LUAU HUT PART 1: Chasing the Polynesian Dream…

This piece was originally published June 22nd, 2009

Tiki Mug IconWelcome to a recurring new Mystery Box series: The Mystery Box Luau Hut — my ongoing look at all things from the world and history of Tiki Culture and Exotica music.

Since childhood, like many other fans, I too have fallen under the spell of all things Polynesian themed a.k.a. Tiki.

Never a month goes by that I don’t rekindle that fondness in some way.

So I am happy to report that Tiki style not only manages to still exist (if you seek it out) but also continues to inspire newer artists, designers, and musicians who wish to escape into its dreamy world of imaginary exploration.

First, a look at the origins of this colorful style.

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In New Zealand’s Maori culture, the word Tiki refers mainly to the first man and is represented with statues that guard sacred sites. While the word was never really used in the other cultures for which it is now most often associated such as in Hawaii (they have Kumuhonua) or Tahiti (where Tiʻi was their first man) Tiki has generally come to represent any of the large humanoid wood or stone carvings (and exotic cocktail mugs) that are instantly recognizable to most of us as…right, a Tiki.

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The Tiki phenomenon was originally kickstarted by one restaurateur and has proliferated because of another: The first, Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, a Louisiana native who had traveled the South Seas, changed his name to Donn Beach and opened a Polynesian themed (but as always the case to this day, with the requisite Americanized Chinese Cantonese cuisine) bar in 1934 Hollywood, CA named Don the Beachcomber. In 1937 Don opened his restaurant under the same name across the street.

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Meanwhile, also in 1934, Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr. was a young college kid who used $500 to start up a small bar and restaurant called Hinky Dinks. As the business grew and started to become more tropical themed, Victor changed the restaurant to the now famously named Trader Vics.

In the post WWII late ’40s and early ’50s, military personnel who had encountered the many Pacific Oceania cultures (and primarily the sub-region of Polynesia which encompasses roughly 1000 islands stretching in a triangular shape from the Hawaiian islands to Easter Island and New Zealand) came home to rest at their swanky suburban pads, souvenirs of their travels in hand, deciding to enjoy the new middle class affluence that fighting the good fight now afforded them.

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Remembering the lush sights and sounds of these cultures, a desire to recapture this primitive charm spawned a zeitgeist that loosely has become known as Tiki Culture. It wasn’t the first time Westerners had been enthralled by Polynesia, as previously artists such as Picasso explored and mimicked the style, while Post Impressionist Paul Gauguin moved to Tahiti and went on to create his most memorable primativist works.

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Throughout the ’50s and ’60s American prosperity grew, and so too did Tiki culture. Tiki themes and designs spread into architecture, fashion, advertising, Disney and especially important, the soundtrack that would play as a backdrop for everyone who now had a taste for this swanky fun…

Exotica music.

In the early ’50s as the fascination with anything that seemed to be of a non Western origin grew, popular music began to take on a variety of hybrid styles that were informed by both a love of armchair exploration, after work cocktail hour entertaining fun and easy listening styles.

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Though originally, Exotic music was conceived with Ravel’s classical piece Bolero, it was also later used from time to time such as in 1945 when an Andre Kostelanetz light classical lp was called Exotic Music. Leaving the classical world, Exotic sounds really entered into pop music via pianist, band leader, soundtrack composer and producer extraordinaire, Les Baxter. In 1950 he released Music Out of the Moon (with the sci fi sound of a theremin) and then worked with four octave Peruvian singer Yma Sumac on her album Voice Of The Xtabay. In 1951 Les released his groundbreaking tone poem/jungle album Ritual of the Savage (Le sacre du sauvage).

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This album contained a composition called “Quiet Village.”

Composer, pianist Martin Denny was brought to Hawaii to perform for the tourists first at Don the Beachcomber and then the Kaiser Hawaiian Village Hotel. It was here that he formed a relaxed easy listening lounge group and included instruments from around the world that traveling friends would bring him and his band. While performing in the evening Denny noticed that bullfrogs would croak along with his music and then stop when the band stopped. Adding some fake birdcalls to the instrumentation, Denny replicated the frog croaking sounds and birthed the sound which would become Exotica.

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Signing to Liberty Records, in 1957 Denny released his seminal album brilliantly entitled, Exotica (along with the iconic Exotica cover model Sandy Warner). According to lore, the word “Exotica” was coined by Liberty Record’s founder/co chairman Simon “Si” Waronker, who was looking to give a sellable term to this new genre of music. While doodling the word exotic, he added an “a” to the end of the word. The music of Tiki culture now had an official name.

Denny included a reworked version of Baxter’s song “Quiet Village” using his new birdcall/frog croak instrumentation style and arrangement. After an appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand in 1958 the song went on to top the pop charts at #2 forever opening the gateway to further hits and albums. Other artists recorded their own take on the Exotica sound such as Robert Drasnin with his 1959 masterpiece Voodoo, and Denny vibraphonist, the flamboyant Arthur Lyman, who created his own successful group, became known as the “King of Lounge Music” and maintained an important recording career.

The Exotica genre has as its close relatives, Lounge Music, Easy Listening, Beautiful Music and Space Age Bachelor Pad sounds.

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Stayed tuned for the next installment of The Luau Hut, and as they say in Hawaii,
“A hui hou” (Until we meet again).

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2 Comments

  1. 1 – 1 of 1
    Blogger Molly B. Denham said…
    Great column! I’m a huge fan of tiki / exotica stuff, and I’m looking forward to checking out more of the Luau Hut!

    June 22, 2009 at 3:15 PM

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