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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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!

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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!

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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.

Tiki Music: Surf

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Surf music, like jazz, is an eminently American creation. I believe it’s an essential part of Tiki culture, starting in Mid-Century Modern America and flourishing worldwide today. Like Tiki, surf music took a break in popularity starting in the late 1960s, but was revived in the mid 1990s.

Let’s start with the classics. The Beach Boys. Dick Dale and The Del-Tones. The Ventures. Jan & Dean. The Surfaris. The list goes on, but this is pretty representative of the Surf music legends who stormed the beaches of Southern California in the early 1960s. My favorite Surf songs are still Hawaii Five-O and Wipe Out, going back to my preteen days. I’ve always favored the instrumental music of The Ventures to the vocal surf tunes of The Beach Boys, and the instrumental style has better withstood the test of time. Dick Dale has a foot in both camps and is still going strong, but he can do whatever he wants, because, after all, he IS the King of the Surf Guitar!

So, here’s a list of the Surf music artists I’ve been listening to for the past 30 years, with a brief description of their style and where I first heard them.

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The Ventures: The Best of The Ventures (1987). These guys started it all for me in junior high. They actually covered a lot of songs, but they made Hawaii Five-O their own. I just saw The Ventures play last year in Bethlehem PA and they sounded great!

 

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Dick Dale and The Del-Tones: Greatest Hits 1961-76 (1992). The King of the Surf Guitar, and arguably the greatest guitar player on Earth. Dick Dale’s been playing non-stop since 1961, and his popularity was rejuvenated when his classic version of Misirlou was used as the theme song for Pulp Fiction in 1994.

 

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The Ultras: Surf Pop Sludge (1993). I first heard these guys on college radio in Lancaster PA. They were a nice blend of tribute and tongue-in-cheek, doing both vocal and instrumental Surf originals. The Ultras had the King of the Sludge Guitar!

 

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The Halibuts: Life on the Bottom (1996). I found this gem in a small music store in Chicago (my first listening post experience) and haven’t stopped listening to it for almost 20 years. The Halibuts played some of the most melodic instrumental Surf music you’ll ever hear.

 

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Red Elvises: Surfing in Siberia (1997). 4 cats from Russia move to LA and start playing Surf music. You can’t make this shit up! I first saw these guys play at Musikfest in Bethlehem in 1999, where they became a staple for years. Sadly, Red Elvises lost their mojo when their lead guitarist Zhenya left the band only a few years later.

 

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Los Straitjackets: ¡Damas y Caballeros! Los Straitjackets (2001). Another discovery at Musikfest, only these guys’ shtick is that they wear Luche Libre wrestling masks everywhere they go. Hailing from Nashville TN, Los Straitjackets are my favorite Surf band of all time. Classic, straight-ahead instrumental Surf originals with Spanish dialogue between songs. Olé!

 

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Coffin Daggers: Coffin Daggers (2002). Musikfest strikes again, this time with a band from NYC best described as Goth Surf. Coffin Daggers infuse Surf music with a heavy dose of fuzzy keyboards and theremin, creating a spooky, sci-fi sound very different from most other bands. Think Addams Family goes to the beach!

 

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The Intoxicators: Journey to the Center of the Earth (2006). I just saw this band for the first time at The Hukilau 2014 in Fort Lauderdale. The Intoxicators are a high-energy, instrumental Surf band from Tallahassee FL playing clever, original music. Twin guitars, thumping bass and a Shriner fez-wearing drummer make them the perfect Surf band for the Tiki Lounge.

 

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Great White Caps: Sting of Death (2009). Surf music from Bethlehem PA, of all places, and another Musikfest staple. We’re 90 miles from the ocean here, but Great White Caps crafted a unique Surf sound with their blend of original instrumental and vocal tunes. Sadly, these guys just disbanded earlier this year. Aloha GWC.

 

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Skinny Jimmy and The Stingrays (2009). Another band I just discovered at The Hukilau, these guys hail from Deerfield Beach FL, just north of Fort Lauderdale. Skinny Jimmy was the most nondescript, pleasant fellow when I talked to him during the event, but with a guitar in-hand onstage at The Mai-Kai, he was an animal! I may have to move to Florida to catch Surf bands like this on a regular basis.

 

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Five Eaux (2014). The newest band I’ve stumbled across hails from St. Louis MO. John Bartley, the creator of Five Eaux, reached out to the Tiki Lounge via Facebook, and we’ve been fast friends ever since. I can’t really classify them as simply Surf, as John also does James Bond themes, Spaghetti Western tunes, and much more. In his own words, Five Eaux is bringing Tiki back, with class. Aloha, Jon Tiki!

I’ve been creating Surf compilations for 10 years, and I’ve done more Surf mixes than any other genre of music. Over the years these mix discs have evolved as I’ve discovered more great Surf bands. I’ve also started incorporating other Tiki music styles into the mix, as I better learn the link between Surf and Tiki. They are inseparable! My friend Jeff Chouinard, a Tiki carver, says it best: Surf Soul Tiki. Mahalo!

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Guitars, Cadillacs, Bachelor Pad Music

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With all apologies to Dwight Yoakam. Oops, now to Nirvana as well. Sorry, just some musical humor. Speaking of music, I’m really enjoying the infusion of electric guitar into genres that don’t usually feature it. Big band. Exotica. Lounge. I guess you can call it worlds colliding. At least that’s what I call it, since I’m from the Seinfeld generation. Kids today call it mash-up. Whatever you call it, I’m really into it, when two or more seemingly unrelated things come together. It happens to me a lot, as I’ve rambled about previously in my musings about karma. Anyway, here are three examples of electric guitar boldly going where few had gone before.

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Brian Setzer Orchestra.
Brian Setzer. You may remember him from such bands as The Stray Cats. They were pretty big back in the day, when MTV was king. Then, just when you thought he had fallen off of the face of the earth, Brian Setzer reinvented himself. With a big band. As the front man. Leading with his guitar in hand! It was 1990, and I was really starting to get into the swing and jump blues stylings of Harry Connick Jr. and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Then along comes BSO with something completely different: a guitar-driven big band. I was blown away! Not only did they do an amazing cover of Louis Prima’s Jump, Jive and Wail, but Brian Setzer also dared to do a big-band version of The Clash’s Brand New Cadillac. Only in their version, the bridge is a rocking version of Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn Theme with a kick-ass Brian Setzer guitar solo to bring it home. Brilliant! Keep on rocking the swing world, Stray Cat!

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Elliot Easton’s Tiki Gods.
Hey, wait a minute – wasn’t Elliot Easton the lead guitarist for that 80s band, The Cars? He was, and still is, as The Cars released a nice comeback album in 2011. But he also has a little side project, Tiki Gods, and put out an album last year called Easton Island. I first heard about this album from Sven Kirsten, the godfather of all things Tiki. Easton Island is a collection of Tiki-inspired songs with an electric guitar flair, something not typically found in Tiki music. Elliot Easton doesn’t just cover songs; he wrote original music, ranging from lounge, exotica, surf and other genres from the Mid-Century Modern era. My favorite tune is Ballad of Cowboyardee, a clever homage to the melodramatic music of Spaghetti Westerns. Well played, Elliot Easton!

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Five-Eaux.
Five-Eaux is the brainchild of my new Facebook friend John Bartley, a/k/a Jon Tiki. Based in St. Louis MO, this band has cranked out a half dozen tunes so far, and what an eclectic mix! The Pink Panther Theme. Taboo. Apache. Quiet Village. Telstar. And of course, a cool version of Hawaii Five-O. What sets John’s work apart for me is his reliance on the electric guitar to re-energize these old chestnuts. You expect that in the surf tunes, but not in the Pink Panther Theme, where John’s tremolo guitar replaces brass and sax as the driving instrument. And in Taboo, he channels Carlos Santana in a haunting, guitar-driven version of this classic Arthur Lyman exotica tune. Thank you, Jon Tiki, we look forward to hearing more of your music!

Now you can listen to this playlist here: