as part of the Luau at The Levitt event. What a great show! Mr. Ho has now also released a few albums by his Exotica quartet, which you can check out here: Orchestrotica.com. Aloha, Brian!

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Jay Brooks. Clouseaux is the creation of Jay Brooks in Houston TX. This band plays a diverse mix of Exotica/Lounge/Spy music that’s evocative of Henry Mancini’s great soundtracks from the 1950s/60s/70s. Check out their music here: Clouseaux.com. In his spare time, Jay also carves Tikis and is El Presidente at Aloha Texas Tiki Co., supplier of home decor for the Tiki enthusiast. Gracias, Jay!

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Tony Marsico. The Martini Kings are the #1 live event band in Los Angeles. They’ve played shows for A-list celebrities in major venues, art gallery openings, Tiki events, and backyard cocktail parties. Tony Marsico and his brother Frank have been playing cool lounge music for years, often with guest singers like Kate Campbell and King Paris. Grab yourself a Martini Kings album and start the party here: MartiniKings.com. Sophisticated swing, Tony!
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Randy WongThe Waitiki 7 is an Exotica combo from Hawaii led by the rhythm section of basis Randy Wong, percussionist Lopaka Colon, and drummer Abe Lagrimas Jr. Firmly rooted in Hawaii, Randy and the group evoke the Exotica masters of Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. Colon’s father, Augie, was the percussionist for Martin Denny and originated many of the bird and animal calls made famous in Denny’s Exotica music; Lopaka carries on that tradition in Waitiki 7. Check it out for yourself: New Sounds of Exotica. Mahalo, Randy!

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Stephen Greaves. First The SG Sound, then Jet Set Unlimited. Stephen Greaves of Los Angeles CA makes a lot of sound for one person, and that sound captures the 1960s perfectly. A little Surf, a little Exotica, and a whole lot of Space-Age Bachelor Pad. Think Mad Men and you’ll get the idea. Take a listen: Jet Set Unlimited. Groovy, Stephen!

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Gary Evans. One of the best Surf bands I’ve heard in a long time is The Intoxicators!, led by Gary Evans from Tallahassee FL. I saw them play live last year at The Hukilau, along with another cool Surf band, The Disasternauts, which were mostly the same guys dressed as apes in orange NASA jumpsuits. The common denominator was Gary’s guitar playing, which was, fast, tight, and loud! I hope to see them play again someday, but in the mean time, we can check them out here: Intoxicators. Cowabunga, Gary!

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Russell Mofsky. Another band I saw live at The Hukilau was Gold Dust Lounge, led by Russell Mofsky from Miami FL. I thought they were another Surf band when they first started playing, but I was wrong. The best way to describe Gold Dust Lounge is Exotica/World, with elements of Surf, Spy and Soundtrack music mixed in. Russell’s guitar playing is hypnotic, as evidenced in the song Ensenada, which blows me away every time I hear it. Well done, Russell.

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John Tiki Bartley. Five-Eaux is the cleverly-named creation of Jon Tiki, a/k/a John Bartley of St. Louis MO. Surf music is alive and well in the Heartland, and Jon Tiki’s music goes beyond pure Surf, delving into Lounge, Spy, and Soundtracks as well. Here’s a recent song he recreated: Pintor. He was also kind enough to write the theme music for my Podcast, A. Panda’s Tiki Lounge; it sounds like The Pink Panther meets Dick Dale, and it’s wonderful! Thank you, Jon Tiki.

Tiki Temples

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These are the houses that Tiki built. Part restaurant, part bar, part nightclub; all aloha spirit. This partial list of Tiki temples represents the Meccas for Tiki geeks, like me, to visit as often as possible. If possible. Some of these places are gone now, torn down or closed up in the name of … progress?

A proper Tiki temple is a place you can go (or could have gone) to escape the real world for a little while. Enjoy a strong, rum-based drink with many layers of flavor. Chow on some Pu-Pu, typically Asian fare with some Polynesian flair. Listen to some cool music, like Exotica, Lounge, Hawaiian, or Surf, preferably performed live. If you’re lucky, catch a performance by a Polynesian dance troupe, including the amazing Samoan Fire Knife dance.

Here are some of the places I’ve been fortunate enough to see for myself, either in-person or through some second-hand tales that inspired me.

 

imageThe Mai-Kai, Fort Lauderdale FL (1956-present). This is the granddaddy of them all, 58 years old and still going strong. The Mai-Kai is the perfect Tiki temple: great drinks, fine food, wonderful atmosphere, and the most authentic Polynesian entertainment outside of the South Pacific. I’ve been there a handful of times now and can’t wait to go back. You don’t have real Tiki cred until you’ve stamped your passport at The Mai-Kai.

 

imageThe Kahiki, Columbus OH (1961-2000). Full disclosure: I’ve never been to The Kahiki. A few years before I started my Tiki journey, this temple was torn down to make way for a Walgreens store. A fucking Walgreens! However, I do feel a connection to this historic place, as I described in one of the many “worlds colliding” segments of my Whenceforth A. Panda’s Tiki Lounge blog post last year (24Nov2013). Jeff Chenault just published a new book, Kahiki Supper Club: A Polynesian Paradise in Columbus, which chronicles the history of how a cold Midwestern town came to host one of the most elaborate Tiki temples ever built. I look forward to checking it out.

 

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Walt Disney World’s Polynesian Village Resort, Orlando FL (1971-present). This is my happy place. My family has vacationed at WDW four times, and we always stay at The Poly. We’re going back for our fifth trip next month! The Polynesian Village Resort takes the Tiki temple to another level: an escape for an extended stay. All of the elements are here, with the addition of authentic Polynesian architecture and amenities. This is a South Pacific paradise conveniently located in Central Florida.

 

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Painkiller, New York NY (2010-13). At the other end of the spectrum, we have this wonderful Tiki bar nestled into an unlikely neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Sadly, PKNY closed their doors when they lost their lease last year, but not before I had the chance to visit. I joined my friends Jack Fetterman and Gina Haase of Primitiva in Hi-Fi for a night of merriment with fantastic Tiki drinks, great music, and surprisingly authentic Polynesian decor. Mahalo, Jack and Gina!

 

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Disneyland’s Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Room, Anaheim CA (2011-present). Disney strikes again, this time in Disneyland with the opening of their own Tiki bar with a Jungle Cruise twist. I wrote all about my visit to Trader Sam’s last year in my blog post Aloha Spirit: Los Angeles (02Jan14). This place has become so popular that Disney plans to open another version of it at…wait for it…The Polynesian Village Resort at WDW. Oh, happy day in my happy place! If only it was open in time for my trip next month. Oh, well.

 

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Three Dots and A Dash, Chicago IL (2013-present). Another great new Tiki temple in an urban setting, this gem opened just over a year ago. Owner Paul McGee has already won awards for his upscale Tiki bar Three Dots and A Dash in downtown Chicago, which looks like a speakeasy from the outside. Inside, down a flight of stairs, you’ll find a sprawling restaurant and bar with meticulously crafted Tiki drinks, great food, and lush Polynesian decor. And the waitresses are pretty cute 😉

 

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The Yachtsman, Philadelphia PA (2014-present). Somewhere between PKNY and Three Dots and A Dash lies the latest urban Tiki bar I’ve visited. The Yachtsman just opened last month in the Fishtown section of Philly, and it has the feel of a cool neighborhood bar. Don’t let that description fool you, though; this place is steeped in Tiki culture. The owners are veterans of the Philly restaurant scene, but they take their Tiki drinks very seriously, with fresh, homemade ingredients and expert craftsmanship. The decor is spot-on Tiki, and they plan to start serving food soon. The Yachtsman has all the makings of a proper Tiki temple, and should become a great one in time. I look forward to my next visit!

So these are the Tiki temples I know or have some experience with. There are many other great places I haven’t been to that are just as wonderful: Don The Beachcomber, Trader Vic’s, The Tiki Ti. I need another trip to California! There are also some brand new places I need to check out, like Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 in New Orleans and Suzanne Long’s Longitude in Oakland. I hope to do that soon, in my continuing Tiki journey. I hope you’ll join me there for a Mai-Tai, some Pu-Pu and a great escape. Mahalo!

Tiki Music: Polynesian

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Hawai’ian. Hapa Haole. Tahitian. Be it native or blended, this music captivates my soul and carries me off to a Polynesian island when I hear it. That’s why I love it so much.

America’s love for Hawai’ian music predates the Mid-Century Tiki craze, and actually began in the early 20th Century. On the heels of the Polynesian-inspired art of Paul Gauguin, the writings of Jack London, and the early motion pictures of 1920s Hollywood, Hawai’ian music became very popular with the coming of age of the radio and record industries. People were mad for music made with ukuleles and steel guitars, and an entire business sprung up to teach folks how to play these exotic instruments. What started as a purely Polynesian sound slowly morphed into a Western phenomenon.

Hapa Haole music is music of Hawai’ian origin that has been Americanized with English lyrics and rhythms. Like Tiki, Hapa Haole is a blending of Polynesian and American cultures. Most of the “Hawai’ian” music I’ve come to love over the years is actually Hapa Haole, with a few exceptions. Here are the albums I’ve had in my rotation over the past 10 years of my Tiki obsession.

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Jerry Byrd: Byrd of Paradise (1961). One of the pioneers of steel guitar in Hawai’ian music, Jerry Byrd was also a teacher of this distinctive style of guitar to Country and Rock & Roll musicians. I borrowed this CD from the library to acquaint myself with early Hapa Haole music. Classic stuff.

 

Chants Et Danses De Tahiti Chants et Danses de Tahiti (1987). Now this is authentic Polynesian music, with no Western influence to speak of. I was fortunate to pick up a copy of this out-of-print CD on eBay from somebody in England. Many of these tracks were featured on the old music loop played at The Polynesian Resort in WDW, which is why I was looking for this album. Merci Tahiti!

 

Waikiki's Greatest Hits. Now! Roland Cazimero: Waikiki’s Greatest Hits, Now! (1990). Here is modern Hawai’ian music at its finest. Roland Cazimero melds the 12-string guitar with his native island music in a style that is distinctly Hawai’ian and Western. This was another find from The Polynesian Resort music playlist.

 

The Pahinui Bros. The Pahinui Brothers (1992). Yet another band from The Polynesian Resort’s music, The Pahinui Brothers play a nice mix of native Hawai’ian music and Western pop tunes. Their vocal harmonies add a layer of complexity to this style of music.

 

Hawaiian Favorites Don Ho: Hawaiian Favorites (1994). Don Ho is the undisputed king of Hawai’ian music. His crooning style transcended the music of his native land and landed him in the rarified air of Las Vegas stars like Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, and Elvis. Don Ho’s Tiny Bubbles is the perfect blend of Hawai’ian and Lounge music.

 

Ka Mea Ho'okani 'Ukulele Ohta-San: Ka Mea Ho’okani ‘Ukelele (1996). Herb “Ohta-San” Ohta is a Hawai’ian ukulele virtuoso who began performing at the age of 9. His style of music is diverse, and has been categorized as Pop, Jazz, Instrumental, as well as Hawai’ian. His nickname “Ohta-San” was bestowed upon him in Japan, where he played many times and his music is revered. Did I mention I also picked up his music while searching for artists from a The Polynesian Resort’s music loop?

 

Luau In December King Kukulele and the Friki Tikis: Luau in December (2008). Speaking of ukulele music, few artists have as much fun with this instrument as Denny Moynahan, a/k/a King Kukulele. His blend of humor, storytelling, singing and playing make him the perfect host for any Tiki event. I was fortunate to see King Kukulele live at this year’s Hukilau, an event he’s emceed for years. Thanks for the wonderful entertainment, KK!

So I’ve always liked Hawai’ian music, but it took a couple of stays at Walt Disney World’s Polynesian Resort to make me love it enough to search out more of it.  In trying to recreate the playlist from my happy place, I discovered a much deeper world of music from Polynesia. Now I can send myself to the South Pacific whenever I crank up my tunes. Aloha from Paradise!

Galaxy of Sound

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Nothing defines A. Panda’s Tiki Lounge quite like music. Specifically, the music that became popular during the Mid-Century Modern era in America, which roughly correlates to the Baby Boomer period of 1946-64. However, the correlation begins and ends there! The wonderful music that Baby Boomers neglected, this Gen-Xer celebrates, along with the rest of my Tiki ohana. This is the soundtrack to our lifestyle.

A picture’s worth 1,000 words, so you can see for yourself the 5 musical genres that comprise my Galaxy of Sound. I plan to go into depth for each one in future posts, so for now, let’s just play a little word association, shall we? I will list each style followed by the name of the artist who created/defined that style, followed by a modern artist who revived/thrives in it. Let’s start with the center of my galaxy.

Space-Age Bachelor Pad. Esquivel. Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica.

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Exotica. Martin Denny. The Left Arm of Buddha.

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Lounge. The Rat Pack. Martini Kings.

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Surf. Dick Dale. Los Straitjackets.

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Hawaiian. Don Ho. King Kukulele

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These are just my opinions of the pioneers and standard bearers for each of these 5 musical styles. You may have a different opinion on the king of the surf guitar, and I’d love to hear it! The wonderful thing about Tiki music is its diversity, and even more amazing is how many artists are performing it all across the country and around the world. I’ve enjoyed getting to know more musicians over the years, some as recently as two weeks ago at The Hukilau. I look forward to introducing you to many of these performers in my coming posts. First up will be surf music. Cowabunga!