Tiki Redefined

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Tiki means a lot of things to a lot of people. At its root, the word Tiki refers to a god or idol, a symbol. As a purely American pop culture creation, Tiki was started in the 1930s in Hollywood as an escape. It borrowed heavily from Polynesian culture, including a love of tropical island motifs, music, and of course the carved statues know as Tikis. This phenomenon grew after World War Two through the 1950s, culminating with the statehood of Hawai’i in 1959.

There are those who accuse the Tiki movement of gross cultural appropriation. If you look at the Tiki of the 1950s and early 1960s, they may be right. I’d like to think it wasn’t intentional, but people during this time period used images and customs of Polynesian culture in somewhat insensitive ways. Everything from hotels to bowling alleys were decorated to look like tropical hideaways, often bastardizing Polynesian names and displaying garish versions of Tiki gods, all in the name of perpetuating the myth of an escape from reality. It was way over the top.

This in part led to the demise of Tiki culture in the late 1960s. The Summer of Love generation replaced their parents’ rum-fueled escapism with their own form, powered by drugs and free love. Not only did they see their predecessors’ ways as square; they also were offended by the artificial feel of it all. The hippie crowd was a back to nature movement, and they saw Tiki as a disgusting misappropriation of other cultures that was shameful.

This view of Tiki culture exists to this day in certain circles. Some people find it tacky and insensitive, but I believe they’re missing the point. Don’t get me wrong: I realize that our grandparents’ Tiki was 1950s kitschy Americana at its finest, and I can appreciate it for what it was – a slice of Mid-Century pop culture. The resurgence of Tiki that started in the 1990s was different from the original form from half a century before. Yes, we were very interested in how everything became so popular in the first place, but modern-day Tiki enthusiasts are digging a little deeper.

The work of people like Sven Kirsten, Leroy Schmaltz, Josh Agle, and Jeffrey Berry unearthed the original roots of Tiki pop culture. The study of Polynesian culture, from architecture to the varying forms of Tiki gods, helped identify the source material for American Mid-Century versions of these forms. Artistic depictions of Tikis became more genuine. Exotica music and its original creators came to be better appreciated as vinyl treasures were resurrected from the dustbins of history. And the history of Tiki mixology traced the lineage of these mysterious rum drinks to their origins in Caribbean bars, and fueled a resurgence of these craft cocktails as their secret recipes were decoded.

All this is to say that I believe modern Tiki is a form of cultural appreciation, not appropriation. I personally enjoy and have a deep respect for Polynesian culture, which includes knowing the difference between the peoples of Hawai’i and New Zealand and all islands in between. I appreciate the fact that most Tiki drinks were derived from recipes created by bartenders in Jamaica, Cuba, and across the Caribbean, and that most of today’s great rums still come from this part of the world.

And all Tikis aren’t created equal. A Ku from Hawai’i is very different from a Moai from Rapa Nui (Easter Island), which is in turn half a world away from the Maori carvings of New Zealand. My favorite Tikis come from the Marquesas Islands, and the one actual wooden Tiki statue I own was carved by a man in Kaua’i in the Marquesan style.

If you want to learn more about Tiki culture and the appreciation that is the modern Tiki revival, please check out the following books that serve as indispensable reference guides to me:

Sven Kirsten: The Book of Tiki

Douglas Nason featuring SHAG and Leroy Schmaltz: Night of The Tiki

Jeffrey Beachbum Berry: Potions of the Caribbean

In the mean time, please check out these respectful depictions of Tiki carving styles from different Polynesian countries. Mahalo.

All photos below taken from Night of The Tiki.

Hawaii – Ku (God of War)
Rapa Nui – Moai
New Zealand – Maori
Papua New Guinea – Mwai mask
Marquesas Islands – Fertility Tiki

Panda’s Childhood in the 1970s

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I turned 5 years old in 1970. My earliest musical recollection is of listening to The Beatles, and I remain a big fan. However, my parents were into straight-ahead rock & roll, having just gone through the Summer of Love a few years earlier. In rifling through their record collection, I was exposed to a lot of Led Zeppelin, Santana, and Jethro Tull, to name a few bands that were big then. As I grew into my teenage years, I supplemented that with my own favorites: Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, David Bowie, ELO. The list goes on and on!

This music defines the 1970s for me. I now own over 200 albums from that decade, and whittling it down to a manageable playlist was hard. To honor the 1970s, I made this a 2-disc set, or double album in the vernacular of the day (there were a lot of those back then, not so much anymore). Here is the playlist:

Panda's Chilhood in the 1970s CD Playlist

And here is a link to my 8tracks page where you can listen to it right now:

 

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!

Mid-Century Modern

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If you’re into Tiki like me, you hear a lot about the Mid-Century Modern era in America. But what exactly does that mean? And what does it have to do with Tiki?

According to Wikipedia, Mid-Century Modern is a term that “generally describes mid-20th century developments in modern design, architecture and urban development from roughly 1933 to 1965.” So, our first clue of the connection is the timeline. Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt opened his first Don the Beachcomber’s bar in Hollywood in 1933, and the first great wave of Tiki lasted until about 1967, when the Summer of Love aesthetic supplanted Tiki as the primary means of escapism in America.

So, was Tiki a part of Mid-Century Modern design? Not really. Tiki art and architecture were more primitive and natural than MCM, which was more clean, crisp and futuristic. However, they occupied the same space in America’s history, and co-existed quite nicely. Think The Jetsons meet The Flintstones!

But why should I care about Mid-Century Modern? Because it was the backdrop against which Tiki occurred, and there were many connections between the two besides timing. I like to think of SHAG’s art when I envision this era in American history. SHAG incorporates a lot of the MCM design aesthetic in his artwork, much of which recalls the 1950s-60s of Palm Springs: architecture, artwork, cocktail culture. And SHAG paints a lot of Tikis as well. These are the things he knows.

In the next few blog posts, I’ll explore the different elements of the Mid-Century Modern era. I’ll be learning along with you as we go in more depth into this important topic. Aloha.

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